Improvement Kata Part 5 – Guidelines for Coaches


The Improvement Kata Handbook describes the role of the coach being to “accompany the Learner and give procedural guidance as needed to ensure that although the Learner struggles, s/he is successful in using the Improvement Kata pattern to achieve a challenging target condition”.  It’s important to both follow the coaching steps outlined but to also pay attention to the emotions of the learner as they work through the process.  Encourage them when they are frustrated and celebrate successes.  It’s not enough for the learner to know how to use the Improvement Kata.  She should also want to use the Improvement Kata.  Coaches are responsible for the learner’s success.

Stages of the Coaching Kata Practice:

  1. Practice the Coaching Kata exactly. As a beginner you need to follow the step-by-step instructions.  The repetition will help to build the new skill.
  2. Personalize your Coaching Kata practice. Once you understand the patterns and methodology, you can adapt the practice to fit your particular situation and personal style.
  3. Intuitive Operating. At this point you have internalized the techniques to such a point that you can be more spontaneous and creative.  You no longer have to devote so much conscious thought to your practice.

The way you coach will also depend on the level of experience that the Learner has with the Improvement Kata.  With a beginner, the coach will focus on instructing.  The coaches role at this point is to teach the basic techniques.  As the learner becomes more experienced, the coach’s focus should shift toward coaching.  At this point the coach and the learner partner to address the learner’s areas for improvement.  Once the learner begins to demonstrate mastery the coach should focus on counseling.  At this stage the coach is providing advice and support as needed.

Coaching should always be done one on one – one coach to one learner rather than a group of learners.  This is done to personalize the approach.  Different learners have different levels of understanding or mastery.  Different people learn at different rates.  You will have to adjust your style to meet the learner’s specific needs.

The coaching cycle is built around the 5 questions.

The 5 Coaching Kata Questions:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
    1. What was your last step?
    2. What did you expect?
    3. What actually happened?
    4. What did you learn?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which *one* are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step (next PDCA/experiment)? What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Use the See-Compare-Instruct coaching model:

  • SEE – Try to understand how the learner is thinking. (Coach is in an observing / questioning / listening mode.)
  • COMPARE – Compare this to the desired pattern specified by the Improvement Kata (Coach is in a judging mode.)
  • INSTRUCT – Introduce a course adjustment if necessary (Coach is in an instructing or guiding mode.) At this point the coach can either correct the learner or let her fail and then instruct. The coach will need to apply judgment here.

The purpose of asking the 5 Coaching Kata questions is to listen to the responses to get a better feeling for how the learner is thinking and approaching the problem.  However, beginning coaches can get so caught up in the questions, that they don’t pay close attention to the answers.  As a coach you really need to focus on your listening skills.  “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

In helping the learner to plan their PDCA cycle, it’s important to know where the knowledge threshold is.  If the coach is not knowledgeable about the process this could be difficult.  Some people may be reluctant to admit that they don’t know an answer.  One hint to listen for is when the learner moves from facts to guesses. Words or phrases to listen for include “I think”, “probably”, “maybe”, “likely”, or “on average”.

As a coach, it’s important to remember that a knowledge threshold is not a problem.  It’s the starting point for the next PDCA cycle.  When you identify uncertainty, that’s your cue to coach the learner on defining her next experiment.  Ask questions to help her figure out how to find an answer to bring more clarity and increase her understanding.

When a learner proposes a solution don’t say “let’s try it and see if it works”.  This implies success or failure.  Instead say “let’s try it and see what we learn”.  Here the focus is on learning.  Even if the proposed approach doesn’t give the expected result, you can still learn something from that experiment.

Tips on giving feedback as a coach:

  1. Look for the learner’s current area of weakness and think of ways to have her work on addressing this.
  2. To give constructive feedback, you should have a genuine interest in helping the learner apply the Improvement Kata.
  3. Your feedback should be specific and focus on one or two areas where the learner is doing well, and one or two areas where he needs improvement.
  4. The learner should be deriving her motivation from feeling like she is improving over time. If the learner does not feel this way, then something in your coaching technique should be adjusted.
  5. You can ask clarifying questions beyond the 5 questions.
  6. At this stage of the kata it is best to give feedback immediately. A misstep should be seen as an opportunity for a teachable moment.
  7. Another strategy is to allow the learner to fail and learn from the experience. This strategy works best if the step the learner is taking is short, and simple.
  8. You should be coaching frequently, so don’t load up the learner with too much at once. Take it one step at a time.

It helps to keep a coaching notebook to track your observations.  This way you can review where the learner may have struggled, as well as progress made.  It helps to review what was discussed in the previous coaching sessions prior to each new session.

It helps to have a second coach.  The role of the second coach is to give feedback to help the coach improve her coaching technique.  It takes practice to become a good coach.  Like any skill, it helps to have someone who can provide objective feedback and help you identify areas where you can improve.


Improvement Kata Part 4 – How to Get There


In the Improvement Kata Handbook the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) method is used to work toward achieving your next target condition.  The path to achieve your next target condition should not be obvious and require experimentation to get there.  Progressing to the target condition now boils down to iterative ingenuity and receptiveness for adapting to new circumstances.

The PDCA method is basically a form of the scientific method.  You form a hypothesis based on what you currently know.  You execute an experiment to test that hypothesis.  You analyze the results from your experiment.  Did you get the results you expected?  If not, then why not?  You use those results and new information to update your current understanding.  Then you plan the next experiment or work on setting your next target condition.  It’s a process of trial and error and then applying what we have learned.

3 Key Points About PDCA:

  1. “Surprise” is often how PDCA helps you learn and improve. It’s the unexpected results that often teach us the most and help us to innovate.  “If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” Enrico Fermi
  2. Rapid and frequent PDCA cycles = more learning. The more testing you do, the more learning opportunities you have.  The ideal is to do daily small experiments.
  3. Every step will not bring a measurable benefit. The path to the target condition will not be a straight line.  Some experiments will “fail” but allow you to learn something new that can be applied toward meeting your target condition.

The 5 Coaching Kata Questions:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
    1. What was your last step?
    2. What did you expect?
    3. What actually happened?
    4. What did you learn?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which *one* are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step (next PDCA/experiment)? What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Examples of 3 different kinds of PDCA experiments:

  1. Go and See. Direct observation and data collection, without changing anything, to learn more about a process or situation.
  2. Exploratory Experiment. Introducing a change in a process to see, via direct observation, how the process reacts. Done to help better understand the process.
  3. Testing a Hypothesis. Introducing a change together with a prediction of what you expect to happen.

Expect to hit obstacles and challenges along the way.  Don’t give up.  Try to adopt the mindset that each obstacle you face is a new opportunity to experiment and innovate.

*Illustration by Bill Costantino

The Improvement Kata Part 3 – Where Do We Want to Go?


Before embarking on an improvement project, it’s important to know where you want to go.  Every company has a vision which is a long range ideal.  However while a vision does provide direction, it is not a guide for daily improvements, it’s too vague and too far away.  The “challenge” is what provides direction for the Improvement Kata.  The challenge focuses on a specific strategic breakthrough that can be achieved in a 6 month to 3 year time frame.

What is a challenge?  A challenge is a stretch goal designed to better serve customers.  It is in an area where the business wants a better/different outcome but can’t get it using the existing process as is. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible.  There isn’t an obvious solution to get the results we want.  The challenge is the goal you are working toward.  “When people see themselves as components in a system [and] work in cooperation to achieve a shared aim, they feel that their efforts hold meaning. They experience interest and challenge and joy in the work.”  W. Edwards Deming


Once the challenge has been set, the next step is to grasp the current condition.  The Improvement Kata Handbook describes a 5 step process analysis to assess the current condition.

  1. Customer Demand & Planned Cycle Time. What is the task and how much time do we have to complete it?
  2. Characteristics of the Current Process. What are the typical patterns of work? (Sketch)  How is the process currently operating? (Data)
  3. Equipment Capacity. Do we have any equipment constraints?  What are they? (Data)
  4. Necessary Number of Operators (if the process were stable). How many people are necessary? (Calculate)
  5. Outcome Metrics. How is the process performing over time? (Data)

While it seems like this analysis process is designed for a manufacturing environment, it can be translated to office and service processes.  It just takes a little more time.  What you are trying to understand is the pattern of working.  You want to have a good enough understanding of your current state to allow you to set your first target condition.  Remember, your first target condition is something that you want to be able to achieve in a few weeks.

Once the current condition has been defined, you can move on to establishing your next target condition.  One important thing to understand at this point is that you are not trying to solve your challenge in one fell swoop.  You will work toward getting there through a series of iterations.  You’re approaching the problem one step at a time.

The target condition describes where you want to be, not how to get there.  A good target condition is one where the solution is not obvious and where it will take some experimentation to find a solution.  “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”  Michelangelo

There are 3 steps to developing a target condition:

  1. Coach sets and achieve by date. The date should reflect the competency level of the learner with the Improvement Kata.  It’s recommended that a novice would have a shorter due date of approximately a week.  Once competency with the Improvement Kata increases, a longer time of up to several weeks can be set.
  2. Learner develops, proposes & fine tunes the target condition. This should be an iterative process.  Decide what you want to change as well as what you will keep the same.  Once the target condition is set it should not be changed.  You can add additional details as you work toward this goal and lean more.
  3. Learner starts an Obstacles Parking Lot. The coach will ask about potential obstacles that could prevent reaching the target condition.  This is not an action item list.  The obstacles you actually work on will be identified in the PDCA cycles in the next phase of the Improvement Kata.  The purpose of the parking lot is to help you see the limits of prediction and prevent you from going after several ideas at once.

*Illustrations by Bill Costantino


The Improvement Kata Part 2 – Learning a New Skill


Ingredients for learning a new skill or habit:

  1. Kata – structured routine to practice. Especially for beginners it helps to have a step by step routine.
  2. Practice – repetition.
  3. Coaching – corrective feedback
  4. Mastery – overcoming obstacles

The definition of “practice” is shown in the illustration above.  It requires a coach to observe and provide an assessment.  This way the learner can adjust her performance.  While it is important to know what you are doing well, this method primarily focuses on your weaknesses and how to improve.

The Improvement Kata Handbook offers this caution “The more familiar you are already familiar with a topic, the less you may be open to learning something new about it.  Closing your mind in this way can condemn you to remaining only a beginner in a new skill area.”  This brings to mind a recent blog post by Seth Godin “Taking notes vs. taking belief”.  In this post he says “Facts are easy to come by. Finding a new way to think and a new confidence in our choices is difficult indeed.”  The reminder for me is to come into this experience of coaching with an open mind.  I need to have my own coach, be open to feedback, and set aside my ego so I can learn something new.

The Improvement Kata Handbook recommends these 8 tips* for practicing:

  1. Get an overview of what you’re trying to learn
  2. Find a coach
  3. Be enthusiastic about practicing
  4. Break the skill pattern into pieces and practice only one or two pieces at a time
  5. Deliberately follow the prescribed pattern exactly at first
  6. Practice a little every day
  7. Practice on something real
  8. Practice at the edge of your capability

*These tips are based on The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Human Memory: Theory and Practice by Alan Baddeley and the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA.

“When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do.  Deliberate practice is different.  It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all.  Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.” The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, Harvard Business Review, July 2007.

In describing the relationship between a coach and a learner, the handbook states that the coach should give procedural suggestions only and not provide solutions.  This is because this will prevent the learner from developing that skill.  A coach’s role is to develop players.  The coach doesn’t go out into the field and play.  This analogy really helped me to see that my desire to offer solutions and solve problems for people is really inhibiting their development.  I need to keep this in mind as I set out to improve as a coach.

The Improvement Kata Methodology


A small group of us are embarking on a project to coach process owners for key processes owned and managed by our department.  We plan to use the Improvement Kata as our standard for coaching.  Before we get started, I thought I would benefit from a review of Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook.  In a recent meeting with one of my coaches/mentors, he told me that he routinely writes a “book report” every time he reads a new book.  In the spirit of working out loud, I decided that I will not only take notes as I read through the materials, I will also share my thoughts with others.

In the preface Mike Rother points out “All managers are teachers, whether consciously or not. With their everyday words and actions managers teach their people a mindset and approach, which determines the organizations capability.”  So as I get ready to coach, I need to really think about the behaviors I’m modeling.  One thing I need to really pay attention to is whether my actions are consistent with what I’m telling people.

“The IMPROVEMENT KATA is a teachable process for using our brains more effectively when pursuing goals in complex systems.”  There are 2 key components to the Improvement Kata – a systematic approach with structured practice routines.  It is this pattern of practice that not only helps someone to learn but also operationalize this approach.

The Coaching Kata provides a standard routine to develop effective coaching techniques.  The coach has to have a thorough knowledge of the Improvement Kata before she can be an effective coach.  Hence the reason why I’m going back to the beginning and embarking on a refresher course on the Improvement Kata.

Big word for the day – metacognition – thinking about how you think.  Much of what we do is habitual.  When you repeat a behavior multiple times, you can repeat that behavior without much, if any conscious thought.  You can change old habits or even develop new ones.  It just takes time and effort.

In organizations managers/leaders can influence culture in two very different ways.  The can unconsciously/automatically teach and reinforce the prevailing culture.  On the other hand, managers/leaders can assume the role of coach and deliberately teach a way of thinking and acting.  The Improvement Kata is one way to do this.

Cognitive bias – “a tendency to draw incorrect conclusions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence.”  We all have a tendency to fill in the blanks based on prior experience.  As an example when we see conclusions1               we immediately see “jumping to conclusions”, when what is actually there is conclusions2

The key to effective process improvement is to distinguish between what we know and what we think we know.  In coaching it’s important to listen to what people say.  There is a difference between “my data shows” and “I think X”.

“It’s not practice makes perfect, it’s correct practice makes perfect.”  One reason for having a coach is to ensure you don’t learn bad technique or bad habits.  I enjoy yoga and find that I do much better when I go to class rather than practicing on my own.  I am still at the stage where having someone help me attain the correct pose can make all the difference in the world.

Steps of the Improvement Kata*:


*Illustration by Bill Costantino

Step 1: The direction or breakthrough challenge is set at the organizational level.  This is the “true north” you are striving for in your continuous improvement projects.  Your ultimate goal should be on delivering to meet or exceed customer expectations.

Step 2:  Before embarking on any process improvement, you first need to understand your current condition.  This is based on data.  This helps you understand the gap between your starting point and your ultimate goal.

Step 3:  Set a goal that you can achieve within the next few weeks.  Let’s say your process cycle time averages 2 weeks but your customers want it to take 2 days.  Based on this your next target condition could be to find a way to reduce that cycle time by 1 day.

Step 4:  This is the experimentation phase where you use the PDCA (plan, do, check, act) process to try different approaches and learn what works and what doesn’t.  Along the way you adjust your approach as you learn.

Step 5:  This isn’t in the Kata handbook but I’m adding it for my own sake.  Once you reach your next target condition, the process starts over at step 2.  Your direction will remain the same but your current condition has changed.

The Universal Gift of Apology


Yesterday I walked into a meeting prepared for a fight.  You know the feeling.  You’re convinced that you are right and the other person is wrong.  You know that the other person feels just as strongly that they are right.  Your whole body feels tense.

I came armed with data.  I had spent time rehearsing all of my arguments and made sure I had the data to back them up.  I also prepped everyone from my team who would be attending the meeting, including senior leadership so that they understood my point of view, agreed with my interpretation, and would support my arguments.

The meeting was called because of a pretty harshly worded e-mail I had received from my “opponent” in this fight.  Based on the e-mail, I knew that a face-to-face discussion was needed.  I could easily see things escalating if we continued via e-mail, so we agreed to meet and talk.  Still, I had such a visceral response to the e-mail that those emotions hadn’t completely dissipated prior to our meeting.  In fact, I think having time to brood over it only amplified those feelings.

This could have been a tense and uncomfortable meeting, but it wasn’t.  The reason is because of what my “opponent” did to start the meeting – she apologized.  She said that she realized that her e-mail came across as overly harsh and that wasn’t her intent.  She apologized for just dashing off a message without first thinking through how it might land on me.

This one simple act totally changed the tone of the whole discussion.  As a result, I was much more open to listening to and understanding her concerns.  We were no longer “opponents” but rather partners.  In the end, we agreed to a compromise that was a win-win for both of us.  I also realized that she was someone who would be a valuable resource if I run into similar situations in the future.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to reflect on what had happened and how I could modify my approach in the future.

  • An apology can be a powerful gift that allows people to shift their mindset and perception of one another.
  • When apologizing she never said that she was wrong, but acknowledged the potential impact that her message could have on the recipient.
  • In working through complicated issues, a discussion is preferable to e-mail.
  • Remind myself that especially in those cases where I have a strong response that it’s important to “seek first to understand”.

At the end of the day, everything turned out well.  However, I recognize that result wasn’t due to anything I had done.  I went in ready to do battle.  It wasn’t my finest hour.  Like any situation where I realize that I would have been more effective if I had done something differently, I want to be sure I learn from this situation and apply what I have learned the next time I face a similar situation.

I will be sure to remember how best to use the gift of an apology.

Dodge Ball and Working Out Loud


I read a blog post by Seth Godin titled “Shields Up” made me think about the practice of working out loud.  In the blog Seth argues for protecting your nascent ideas from people who would shoot them down before they have a chance to take root and grow.  So what does this say about working out loud?  Is there a right time to share?  Do you run a risk if you share too early?

“Ok, fine”, you say.  But what does this have to do with dodge ball?  Trust me, I’m getting there.  Last weekend I was an organizer for a charity dodge ball tournament and spent time yesterday sharing pictures and videos from the event.  While I was working on this I realized that there is a lot of similarities between dodge ball and working out loud.

Success in dodge ball depends on getting the other team out.  One way to do this is to throw a ball and hit them.  But before you can hit someone with a ball, you have to have a ball to throw.  The teams that did well in the tournament had one player take on the role of “retriever”.  This person runs around the court getting balls and providing them to the other player to throw.  As you can imagine, this makes the retriever something of a target.  However their contribution is really important to making the team successful.

I would say the same approach applies to working out loud.  In my experience, people who are willing to share their work in progress are in the minority.  Putting their ideas and unfinished work out there makes them a target for criticism and people telling them why that will never work.  However, doing so can be extremely beneficial to their team.  Sharing their work can allow them to make adjustments while it’s still easy to make changes rather than when things get too far along and changes take more time and effort.  Sharing your mistakes can prevent others from making the same mistake.  Sharing questions can help others who have the same question but were afraid to ask.

Working out loud is also a great way to build a sense of team.  I’ve been a part of group that were called “teams” but were really nothing more than a collection of independent contributors.  Everyone worked independently and you rarely knew what they were working on until it was finished.   By contrast, the times I have truly felt part of a team were those times when we all worked together.  We would pitch in, help out, share ideas, and offer feedback.  It was all done in the spirit of ensuring that we were all successful.

With those newly formed ideas, you have to consider how and with whom you are sharing.  Trust and collaboration are essential.  Sharing with a close group of colleagues, teammates, and mentors can provide you with new perspectives and helpful insights.  While sharing too broadly can leave you feeling bombarded with less than helpful criticisms.  Done right, sharing your ideas and work in progress can help to nourish those ideas.  Sharing too broadly, too early can just leave you feeling bruised.

Ideally, you can share in an environment of “psychological safety” as illustrated in the video shared by John Stepper in the Working Out Loud Facebook group.  If you have been reluctant to work out loud, you might want to start small with one or two trusted friends or colleagues.  Once you begin to see the benefits, you can slowly begin expanding that circle and allow more and more people to benefit from your thoughts, ideas, questions and even mistakes.  Soon you will learn to dodge those critiques that were meant to harm you and your team will be all the more successful for your contributions.