The 5 coaching kata questions to ask as a manager

To coach someone (or yourself) to learn the Toyota Kata, there are 5 simple questions.

1. What is the target condition?
2. What is the actual condition now?*
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?

* Ask these questions to reflect on the last step, because you don’t actually know what the result of a step will be!
1. What was your Last Step?
2. What did you Expect?
3. What Actually Happened?
4. What did you Learn?

These questions are designed to help line managers learn to apply the improvement kata in their organizations. The benefit of applying the improvement kata are more adaptability for your team, an ability to create new solutions to unforseen problems. As a ScrumMaster or manager, you can ask these questions every morning at standup, using a visual control like a Kanban Board or a Card Wall to evaluate short cycle experiments.

The reason I’m excited about the Coaching Kata is that I think in the agile community we are stuck in the “tool age”. As coaches, we look to things like Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, Kanban, SAFe, Innovation Games, Cynefin as “the new innovation” that will keep us relevant with our clients (and well fed). We copy a solution what another consultant is doing, not understanding the thinking process they used to develop that solution. The solution might not fit the context. I fall victim to this thinking. It’s the hammer in search of a nail that Weinberg warned us about.

And as coaches we often accuse our teams and clients of applying “cargo cult” agile practices, standups, tdd, atdd, copying each other’s practices, but not understanding why they are doing them. Then we wonder why we hit a wall with our agile adoption efforts. This is a problem because we also see teams not get the sustained continuous improvement from agile methods. They have gotten an initial sugar rush of improvement by doing something new. A hawthorne effect. By studying the team, you see an improvement. But after that, they hit a new plateau of performance.

In the lean transformation community, they have a similar problem. A factory will install lean tools like just in time manufacturing, andan cords and kanban systems. They deploy lean problem solving tools like kaizen workshops, value stream mapping, A3 problem solving reports, and standard work. But the real change is modest or not observable.

Is the answer then to eschew any new idea, to “go it alone” and develop everything custom? How will this scale? For the answer, I look again to the lean manufacturing community.

In recent years with work by David Mann in Building a Lean Culture and more recently Mike Rother, the Lean community realizes that it’s not enough to deploy some tools to achieve sustained improvement. You need to change the thinking that managers and team members. How do you change someone’s thinking? Enter the kata.

A kata is a pattern, routine or habit. Originally from martial arts, it’s about training your brain and body to automatically respond in a specific way. By practicing the routine, you get create new neural pathways that reinforce behavior. By practicing the improvement kata daily, you get to change your behavior, which changes your thinking.

Is there a danger that Kata will be the new practice or flavor of the month consulting offering? Yes. How do we avoid this in ourselves and our teams? Don’t sell the “kata”. Instead, encourage you and your team to develop a daily habit around asking coaching questions, directed toward a common challenge or vision, and build in visible and observable feedback loops using experiments to get better.

Arne Roock developed the Kanban Kata as a way to do this with Kanban Systems. The same with double loop learning, OODA loops, etc. Applied in the same spirit of curiosity and exploration, it could achieve the same result. You are using the scientific method to improve your ability to improve.

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