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Agile LEGO – Toyota Kata an alternative to Retrospectives

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My name is Håkan Forss and I’m a Lean/Agile Coach at Avega Group in Stockholm.

In this short story I want to introduce Toyota Kata as an alternative or as a complement to agile retrospectives.

But let me first introduce you to the team.

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This is a tightly knit, cross-functional and very experienced team. They have been working with agile for a few years, mostly using Scrum.

The team consists of developers, testers, operations and business representatives.

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The team has made many big process improvements over the years.

After great resistance from the office manager and human resources the team could last year be fully collocated.

They have adopted pair programming and test driven development.

But lately the team seems to have plateaued and is not improving any more.

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At the end of every sprint the team does their agile retrospective

They reflect on what worked well, what did not work as well and what could improve.

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They collect suggestions on improvements and add them to the already long and growing list of improvement suggestions.

They prioritize the improvement list and what improvements should be done in the next sprint.

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Maybe it is time to try an alternative?

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One such alternative may be Toyota Kata from the book with the same name.

The Toyota Kata book is written by Mike Rother and it describes two behavior patterns, or two Kata-s

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The two Kata-s are:

  • The Improvement Kata
  • The Coaching Kata

In this story we will touch on the Improvement Kata.

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The Improvement Kata guides us in a very focused way from our Current Condition towards our vision. The path goes through a number of intermediate Target Conditions in an iterative manner.

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The Improvement Kata contains four steps

  1. Understand the Direction, so you know where you are going
  2. Grasp the Current Condition, to get your reference point
  3. Establish the Next Target Condition, that is your next step on the path towards the vision
  4. Plan-Do-Check-Act Toward the Target Condition

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Having a clear vision, a compass heading, a true north is very important.

This is our guiding star that will make us all go in the same direction and not lose our focus.

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As important as our vision, or maybe even more important is to grasp our Current Condition.

And I mean REALLY grasp our Current Condition.

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To really understand you need to go to the place where the real work is really done. You need to talk to the people really doing the work.

You need to measure and collect data to grasp you Current Condition.

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When we understand where we are and we have our long term vision it is time for the team coach and leader to set a challenging but not too challenging Target Condition.

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A Target Condition describes the state of the process when the target is achieved. It does NOT describe the steps needed to get there.

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When the Target Condition is set it is the teams turn to come up with experiments, Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles, that will take the process towards the Target Condition.

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The team tries different experiments using Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles until they have reached or are close to reaching the Target Condition.

Then the Improvement Kata starts over and a new Target Condition gets set that is a little bit closer to the long term vision.

Now that the team has tried this for a few months, how are they doing?

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With Toyota Kata the team can now be more focused on continuously improving their process. They practice the Improvement Kata every day and gets better and better at hands on problem solving. We have created a true learning organization.

Toyota Kata rocks!!

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This story was presented as an ignite talk at Agila Sverige 2012 the 23rdof April.

The Toyota Kata and related material is developed by Mike Rother and his team. You can find more information here

A special thank you  goes to Andrea Chiou Adaptive Collaboration for help with my poor spelling.

Shrink the change

Why don’t you try some other dish this time

says my wife to me when we are at the restaurant.

No, I like this one

I say.

And why change when I have found something I like?


This is me. I’m very reluctant when it comes to trying out new food or using a new store of any kind. This is also true for technology and development tools. When I find something that I like I tend to stick with it. At the other hand I usually don’t have any problem to adapt to new environments and circumstances. So when I do take the leap and try I seldom regret it and often it turns out to be a new favorite of mine.

Just as it is sometimes hard for me to try a new dish at the restaurant, helping organizations to change is often not easy. When you introduce new ideas and behaviors most people tend to resist just as I do with new food.

For a few years now I have been acting as an Lean and Agile change agent. I have done this both as an employee and as a consultant. I have had my share of successes and failures. When I look back and see what have worked and what has not I have come to the conclusion that it comes down to the size of the proposed change.

The bigger the immediate proposed change the stronger the resistance.

The way I have consistently succeeded in helping organizations change has been by shrinking the change. I break down the change in small, small, non threatening steps.

Well begun is half done.

This is one of my favorite Aristotle quotes. This is also related to shrinking the change. The more time people spend analyzing before they begin doing the greater the resistance becomes. I therefore suggest people to set up the change as a time limited experiment. When the short time limited experiment is over the change will be evaluated. If the change was not to satisfaction the change can easily be reverted, as it was a small change. This shrinks the change even further as people don’t have to analyze everything before they commit. They can try before they buy.

You can find much of this thinking in the great book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. You will find that shrinking the change is a core part of the Kaizen mindset in Lean. My favorite Lean book on this topic is Mike Rothers book Toyota Kata. The Kanban Method is also all about small evolutionary changes. I guess that is one of the reasons I find it a very useful method of changing and improving knowledge work processes.

I try to incorporate the thinking from the Switch Frame, the two katas from Toyota Kata and The Kanban Method when I act as a change agent. Here is my recipe for successful change when change is hard:

  • Shrink the change
  • Introduce changes as small time boxed experiments
  • Start by doing

Lets change the world one small step at the time!

The balancing act of getting to process efficiency Nirvana

What is process efficiency Nirvana?

When work flow from process step to process step without any disruption or waiting and people and resources are working at full utilization.

Work is flowing without any waiting and people are busy.

Figure 1. Work is flowing without any waiting and people are busy.

To get to process efficiency Nirvana you have to perfectly balance the process resource efficiency and it’s flow efficiency. You are at 100% resource efficiency and 100% flow efficiency.

Process efficiency Nirvana. 100% resource efficiency and 100% flow efficiency

Figure 2. Process efficiency Nirvana. 100% resource efficiency and 100% flow efficiency

In this post I will explore these efficiencies and how variation plays an important part in finding this perfect balance. If you manage this efficiency balancing act in your processes you can create a competitive edge.

Resource efficiency

High resource efficiency is when people and resources are working all the time without any disruptions or waiting.

Work is waiting to be worked on and people are busy.

Figure 3. Work is waiting to be worked on and people are busy.

Running a steel mill is an example of were high resource efficiency is good business strategy. Running a steel mill is very expensive. It is expensive to keep the smelter hot. It is even more expensive  to cool it down and then getting it hot again. You are willing to take the economic burden of keeping raw material always on hand to keep the mill busy. You are even willing to finished gods in inventory to keep the mill busy. 

Steel mill. An example were high resource efficiency is good business strategy

Figure 4. Steel mill. An example were high resource efficiency is good business strategy.

Efficient use of people and resources are important. If you are not efficiently using your people and resources you are paying higher salaries than necessary and for equipment that is not being used.

To achieve high resource efficiency you must ensure that the people and resources never run out of work.

A simple and very common way to achieve this is to queue work in front of a process step. With a queue in front variation in the process can be handled and the risk that the people or the resources run out of work is minimized. The down side of queues is that they increase lead time as work waits in the queue (see Little’s Law).

People and resources are always busy work in queues

Figure 5. High resource efficiency

Flow efficiency

High flow efficiency is when work flows from process step to process step without any disruption or waiting. Touch-time is at 100% and waiting time is at zero.

imageWork is flowing without any waiting and people are waiting for work.

Figure 6. Work is flowing without any waiting and people are waiting for work.

Firefighting is one example where a very high flow efficiency is desired. If your house is on fire you don’t want to wait very long for the fire brigade to arrive and putting out the fire. You want the fire brigade to be instant available. You are even willing to pay for the firefighters to be on standby.

Firefighting. An example were high flow efficiency is good business strategy.

Figure 7. Firefighting. An example were high flow efficiency is good business strategy.

High flow efficiency results in shorter lead times. Short lead times is important as this is your time to market. Short lead times enables you to respond faster to changing market conditions and lower your risks. Shorter lead times is also good for your cash flow as you will decrease the time capital is tied up from order to payment. Shorter lead times also tightens feedback loops and can increase learning.

To achieve high flow efficiency you must ensure that work is never waiting to getting worked on.

Ensuring that work is never waiting means you can’t have work waiting in queues. To ensure that there is no queues you have to have people and resources available as work arrives. You need slack. The big down side of slack is that you are paying for salaries and for equipment that you are not using all the time.

Work is always worked on people and resources have slack

Figure 8. High flow efficiency

Variation

Variation in a process effects your ability to reach process Nirvana. The higher the variation the harder it will be to get there.

To get to high resource efficiency you have to guard against arrival time variation. The higher the variation the larger the queues has to be to guard against being depleted. Larger queues will lower your flow efficiency and increase your lead times. The closer to full resource efficiency you are the more the lead times will increase with the variation(see Kingman’s formula).

To get to high flow efficiency you have to guard against arrival rate variation. The higher the variation the more slack you have to have. More slack in the process and you are driving down resource efficiency.

Getting to Nirvana

As you can see having both high resource efficiency and high flow efficiency are often diametrical apposed to each other. If you have any variation in your process you need queues to get high resource efficiency and you can’t have queues if you want high flow efficiency. The higher the variation is in the process the more true this diametrical problem becomes.

How do you then get to Nirvana? Can you even reach Nirvana?

Reaching process Nirvana is hard, very hard, possibly even impossible.

But even if it is impossible, striving for it will pay off. If you can have higher flow and resource efficiency than your competitors you can out perform your competitors. You need to choose a strategy to contain your variation, increase your flow efficiency without lowering your resource efficiency.

One such strategy is Lean. In a future post I will discuss how the Lean strategy strives for the process Nirvana.

Lean - a strategy on the path towards process efficiency Nirvana

Figure 9. Lean – a strategy on the path towards process efficiency Nirvana


Thank you Niklas Modig and Pär Åhlström for the great book “Vad är Lean” that inspired me to write this and future post. And thank you for letting me use this model.

I also highly recommend the book “The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development” by Donald G. Reinertsen

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