How Can Continuous Improvement Fit Into Our Work Habits?

Is it absolutely necessary to deploy a continuous improvement team or to set up a department – to do continuous improvement?


No !


Continuous improvement is a growing muscle that can be integrated into your internal processes and ways of doing things. What do we really mean by that?


Build the continuous improvement muscle


How do you build the continuous improvement muscle? In the same way that a disciple of karate integrates repetitive movements, called Kata. This training principle ensures that in a position of combat, the brain does not need to think; the body has registered the movements and knows what to do to defend itself and stay alive.


It is the same phenomenon that we want to create within an organization, but with a different outlet ; work teams that do not need a reminder in order to think of process improvement. The objective is that they themselves are able to observe what irritates them and identify it as an obstacle having the potential to be eliminated. Once eliminated, it will lead them to have a constant flow, which will decrease the Takt time, will make the process more profitable, will have an impact on the profit margin, the customers will be happier, the managers too, the employees will become the heroes.


Well, ok, that escalated a little quickly. But you get the idea!


Thanks to Mike Rother, author of the Improvement Kataandand Coaching Kata Practice Guides, who established a routine, a thought pattern, a framework – built around a structure that allows you to achieve process improvement while coaching employees involved to think for themselves and propose the desired improvements. He devoted years of research to understand:

  • the invisible management thinking and routines that underlie Toyota’s (founder of Lean) exceptional success in continuous improvement;
  • how it is possible to develop such routines in other organizations.


The basic assumptions of the Lean method are retained: the employee is the expert of his process, the customer remains at the center of the organization; in addition to ensuring that employees do not experience irritants in their daily lives (will be explained shortly). This framework therefore makes it possible to develop the famous muscle of continuous improvement; in addition to avoiding the potential challenges (or failures) of a Lean Six Sigma approach and the sometimes-exhausting-efforts in relation to change management.


The Improvement Kata vs Lean approach :

  • An improvement activity through daily problem solving rather than periodic;
  • Carried out by middle managers rather than by a Lean team;
  • The objective is no longer the elimination of sources of waste, but the achievement of ambitious strategic objectives. Waste will be eliminated along the way.


How to use the Kata approach



  1. Set an ambitious challenge which may seem dizzying at first sight. We visualize the dream situation within the organization. We do not know how we will achieve this vision, however complex it may be.
  2. Current state : The processes involved are analyzed and the results obtained over a given period are observed. We draw a portrait of the various performance indicators within the organization: rate, productivity of a production line, waste, non-conformities, number of projects delivered, number of overtime hours, etc.
  3. Target condition(also called intermediate challenge) : Objective that we want to aim for to get closer to the challenge, in a given time (1 week to three months).
  4. We identify theobstaclesthat prevent us from achieving the target condition.
  5. Cycles of PDCA (Deming Wheel): Improvement tool used to tackle a task or process that is not entirely satisfactory. Plan / Do / Check / Act cycles are carried out in order to eliminate obstacles.


Kata structure


An Kata example

Let’s take a fictitious example.


Aïcha is the supervisor of the Quality department. She is asked to take on a new project. Overwhelmed, she squirms in her chair before responding that she is unable to accept it. His manager is surprised, since his colleagues Luiz and Leila, both production supervisors, are currently able to deliver triple her projects. Of course, since the fiction allows us, the manager does not mention this fact, and instead turns to his coaching kata :


Current Status : I’m sorry to hear that you’re overwhelmed. Let me help you. First, let me understand the extent of your workload right now and tell me what your days look like.


Aïcha explains to him that she’s currently working between 50-55 hours a week. She is in charge of the daily data analysis, employee management and her Kanban project on line 8. She is interrupted on average 40 times a day (yes, she kept score).


Target condition : First, I want you to be able to go back to 40 hours/week. Only then we’ll see if we can free you up space for a new project. How can we get there? Tell me what your obstacles are right now.


Obstacles : She must be on site from Monday to Thursday between 7 a.m. (transition from night to day shift) and 3 p.m. (transition from day to evening shift). Her office is located in the middle of the lab, in an open area. During the day, she can’t concentrate, being constantly interrupted by employees who come by to talk to her. On Friday, she is allowed to work from home. In resume, the obstacles are :

  • High number of interruptions.
  • Office located in an environment that is not conducive to concentration
  • Having to be there from Monday to Thursday, she only has one day left to concentrate at home, where she has to catch up on her weekly tasks (rather than being able to advance her projects). She often opens her computer on weekends, during her daughters’ karate lessons.


Manager: Which obstacle do you think is the most urgent to eliminate? Which one could bring you closer to the target condition the fastest?


Aïcha: The office in the middle of the lab with the people circulating around me! We have to change that.


PDCA: Plan, Do, Check, Act

Plan : “Next week I could work in Luiz’s office, who is currently on paternity leave. I could note the number of interruptions and measure the number of overtime hours I work per week in order to compare and note the improvement.”

Do : The following week, Aïcha is working in Luiz’s office. She keeps count of the number of interruptions and her working hours.

Check : The number of interruptions decreased by 79% and Aïcha managed to finish her daily activities before 11 a.m. every day, leaving her with the afternoon to work on her projects.

Act : The manager finds a new office for Aïcha.


Let’s see what happens over the following weeks: Aïcha and her manager manage to remove the obstacles by relocating her office. They have also implemented the principle of periods of allocated time for employees who want to ask her questions or chat with her, rather than allowing them to come by at any time. The obstacles having all been eliminated, they took the pulse of the situation again and found that there were new obstacles, related to her difficulty to access particular data for her analysis, outdated software, the use of paper which involves a lot of walking through her day, etc.



Eventually, the manager barely needs to coach Aïcha for the Improvement Kata. She is now able to deliver her projects, her dynamism has returned and the department reached all the organizational objectives expected. During their weekly meetings, she challenges him head-on: “I need your help, I am facing a new obstacle and I would like to see with you if it is possible to schedule a meeting with the Supply Chain director to share my idea with him. » Boom.



How can continuous improvement fit into our working habits? Mainly by having managers trained for the coaching kata, becoming agents of change and continuous improvement on their own, ensuring that their management approach embeds a direction that gives voice to employees, allowing them to suggest solutions in order to eliminate the obstacles that they experience themselves, having a direct impact on the efficiency of the internal processes.



Will you try it?


Additional Resources :

ROTHER, Mike. The Toyota Kata Practice Guide: Practicing Scientific Thinking Skills for Superior Results in 20 Minutes a Day

ROTHER, Mike. Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results