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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Denise discovers the Kata Cycle.

Denise looked at her watch as Jason left her office. Oh no, it’s already a quarter past one. That’s the time Mark and I have scheduled our second coaching cycle today. I must have been talking with Jason for quite a while.

She rushed out of her office to meet Mark. As she got closer to the storyboard, she could see he was already waiting for her. I am wasting his time, she thinks. As his coach, I should always be there on time or a little beforehand. She decided to write that down in her notebook after returning to her office.

She greeted Mark, and they started their coaching cycle. The first three phases went smoothly. Today, Mark intended to focus on a new obstacle. The team members frequently struggle when plugging in one of the cables on the controller board of the new pump.


Denise asked: "What is, therefore, your next step?”

"I think the cable is simply too short. I will talk to Rosalyn from purchasing to find out if we can get a longer cable from the supplier,” Mark replied.

Makes sense, and he has followed the steps of the process, but is this a trap? What is Mark really doing here? I think this is another case of jumping to conclusions, Denise thought.

Remember the rule about finding the threshold of knowledge. I think we have discovered Mark’s. So, we should jump to step 4. What type of experiment should we do right now to learn something, she asked herself. Type two, I guess. We have an obstacle, but the cause is unknown.

Now, compared to that, what type of experiment is Marc proposing? He is on the way to implementing a change. So, that’s experiment type three. I could let him run with it. However, that would be more of a trial and error approach, and also, it’s risky to change the length of the cable right away, and also he won’t do anything productive until purchasing can get the longer cable.

There might be a technical reason why the cable is as it is. I guess I have to stop Marc from conducting this step.


Denise asked Mark: "Why do you think the cable is too short?”

"Because this is our newest model of the HX100 pump and production just started six weeks ago. I suppose engineering just designed the cable too short, which has happened before. So, I’ll just speak with Rosalyn from scheduling about asking the supplier to produce the cable three centimeters longer.

"No point bothering our colleagues from engineering with this. Now how to say this, so it is not offensive, and moves Mark forward."

"I love how you are getting the scientific way of thinking. I do have a concern, however. I am afraid we are getting a little ahead of ourselves, jumping right to a solution while there is still more to investigate about the problem, such as why the cable is so short.

Mark interjected curtly, “If you say so. I could ask engineering why they designed the cable so short and whether it would make sense to make it longer. But to be honest, I do not think this is a necessary step. The short cable is simply a design fault.“

Denise realized she had taken away his initiative, which was demotivating Mark. However, it was too late. As a next step, they agreed on Mark talking to Joyce from engineering to find out if there is any problem with making the cable longer.

On the way to her next coaching cycle with Joe, Denise continued to think about her conversation with Mark. As much as I tried to be respectful and even complement Mark, that definitely went wrong today. What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Maybe I missed Mark’s threshold of knowledge and asked the wrong question?


After her two coaching cycles and the afternoon meeting with the other department managers and David, Denise returned to her desk. She sat down and started to recap by listening to the recording of the coaching cycle with Mark on her mobile.

Suddenly, she stopped. What did Mark say? I think the cable is simply too short. I think. There was his threshold of knowledge. So, what did I ask in return? Denise hits the play button again and hears herself say: "Why do you think so“?

Oh, no. That pushed him to defend his thinking and strengthened his assumption, she realized. However, what could I have done differently?

Denise remembered her fundamental concept of ‘stand on red, walk on green’. At the threshold of knowledge, we shouldn’t move forward, but do the next step to find out. Yet, what would have been a logical next step, a step following a more scientific approach rather than using trial and error? And to find out what exactly?

Denise looked at the poster with the four steps of the Improvement Kata she had put up in her office, but it didn’t seem to help.

We are in element four, experimenting towards the next target condition, she thought. However, what are the correct steps when experimenting, Denise asked herself. She thought about PDCA or PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) as she liked to call it.

Well, we should plan the next step to find out, then conduct it. But what kind of step? I need a more detailed picture for the Improvement Kata approach. Especially for step four, when we experiment towards the next target condition, Denise realized. But what would that look like? I’ll give Maggie a call. She might have a few minutes to discuss.

Denise pressed dial for Maggie's contact on her mobile.

“Hi Denise, what’s up?” It took just two rings for Maggie to pick up the call. There was some noise in the background. Maggie seemed to be driving.

“I wondered if you have a few minutes to discuss my learnings from a coaching cycle I had with Mark today?” Denise asked.

“Sure”, Maggie replied, “I’m on my way to the gym and have another ten minutes to go. Fire away.”

Denise started to explain, “When I coached Mark today, we hit a roadblock and I did not know how to coach. It happened when Mark made a statement about the cause of an obstacle. Or at least that was my perception. Mark was sure the problem could be solved by changing a design specification and was preparing to jump ahead and do it.

“My thinking was that we should investigate more deeply before jumping into making changes, but I did not know how to coach him to reflect without making him defensive. As it turned out, I directly confronted him and had exactly the effect I did not want, making him defensive.

"I realized afterward that we had reached the threshold of knowledge and thus should conduct an experiment. But what exactly should be the next step, on a meta level, I mean? That’s when I realized I was lacking a coach’s reference for that situation.

“Reflecting further, I thought that it might be helpful to have a more detailed picture, especially of element four of the Improvement Kata. You know, as a reference. What should happen ideally when we experiment towards the next target condition? There is lots going on in step four of the Improvement Kata and I feel like I don’t have a sufficient reference for that. It may be apparent, but I can’t really pinpoint it.”



“I think I get it”, Maggie replied. “It reminds me of similar situations I struggled with. What is our reference for a scientific way of exploring the path towards the next target condition? I read the Toyota Kata Memory Jogger, where Tilo has described something he calls the Improvement Kata Cycle. It looks like a repetitive circle and depicts the four Improvement Kata elements but in addition details the micro-steps in element four.

“Too bad I’m in the car, so I can’t show you, but let’s see if we can do this via phone. Have you got a piece of paper and a pencil?”

Denise, still sitting at her desk, reached for her notebook and a pencil. “Yup, I’ve got it right here.”

“OK,”, Maggie started, “first draw the three steps of the planning phase of the Improvement Kata. Put understanding direction at the top right of your page. Then a circle for the initial condition on the bottom left. Then add another circle for the next target condition in the middle.

“Now, let’s think about step four, on a more detailed level. What should happen ideally when we experiment to get closer to the next target condition? What happens to the initial condition with each step we take?”

Denise replied immediately, “well, usually our it changes. Or at least we get a deeper understanding of it.”

“Exactly”, Maggie jumped in, “so in our little sketch let’s distinguish between initial and actual condition. With each step, the actual condition moves a bit closer to our next target condition. Or at least it should.”

Denise added a little circle to her drawing between the initial condition and next target condition. “I’ve got that added.”

“Good. So now we know the actual condition, where we are, and our target condition, where we’d like to be.”

“Then we have to identify obstacles that are preventing us from reaching the next target condition and choose one to address”, Denise blurted out.

“Exactly”, was Maggie’s reply. “Add that to your sketch below the actual condition at about two o’clock.”

She did so and Maggie asked, “so what's next?”

Denise thought for a moment, “well, I guess we then have to dig deeper on the one obstacle to understand its effect and cause?”

“Yup, you got it”, Maggie replied. Add that as well.”

Denise did. Her sketch now looked like this:

Then she spoke up: “Once we understand the cause, we can formulate a hypothesis as to how exactly the process would have to run to eliminate the cause. Based on that, we usually consider how to test the hypothesis by an experiment in the next step.”

“Absolutely”, Maggie laughed, “I see you’re getting the hang of it.”

Denise wrote ‘plan next step’. Then she heard Maggie ask: “Now wait a second, what’s the difference between experimenting and trial and error?”

Denise had to think for a while. “Well, experimenting involves measurement and gathering data. And we'll do some preparation, I guess.”

“Be more specific”, Maggie demanded. “What kind of preparation do we need to do?”

Denise thought again. Then she had an idea. “Now every experiment is or should be based on a hypothesis, like if we do A then B will happen. So I guess we can have a specific expectation for our experiment?”

“Yes, and we absolutely should”, Maggie replied. Denise erased what she had written last and wrote ‘plan next step AND expectation’.

She heard Maggie say: “Asking someone about their expectation connected with their next step in an excellent way to distinguish if somebody was genuinely proposing an experiment based on a hypothesis or just making an assumption and is going for trial and error.

“So, what’s next?”

Denise answered quickly, “well then, of course, we need to conduct the experiment. Or let our improver do the experiment, to be precise.”

“Yup”, Maggie replied, “if you add that to your drawing you should be at the bottom just down from the actual condition.

“So, then when our improver comes back after conducting the experiment…”

Denise continued the sentence. “They can tell us about the result.” She added that to her sketch.

Maggie spoke again. “But the result is not enough. There should also be a finding. Something we have learned in relation to our expectation and a conclusion from our experiment. This is why the coach asks, ‘what did you LEARN from taking your last step’.”

“That’s so right”, Denise jumped in. “It’s precisely what gets me so upset when Mark and Joe just tell me “it worked” after running their experiment.” Denise adds the word 'finding' to her sketch.

Maggie continues, “With each experiment, we have a new actual condition which brings us back to the top of your little drawing.”

Denise looks at her sketch.

“It’s a full circle now. And it repeats for each step we take towards our next target condition. Right?”

“Yes”, Maggie replied, “that's’s what Tilo called the Kata Cycle. I think he said he developed that with his team at Festool.”

“That could be helpful for explaining the Improvement Kata to others”, Denise said.

“Maybe not”, Maggie jumped in, “stay with the metamodel of the four steps when you explain the Improvement Kata. The Improvement Kata cycle is helpful as a first reference for coaches, but it could be confusing for the improver. Now take another look at your sketch and think about how it fits with the Coaching Kata questions. What do you see?”

Denise looked more closely at the circle and noticed something that stunned her. The starter questions of the Coaching Kata exactly matched the Kata Cycle. She took out her Coaching Kata card. The first question was about the target condition. That was point one on the Kata cycle. Next came the question about actual condition; point two. Then obstacles including the question ‘what exactly is the problem’ that started investigating for effect and cause. Then phase four, next step an expectation. At six o’clock of the Kata cycle was point five, conduct experiment.

The fifth question on the card matched that as well. We agree on the due date for our next reflection point, Denise thought. Then the improver moves on to actually conduct the experiment.

How about points 6 and 7 on the cycle then she wondered? Ah, that's when we meet again. They are part of phase two, what did you learn from taking your last step?

“Denise, are you still there?” Maggie asked?

“How cool is this”, Maggie blurted out, “the Improvement Kata cycle exactly depicts the flow of the questions. Now I know why the five questions are the questions they are. And also, why they are in that order. They follow the Improvement Kata cycle.”

Maggie replied, “yes, and they have to. Another way to see this is that the Coaching Kata questions help the other person to compare their approach and thinking to the steps depicted on the Improvement Kata Cycle. That’s how our coaching can be solution open but precise on the method. Through our coaching, we help people to stay on the cycle.”

Denise added, “on a meta-level it’s PDCA but the Kata Cycle depicts a scientific way of thinking and working much better. It’s kind of inside PDCA. Kata inside, you could say. Maybe that’s an idea for many tools and methods, like A3, for example. That would be so much more effective if used with an underlying scientific mindset following the Improvement Kata Cycle.”

“Absolutely”, Maggie added. “Jeff Liker has taught us that at Toyota there is never the tool without a coach. That’s how they ensure tools are applied with scientific thinking inside. Jeff has emphasized that by putting scientific thinking at the center of his The Toyota Way model.

“For me, the Improvement Kata cycle is a clear picture of what kind of mental pattern of scientific thinking we aim to develop with our teams.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’d say by repeatedly asking the Coaching Kata questions, we help people develop new neural pathways following the Kata Cycle.”

Denise jumped in, “you mean in the end you can see the Improvement Kata cycle on a brain scan? Just kidding.” They both start laughing.

Finally Maggie picked up again. “I just parked my car and I have to go, but here is a final thought for you. When some of my previous consulting clients said their managers were coaching, I asked them which model they were using.

"Usually, they had that depicted. Then I asked them what questions they used when coaching. That’s when it usually gets a bit more vague. My third question then was, what mental pattern they aimed to develop with their teams through coaching. Most had no clue.

"Then I invited them to do a drawing exercise. Draw out the pattern you are trying to create through your coaching. We then went to their coaching questions and asked what type of pattern these questions were likely to create. We usually found a complete mismatch. They were not going to get what they wanted with their questions. And it was usually linear and stopped, definitely no closed loop cycles amongst these sketches.” Maggie laughed dryly.

Then she continued, "mostly they were stunned at the vague and arbitrary nature of the patterns that emerged from following their coaching models and questions. I remember one of them saying, “Wow, we are really messing with people’s mind, in almost a random way. No wonder our culture change efforts stall.

“Hey, Denise, I really have to go now. Want to meet for lunch tomorrow? I’m close to your plant anyways. Then we can reflect on some of your coaching cycles. Would 12:30 suite you?”

“Sure”, Denise replied. She was a bit surprised Maggie is coming that far out of town. The plant is in a really rural region. What’s Maggie doing around here, she asks herself?

Maggie asked: “Any suggestions where to go?”

Denise said, “there’s not much around here. I usually go to a small inn if I go outside for lunch. It’s the only place around here. They have pizza and pasta”.

“Works for me”, Maggie replied. “See you then”. She hung up.


Denise was stunned about what Maggie had just shared with her. In all her consulting years and with the coaching training, she had had at Francis & Drake, Denise had never seen a coaching model or approach that was so specific in what kind of ability and mental pattern it aimed to develop. She was also a bit disappointed in herself. It was on the coaching card I was using all along, and I had not really understood.

OK, she thought, let’s get practical and put this Improvement Kata Cycle to the test. Maybe I could use the Kata Cycle as a coach’s reference in my next session. Let’s see.

When I ask about the current condition, what kind of answers do I get. Well, sometimes Mark and Joe explain how bad the current condition is and immediately explain what they are going to do about it. That’s like cutting across the circle. From 12 o'clock ‘actual condition’ to 6 o’clock ‘conduct experiment’.

That’s the ‘just do it’ approach, went through her mind. Immediately initiate a countermeasure, focus on fire fighting, the more, the better, instead of investigating more deeply about the actual condition and the obstacles first.

Then she noticed another pattern. Having a next step in mind right from the start without precisely describing the obstacle or understanding its cause. That is the ‘jumping to conclusions’ approach, Denise thought. From 12 o’clock to about 4 o’clock on the circle.

Then a third pattern came to her mind. Presenting just the result of a step without a finding or learning. That’s what happened when Mark and Joe just said, ‘it didn’t work.’ Then they often immediately proposed another solution.. Just try some more, was the mindset she often realized, without taking time for a conclusion and really learning step by step.

The Kata Cycle might be an excellent navigation tool for the coach, she realized. If I keep the Kata Cycle in mind during my coaching sessions, I can recognize if one of my improvers strays off. She sketched the three patterns she just found into her notebook by drawing three circles.



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