I recently had the chance to present the Toyota Kata as described by Mike Rother to a group of professionals interested in Lean . I do not know about them (though they were very polite and their feedback was quite positive) but I definitely learned a lot . Especially interesting were the questions they posed and I think I will devote some time to respond to some of them here on this forum. This is partly due to classical staircase effect – of course the best answers come to mind after the party is closed, but partly also because I think the questions were so good that they deserve a more careful discussion then what was possible in Munich Biergarten.

So, the winner question is: Kata is unrealistic in assuming that he employees are interested in continuous improvement. Our employees just want to be done with their 8 hours of work, go home, and live their hobbies. How can we make them participate?

There are many things that can be answered to this question. For starters, employees generally do not come to a company already lacking all interest in their work. In many cases this attitude is the result of a longstanding careful education by colleagues and leaders. There are many ways to demotivate interested employees starting with the relatively mild one of just not reacting to any proposal they might make and up to actively discouraging involvement. Even companies that are proudly showing an employee suggestion initiative find it hard to escape the trap of actually discouraging initiative – just ask people involved how many pending suggestions they have, what is the lead time of a suggestion and what is the acceptance rate? The numbers show, more often then not, a barrier for improvements not an initiative that promotes active participation. This barrier is all the more effective in that it provides a perfect excuse to anyone to quickly forget any employee suggestion – just tell him to write it up and place it in the suggestion system – and be sure never to hear from it again.

So, I fully understand the question: if one happens to work in a company where employees are passive and the culture ignorant of or unable to use the potential of employee creativity (and BTW unable to even start implementing the Toyota Kata philosophy) what should one do?

The first quick answer is: do not blame the employees! This is a poor excuse to give up before the race even started – and this might have several variants. A subtle way of doing this is to claim that Kata only works for the japanese. THEY are motivated, creative and their leaders understand Kata – we/our employees do not. When I had the chance to be trained in Japan for two weeks one of the most important realizations was that other japanese companies find the TPS and the Toyota Kata just as difficult as any German plant manager would, so the difficulty is not coming from the cultural differences,

So, how should one start? Interestingly, by applying the Toyota Kata from the start. Develop a target condition – a vision of a company where the employees are actively involved in process improvements and every management level is actively involved in supporting them. This will not come about in one or two years – his is a long term vision, your own personal True North.

Then ask the question what is blocking you in reaching this vision – and start working on the blocking factors; every day, all the time. Find the employees that are not yet completely lost and the shift leaders who are willing to try. Create pockets of excellence and make sure this is recognised by the plant management. Involve people and make sure their involvement brings fast results and makes their work easier – and the word will spread. The aim is to create a virtuous cycle – the more successful people are using your methods the more they will want to participate – and as such pockets of excellence expand they will touch each other and grow into the coaching/helping network that is our target condition. Such virtuous cycles have the known property of attracting people – but not without conflicts. The good part is, that this time the people feeling uncomfortable will be the ones who were happy with the old status quo of not getting involved at all. They still have the choice of joining the new culture or just to stand apart – but this time there is more to be gained by joining than by refusing to participate . An employee having worked for 40 years at a company where we were reasonably successful in implementing these methods summed it up nicely „in forty years this is the first time I am happy to come to work“

Obviously, this is not all flowers and happiness – this is hard work. No one can do this alone – we need very strong help from top management, There will be conflicts – ugly ones. People with vested interests in the status quo will fight back and mistakes will be made that will be mercilessly exploited by them. I have seen employees being laid off only because of their participation in the initiative – and also the responsible GB threatening to leave the company if the decision is not reversed. The decision was reversed – Toyota Kata once set in motion is too valuable to be destroyed by some thoughtless political maneuvering. The question is though – do we get the time to run the virtuous cycle long enough that management will see the advantages? There is no way to answer this when we start. But not trying is the worst mistake that we can make – and then it is not the employees that are unable to change and are stuck in the status quo. It is us.