How Lean Can Help Create Stronger Teams

Why should we empower employees to make decisions? 

Teams need to stay motivated to appropriately respond to the everyday challenges encountered in business. Team dynamics can be incredibly difficult to manage and when a team falls victim to miscommunication or unaligned goals, the effectiveness of the team will be at risk. Sometimes, teams do not feel valued, they feel that goals are vague, and projects are not aligned, and this can decrease the team’s synergy and cause internal conflicts. Other teams feel they do not have decision making power and this can seriously unmotivate a team from reaching a goal. 

Employees want to come to work and feel challenged enough to produce personal growth but free enough to make autonomous decisions free from the pressure. For this reason, individuals are quick to leave employers in hopes of finding a better place to grow. Now, the pressure lies on businesses to create environments where employees are challenged and are empowered to make decisions. To do this, companies need a system they can rely on to drive autonomy in teams while maintaining control through constant monitoring. In a lean and agile environment, that system is known as Kata Cycles. 

What is KATA

Kata was first identified by Mike Rother, the author of the book Toyota Kata. Like most lean systems used today, kata has its origins in the Toyota Motor Company. Kata is the term used to describe a culture of constant learning and improvement through small daily habits that leverage a company to create cultures of continuous improvement. 

Kata is defined as a structured practice that is continuously done to create a routine. Think of kata as practicing a sport. There are habits that you must employ to master the sport, whether it’s going to practice, eating well, doing dynamic and specific movements, etc. These small habits when combined together lead to mastery and in the same way we can adopt systems that empower teams and employees to master making useful decisions. For kata that relies on two principles:

  1. Improvement Kata

Improvement katas are systematic approaches that combine scientific thinking patterns with structured routines to help support and adopt a new way of thinking and acting. Improvement kata relies on a scientific approach to problems, where a team can define a challenge and perform experiments towards the target conditions. 

  1. Coaching kata

Coaching kata is how managers and leaders can maintain eyes on a team’s performance. Full autonomy does not mean the absence of management. Coaching kata is a unique approach to management. Kata urges leaders to act as coaches who provide corrective methods to ensure the team or individual is on the right path.


Description automatically generated

Why is this significant

For a team to be autonomous there must be a common understanding that the path to a goal is not always linear. Many times, the fear of that fact is the reason why companies refrain from creating autonomous teams, but rather than running from that truth, kata encourages us to embrace it. 

Creating successful teams requires leaders to allow teams to make mistakes and learn through them. Kata is a great system to adopt if you are trying to create synergetic teams with the ability to self-manage projects. Kata is a comprehensive system that enables teams to make impactful decisions while at the same time allows leaders to maintain oversight.

How are improvement katas performed?

Kata: A structured and routine practice


Improvement katas are designed for the team or the individual while coaching katas are designed for the leader or manager. An improvement kata is designed to let the team experiment with projects or improvements through a systematic approach. An improvement kata starts by defining the challenge.  At this point teams should brainstorm the challenge together to ensure everyone is aligned. The next step is to understand the current condition. After that, the team should agree on the goal. Once the gap between the goal and the current condition have been established, the team can begin to perform experiments aimed at reaching the goal. 

Improvement cycle record

Of course, we need a way for our experiments to be tracked and maintained. This is where an improvement cycle record comes in. These records will be used to communicate progress as well as lessons learned throughout the experiment. The improvement cycle record can be physical or digital depending on the team’s needs. 

The improvement cycle record is designed to track a team’s progress. It starts by describing the obstacle at hand. Then the team will describe the specific step the team will take to reach the target. Next, they describe what they expect from that step.  After that, the team should run their project and experiment. After they have gotten the results of the project, they will describe what happened and what they learned. 

After that, the team will continue to reach the target by conducting more experiments and describing the step, the expectation, what happened, and what they learned for all steps and projects until they reach the goal.



Description automatically generated

It’s a cycle

This entire system relies on the PDCA cycle, which is a management system designed to continuously try new methods in search for the optimal answer. PDCA stands for Plan, Do, Check, and Act and should be continuously performed until the goal has been reached. Once the goal is reached the team should set a new target and re-enter the PDCA cycle for continuous improvement. 


A great way a team can centralize all this information is by using storyboards. Storyboards can be physical or digital and shared amongst the team members and the leader. The storyboard should contain all information that pertains to the team and their efforts including the current condition, the target, the improvement cycle record, and the current actions being performed. 

You can also include a Kanban board on the storyboard to sustain actions and projects.  Storyboards are very helpful tools for teams practicing autonomy and synergy since it relies on collaboration for sustainment. 

How are coaching katas performed? 

A leaders’ job throughout this process is to serve as a coach. A coach’s job is not to provide solutions, but instead, to help the learner develop and improve their skills. Let’s recall that kata is a structured practice and routine and as the phrase “coaching kata” implies, there must be some structured routines that should be practiced by our leaders and managers.

As we saw earlier, learners use a combination of tools like storyboards and improvement cycle records to achieve learning cycles. In the same way, coaches have tools they can use to adopt a strong coaching style for managing teams and projects. 

5 question cards

The 5-question card is a card that contains specific questions about a learner’s improvement cycle process. These questions can be memorized and can be a significant tool to assist teams and learners to achieve the goals set by the experiment.

The five questions are:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition?
  4. What is your next step and what do you expect?
  5. When can we see what we have learned from taking that step?

These questions are the same questions that learners answer on their improvement cycle records. These questions are to be asked before the team conducts its experiments or projects. Once these questions have been asked the team can run their experiment or project. 

A record of these answers is kept both on the improvement cycle record and the story board. So, before a team conducts an experiment, ask these questions, and document the answers. Notice how the coach does not provide solutions, instead they help teams identify and structure their projects in the most effective way.

Related Articles