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Toyota Kata – A ‘Must Read’


In all of the years of writing for Evolving Excellence you can count on one hand the books I have recommended as vital for an understanding of lean (and most of those were shameless promotions of my own books).  The fact is - as just about everyone involved in the pursuit of lean knows, most lean books are a rehashing of that which is already well known or someone's repackaging of lean in new terminology in an attempt to create the illusion of having added to the body of knowledge.  I am inundated with books people send me hoping for a plug in Evolving Excellence, most of which gather dust until they are tossed out in the next Spring cleaning.  This is all a long-winded way of letting you know that when I recommend a book, I do not do so lightly.

You have to read Toyota Kata by Mike Rother if you are going to understand lean.  There are no two ways about it.

Despite the zen-sounding title, this is not another philosophy book, or a rewrite of the same Toyota observations.  It is a significant addition to the body of lean knowledge, and a very direct explanation of how the Toyota philosophies are applied in the factory.  The depressing part is that you will realize that just about everything you know concerning kanbans, kaizen events, performance metrics and continuous improvement is wrong.  Even more depressing is the realization you will gain regarding the magnitude of the transformation.  No matter where you are in the effort - you have a very long way to go.  The good news is that Mike is an excellent writer and draws on a wealth of experiences in explaining how the Toyota culture translates into unique and powerful management practices and plays out on the factory floor in a manner that makes the matter crystal clear.

"Kata", according to Mike, means a lot of things when translated from Japanese to English depending on who is doing the translating I suppose, but the definition Mike chooses is 'a way of keeping things in alignment'.  It is a way of thinking that enables people to continually change and improve in a messy, dynamic environment.  It is a way of thinking and behaving.  It is not management and it is not culture.  Rather, it is the two of them wound together so tightly you can't tell where one leaves off and the other starts up.

The book focuses on change and improvement, and explains how they are not an aspect of management, but the essence of it.  He debunks project management, action lists, budgets and a host of other traditional management fundamentals, and replaces them with an entire organization constantly engaged in small improvements - the tortoise to the traditional western management's hare.

Only a select few organizations are far enough along the lean path to take this book and immediately put it to use.  For most there will be quite a bit of lower level lean trial and error necessary before management is ready to accept the need for such a gut-wrenching change in thinking Mike describes.  It must be read, just the same.  It will serve as the 'true north' for your lean journey.

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5 Responses to "Toyota Kata – A ‘Must Read’"

  • William Pietri
    24 January 2011 - 1:40 pm

    Excellent! As somebody trying to apply Lean outside of manufacturing, I’m often trying to extract the invisibles from the visible things mentioned in books. This book sounds like just the thing, and my copy’s now on the way. Thanks!

  • Jos de Jong
    24 January 2011 - 2:49 pm

    Hi Bill, thanks for your book suggestion. I like it Lean can be explained differently. I like to practice it myself. I’ve been asked to help production to improve. So I can use all the help I can get.

    (Twitter Jos_de_Jong)
    – Jos de Jong

  • Lood Krynauw
    25 January 2011 - 2:35 am

    Dear Bill
    I have read ‘Toyota Kata’ a while back and I agree with you fully, it is an excellent book! I have also just read your ‘Simple Excellence’ and need to thank you for it. It is different from the other books and, like me, fairly blunt and to the point! Most excellent!
    I believe one can learn much from others and I found the whole McGraw-Hill series of books on Toyota rather educational! Each one added to the total picture of how a really LEAN enterprise should look like.
    Thanks for a tremendous blog!

  • Jamie Flinchbaugh
    25 January 2011 - 3:29 am

    I agree – it is a must read. Although I use different language, Mike’s articulation much mirrors my own beliefs and practices in lean. I like how it’s framed in this book and have encouraged many people recently to read it.

  • Suhit Anantula
    13 May 2011 - 6:32 am

    You are right. It is excellent and a great step forward I’m implementing in our organizations. I am implementing agile project manaagemt
    In our organization and this books aligns so well with that and provides the bigger philosophical undertaking to agile and scrum project management.