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.
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.