Steve Jobs Was A KATA Thinker

By on January 12, 2016
Steve Jobs Was A KATA Thinker Acaben CC BY-SA 2.0

“Approach things scientifically where there is an opportunity to always question what we do. This is a radically different approach to business processes than the traditional one of “we’ve always done it this way.” This single shift is everything because it represents a tremendously optimistic view about the people who work in the company. It says that these people are very smart, they’re not pawns, and given the opportunity to change and improve, they will.”
– Steve Jobs

This single shift is everything.” This comment, made by Jobs in an interview he gave when President of NeXT Inc., gets right at the heart of what it is that make Lean thinking and work processes such exceptionally powerful drivers of increased productivity and profitability. It’s also an almost perfect description of a very powerful analytical tool called Toyota KATA. More about that later.

The single most visible indicator of the shift in thinking that Jobs describes is the disappearance of “we’ve always done it that way” from an organization’s vocabulary, replaced by “No, we don’t have to do it this way.

While the shift in perspective that Jobs mentions is simple to describe, it’s extraordinarily difficult to implement in most organizations. Why? Here’s the reason.

Many organizations have leaders who see their role as being expert manipulators rather than catalysts. This perspective is supported by many professional journals. Let’s take the January/February 2016 issue the Harvard Business Review, as just one example. An article entitled Collaboration Overload, suggests that “Leaders must learn to better manage collaboration in their companies” and that they should do this by learning “to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work.”

The message is clear. Leaders control. Although the “control” process that is being promoted would never be described this way, it is, in effect, that of a puppet-master, very adroitly pulling the right strings at the right time. The implication is that if this is done adeptly enough, it will drive those changes in work processes and modifications in collaboration that the leadership team has defined as needed.

Compare this perspective with that mentioned by Steve Jobs in the interview cited earlier. Speaking to the issue of management control, Jobs said:

“There needs to be a flattening of the traditional hierarchy and the distribution of authority to the people who are in the best position to decide what should happen to improve these processes—the people doing the work themselves.”

The people who are doing the work are in the best position to decide what should happen to improve work processes. Not the plant manager. Not supervisors. Not consultants. The people who do the work. And why is this? Because the people who do the work, who touch the product, know better than anyone else how the work is done. Therefore, they know better than anyone else how to improve the way the work is done. It’s that simple. And stimulating all employees to become active collaborators in driving process improvements happens when managers stimulate collaboration, not when they attempt to “manage” it.

So what is the real difference between managing collaboration and stimulating collaboration? It’s the difference between managers believing that to be effective they need to be expert manipulators as contrasted with managers who believe that to be effective they need to be catalysts. As Steve Jobs phrased it, it’s the difference between believing that “these people are very smart, they’re not pawns, and given the opportunity to change and improve, they will” and believing that although they may be smart the application of their intelligence needs to be tightly controlled. It’s not entirely to be trusted. They really are pawns.

Here’s Steve Jobs’ take on the issue of authority:

“People shouldn’t have to ask management for permission to do something. Authority should be vested in the people doing the work to improve their own processes; to teach them how to measure them; to understand them and improve them. They shouldn’t have to ask for permission to improve their processes.”

Toyota KATA by Mike RotherIt’s important to note that the “manager as a catalyst” style Jobs is describing is not laissez-faire management. Quite the contrary, it’s a management style that involves continual and very focused interactions throughout the organization between executives, managers, supervisors, and line workers. And although, to the best of my knowledge, Jobs was not aware of a process called Toyota KATA, the style of management he advocates is a mirror image of it.

What is Toyota KATA? Based on extensive research conducted by Mike Rother of the University of Michigan and the Technical University Dortmund, it is a process that when applied drives highly productive collaborative thinking throughout the organization. Described in Rother’s book, “Toyota KATA,” many leading experts on Lean manufacturing have said that the KATA process is the “missing link” when it comes to the successful implementation of Lean work processes. It helps transform work environments in which work process improvements are episodic into work environments in which work process improvements are continuous and sustainable.

How does the Toyota KATA process produce these results?

Coaching KATA: The Five Questions

CC BY NC from the Improvement Kata Handbook,, Copyright 2014 by Mike Rother, all rights reserved.

KATA does this by making employees think like scientists, using the scientific method to approach problem-solving, guided in every approach to problem solving by the five KATA questions. These questions become the standard work process that all employees use in driving process improvements. Combined with a “KATA Storyboard,” positioned where the work happens, and a continuing set of interactions with a KATA coach, this process adds a vital ingredient missing in many Lean implementation initiatives: Providing a laser-sharp focus on target conitions that need to be improved, with the brain power of the organization fully engaged in this process. As this happens, employees become aware, in new and surprising ways, of their ability to achieve gains in productivity that prior to KATA they would not have thought possible.

How can we help your company take advantage of the power of KATA?

We have designed a six-session series of discussions focused on Rother’s book. This seminar series will provide invaluable support for your use of KATA. Here’s a comment from Kathy Abbett, the president of Nova Marketing, on the impact of this program:

“I highly recommend Toyota KATA training to any organization with a desire to create a culture of continuous improvement and innovation through employee engagement. The Toyota KATA training program has provided our management team with the knowledge and tools to successfully engage our employees in helping us continually evaluate and improve our processes so we can provide best in class service to our customers. These training classes are a great way to create teamwork and energize a group of individuals toward a common goal. Our trainer was extremely knowledgeable and encouraged interaction and participation throughout the program. Kudos to St. Louis Community College for sharing Toyota KATA in such an interesting and creative way.”

The Toyota KATA process will unleash the knowledge and creativity of your workforce. It drives a remarkably energized and sustainable form of collaborative thinking and planning throughout the organization. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs, it is the catalyst that drives the “single shift in thinking that is everything.” You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s discuss how KATA can serve you. I think you’d find this time very well spent.

Steve Jobs at the WWDC 07” by Acaben is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.