Continous improvements mean striving for challenges

February 19, 2014 | News China
Ideally a portion of everyone‘s workday would involve striving for something meaningful that we can call a „challenge.“ In Business organizations a challenge is typically related to better serving customers. A challenge flexes our minds because it brings us to the current limit of our thinking and forces us to learn and adapt. However, it‘s not enough to set a challenge. People also need an effective way of working toward those challenges!
The Improvement Kata is a systematic, scientific routine for moving from the current situation to a target situation (condition) in a creative, structured and meaningful way. With the Improvement Kata, people in an organization practice and learn the skills for achieving new things that they don’t know up front how they are going to achieve.
The Improvement Kata pattern begins with a sense of direction, or challenge. That‘s extremely important because it is difficult for people to stay engaged with improvement efforts that don‘t have an inspiring, overarching purpose.
A challenge is a theme that connects the organization strategy with process-level execution. The task for leaders is to establish specific challenges or themes that guide and inform application of the Improvement Kata pattern, to strengthen the organization‘s existing product or service capabilities, or develop new capabilities as necessary to meet customer needs. A challenge is a non-negotiable goal and an inspiring description of a new level of Performance that will distinguish your organization from competitors.
One point to note here is that „efficiency“ and „cost cutting“ are not a strategic direction. Just pursuing low cost is unlikely to be a source of sustained competitive advantage and growth. This can lead a company into a commodity trap where, in order to compete, you end up pursuing ever-lower-cost inputs and jeopardize quality.
Rather than managing the operational side of the business simply to be efficient, with the Improvement Kata approach managers guide activities that support a strategic purpose that grows and differentiates the business (which can include efficiency, of course). Defining a vision or strategic purpose is about building unique value; i.e., distinctive differences that are valuable to customers.

This provides qualitative directional guidance for improvement efforts in the organization. A challenge guides every days work and without it:

  • An organization is likely unaligned. Improvement efforts and proposals get ROI-evaluated independently, instead of as part of reaching for something. We tend to use short-term cost / benefit analysis to choose what steps to take, which dangerously keeps us inside our current knowledge threshold.
  • We tend to jump from one direction to another in trying to avoid obstacles, rather than struggling through the obstacles to achieve the innovations and important competencies of tomorrow.
  • Improvement becomes reacting to problems (“troubleshooting” to maintain the status quo) rather than reaching for a new level of performance.
Specific challenges should not be easy but rather achievable, stretch goals, and in a timeframe that typically goes from 6 months to 2 years, so that with the Improvement Kata teams in the organization can iterate toward successive target conditions to achieve those goals. It’s a business ‚must‘ that the organization doesn’t yet achieve with the current system or process, which often gets defined by persons with value-stream responsibility. A challenge is often articulated by a punchy ‚challenge statement‘ plus a future-state value stream map that illustrates where we are trying to go.
Future-state value stream mapping is a useful tool for the first step of Improvement Kata, because the value stream future-state describes in a graphic format, even universal “lean language”, how you want a value stream to be functioning in 1-3 years. The future-state value stream map provides a challenge and coordination for establishing target conditions at the individual processlevel inside a value stream. In the sense of Strategic Planning & Execution, value stream mapping is applied at the value stream level in order to grasp the current value stream condition and then design the future-state condition that serves as a challenge for the loops and processes along that value stream. Then the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata get applied at the process-level in order to iteratively achieve successive target conditions toward that future-state value stream goal.
by Mr. Dario Spinola, Staufen Shanghai, China
Sources / References:
Online Improvement Kata Handbook, Part II, Direction, available on the Toyota Kata Website (www-personal)

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