Kata: a practice routine for scientific thinking & reflection

How strong is your habit to reflect or to “study-adust” as part of the Plan-Do-Study-Adjust cycle? If you are like most people, myself included, your natural tendency is to jump from Plan-Do to Plan-Do.

Yet scientific thinking requires reflection and adjustment! We have do practice the routine of reflection to build the habit.

Experiments in “kata” and plans for annual year-end reflection

December has been a month of many scientific thinking experiments for me – ranging from practicing the “Kata” pattern of Plan-Do-Study-Adjust cycles in the kitchen and conference room, as well as beginning reflections on my 2018 hoshin plan.

In today’s post, I want to share with you some fun experiments in scientific learning – and reflection – that I have had through the application of “kata” patterns of practice, and also inspire you to practice some reflection as we come to the year end.

What is “kata”?

For those of you not familiar with what “kata” is in this context of scientic learning, here is a brief primer.

Definition of kata

“Kata” itself is a Japanese word meaning “form” or “routine”. It is used in martial arts and other as the standard routines and patterns of behavior that one practices

On Wikipedia (accessed December 20, 2018) kata is defined:

Practicing kata allowed a company of persons to engage in a struggle using a systematic approaches, rather by practicing in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner.

Systematic practice does not mean permanently rigid. The goal is to internalize the movements and techniques of a kata so they can be executed and adapted under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation.

A novice’s actions will look uneven and difficult, while a master’s appear simple and smooth.

Kata in Japan

I’ve written about how the ubiquitousness of kata, standard practices, across Japanese culture from tea ceremonies to handing out business cards to how to bow, might make the concept of standard work a more familiar one for Japanese people compared to other cultures.

Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata

The concept of “kata” as it relates to scientific thinking has been made famous by Mike Rother through the “improvement kata” and “coaching kata” patterns of behavior and thinking that he first laid out in his book Toyota Kata, and subsequently in many follow up publications.

Just a place to start

Mike emphasizes that the “Kata questions” are just starter patterns for practicing a more scientific way of thinking, not the end-point. These kata are what we practice when we are learning the pattern of scientific thinking – or coaching others to develop the habit of scientific thinking.

More resources on Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata concepts

Check out Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata website for free resources and info. I also have found his Toyota Kata Practice Guide to be a good read and resource for anyone wanting to develop and coach for scientific thinking.

Kata in the Kitchen

In early December, I decided to run a series of experiments with my kids in baking Dutch spice cookies called “speculaas” with the spices and wooden cookie cutters that I brought back from my trip to the Netherlands in October.

We set out with some hypotheses that we wanted to test – I figured it was a great way to bake holiday cookies AND teach my kids some basics of scientific thinking.

You might call this “Kata in the Kitchen”!

Setting out to make our first batch! (Note my son’s daruma t-shirt)

Experiment #1

Our first experiment in early December was delicious in result, but disappointment in terms of visuals. I quickly realized upon baking the cookies that we had put too much baking powder in it. I had misinterpreted the translation that Jeroen de Groot had provided from the Dutch and doubled the amount needed. Plus I had to guesstimate the conversion of weight-based food measurement to U.S. measurement like cups.

Experiment: make Dutch spice cookies

Result: too puffy so difficult to see the image of the molds.

Reflection: too much baking powder. Obtain better conversion of baking ratios!

Best result: Kids got to learn the science behind baking powder, and we got to discuss what Plan-Do-Study-Adjust learning cycles mean. And the cookies were delicious!

Ron Pereira was coming to the Bay Area for the Kata in the Classroom session (see below) and after seeing my LinkedIn posts about the baking experiment, asked that I run another experiment quickly and bring him some of the result.

After baking – round 1

Experiment #2

On Ron’s request, we tried a second batch a few days later – with clarified translations from Dutch AND weight-based measurement from Jeroen (thank you). Kids and I set out with our next experiment!

Experiment: reduce baking powder to ~1 teaspoon. Hypothesis: cookies won’t rise as much and impression will be better retained.

Result: cookies still delicious. Dough still puffed a bit when baked, but not as much.

Reflections: Discussed that we should cook for less time and do something different with the molds.

I gave Ron a bag of cookies and he and his kids agreed they were delicious!

Pressing the molds

Experiment #3

Not to be dissuaded, the kids and I made another batch earlier this week. My younger son’s school is named “Windmill” so we definitely had to try again so that they could have some windmill mold cookies!

Experiment: reduce baking time, flour mold to make a deeper impression

Result: still delicious, but not as crisp. Deeper mold held impression slightly better.

Reflections: Next time – cook for longer, keep the rest.

I brought home three bags of speculaas spice and we still have a bit left in the first bag, so many more experiments to come!

World’s Largest Kata in the Classroom experiment

The same week as Kata in the Kitchen experiments 1 and 2, I got to experience the world’s largest (to date) experiment of running the “Kata in the Classroom” puzzle exercise as one of our AME San Francisco Bay Area Consortium.

200 people practicing the pattern of scientific thinking through Kata in the Classroom

Big thanks to Ron Pereira of Gemba Academy for being our guest facilitator and leading a high energy learning experience for a room of 200 leaders from host company Kaiser Permanente and other Consortium member companies across a range of industries.

Ron and I met up just a few weeks earlier at the AME Conference in San Diego – where we recorded a Gemba Academy Podcast. At that same event, I experienced Mike Rother running a Kata in the Classroom experience, but this one was MUCH bigger!

Mike Rother declared our December event as the world’s largest to-date. I think that’s just the next challenge being declared!

Coincidentally, Gemba Academy released a podcast that Ron and Mike Rother recorded on Kata in the Classroon this same week! Check it out.

Want to run a Kata in the Classroom puzzle learning experience yourself?

The puzzle exercise is a great hands-on learning exercise to teach and practice scientific thinking (AKA “Kata”). If you want to learn more about doing this on your own, Mike Rother generously makes all of his resources available for free.

Visit his Kata in the Classroom webpage for all the info!

Experiments in the process itself

We ran a few small experiments himself to the Kata in the Classroom process. Much PDCA all around!


We learned that the puzzle exercise scales well – just make sure you have a few experienced facilitators roaming the room to support the main facilitator. And a dynamic main facilitator like Ron Pereira also helps!

Extra materials

Ron provided each table with other materials (tape, paper, scissors) so that teams could make tools to support their work.

Note – just be clear with everyone not to write on the puzzle OR stick anything onto the puzzles. We observed a few teams working around the “no writing on the puzzle” rule by putting tape with numbers on each puzzle piece. Good thinking though!

Explicit time to reflect – not taken

Another experiment to the puzzle exercise standard was the facilitator being explicit that each team needed to REFLECT for 90 seconds before moving on to defining the next experiment.

We observed that even with this dedicated time, most people went straight from Plan-Do to Adjust, fully skipping the “Study / Check” part of the PDSA or PDCA learning cycle.

How often do you find yourself doing the same thing? Our habits are focused on action, not reflection!

Build the habit of reflection – practice daily

So in that spirit, I encourage you to start building in the habit of reflection to your day. And as we approach the end of a year, it is a natural place to reflect on the year: what did you set out to do, what actually happened, what have you learned, and how will you adjust your plan for next year?

Have a reflection buddy and declare your intentions

We are more likely to follow through with something if you write it down or declare it. And having an accountability buddy helps.

I had a semi-annual check-in call with Gunars Caune in Europe about our annual hoshin documents that we created at the beginning of the year. Gunars and I met at the ELEC 2017 conference during Isao Yoshino’s hoshin karni seminar.

I found that not only writing down my primary goals for the year was helpful for me to stick with it, but having someone holding me accountable for actually *doing so* was invaluable.

Gunars and I agreed to reflect on 2018 and revise our 2019 plan and share it with each other in January. I will write about my process in a future blog posts

Resources to support reflection

Here are some past blog posts that you might find helpful as you practice some annual study-adjust reflection.

12 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Making Your New Year Resolutions and Goals

Toyota Leadership Lessons: Part 10 – Practice Personal Hoshin Kanri or Goal Setting

Live with Intention, Lead with Intention: Intentions and Goal Setting for 2018

Happy reflecting and happy learning! Make reflection one of the kata routines that you practice without thinking!

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