Thanks to twitter*, I learned a new word today: kata.

According to wikipedia, kata is a Japanese term for patterns of movements used in practice of martial arts. But, culturally, it has a deeper meaning:

"A kata can refer to any basic form, routine, or pattern of behavior that is practiced to various levels of mastery. In Japanese language, kata is a frequently-used word meaning “way of doing things,” with emphasis on the form and order of the process. Other meanings are “training method” and “formal exercise.” The goal of a painter’s practicing, for example, is to merge his consciousness with his brush; the potter’s with his clay; the gardener’s with the materials of the garden."

The tweet that led me to kata actually pointed to Mike Rother, a professor at the University of Michigan, who has been studying the kata at Toyota. In Rother's view, the Toyota kata is one of the car maker's secrets of success:

"Kata is a routine that, when practiced repeatedly, develops a reflexive, unconscious mindset. Mindset is a habitual way of thinking and feeling, learned via successes and failures, that determines how a person interprets and responds to situations. Here is the key point for leaders: Mindset is what produces the organizational culture..."

Such a culture, one of "continuous improvement, adaptiveness and innovation," built upon an improvement kata and an organizational learning kata, is what leads to success.

Embedded in Toyota's kata is coaching. Rother says that coaching is part of the teaching cycle that reinforces a kata: "The improvement kata can be learned by almost anyone, through repeated application (practice) and periodic guidance from a coach. Practicing should be done under periodic observation of an experienced coach, just as in sports. Without coaching input we can lose our way, practicing and practicing but not practicing the desired kata, or doing it incorrectly. Without coaching, a change in the learner's mindset is unlikely to happen."

*Now a footnote about twitter. Many have asked me, "What is twitter good for?" After trying twitter for several months, I honestly have a hard time describing what it is...and what it's good for. Except when I find nuggets like the above, where someone mentions something (or somebody like Rother) that sets me off on a side-trip of discovery.

So I guess that's what twitter is good for.

Posted by Terrence Seamon, May 3, 2010


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