Review #4 – Toyota Kata

Author: Mike Rother.

Genre: business non-fiction.

Target Audience: business professionals interested in what is at the heart of companies that are adaptive, continuously improving, competitive, and sustainable.

Length: 264 pages.

First Published: 2010.


I wish this book was around when I started my career. The author explains what is at the heart of companies that are adaptive, continuously improving, competitive, and sustainable. He describes how we must change the way we manage and lead people. We must adopt particular routines, habits, and patterns of thinking, i.e., what are referred to as kata in Japan. While written in the context of a car manufacturing company, the lessons are applicable to any type of company.

I dog eared more pages and highlighted more passages of this book than most books I read because of the magnitude of insights. I’ve paraphrased below in italics several of the ideas the author articulates.

Internally, we cannot leave processes alone and expect high quality, low cost, and stability. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that any organized process naturally tends to decline to a chaotic state if we leave it alone. The point is that a process is either slipping back or being improved.

Just as our internal processes are not static, neither is the external environment in which we operate; it’s constantly changing. Customer preferences change. Competitors or start-ups may be innovating and providing better, faster, easier, or cheaper products and services.

In most companies, the normal operating condition – it’s nature – is not improving.

Employees in most companies consider their normal daily management responsibilities and process improvement responsibilities to be separate and distinct. At Toyota, improving and managing are one and the same.

  • Non-Toyota thinking: normal daily management + improvement
  • Toyota thinking: normal daily management = process improvement

Furthermore, in most companies, process improvement and innovation are defined by projects.

However, relying on periodic improvements and innovations alone – only improving when we make a special effort or campaign – conceals a system that is static and vulnerable.

  • Projects and workshops ≠ continuous improvement

There is no finish line. The objective should not be to win but to develop the capability of the organization to keep improving, adapting, and satisfying dynamic customer requirements. This capability for continuous, incremental evolution and improvement represents perhaps the best assurance of durable competitive advantage and company survival.

The following story from before the Second World War, when Toyota made weaving looms, provides an example of this way of thinking. Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of the Toyota Motor Corporation and son of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works founder Sakichi Toyoda, supposedly responded when someone once stole the design plans for a loom from the Toyota loom works:

“Certainly the thieves may be able to follow the design plans and produce a loom. But we are modifying and improving our looms every day. So by the time the thieves have produced a loom from the plans they stole, we will have already advanced well beyond that point. And because they do not have the expertise gained from the failures it took to produce the original, they will waste a great deal more time than us as they move to improve their loom. We need not be concerned about what happened. We need only continue as always, making our improvements.”

As simple as this sounds, it is uncommon in my experience. I challenge you to think about companies for which or with which you’ve worked that may or may not exemplify this notion.

While I’ve paraphrased what companies need to do, the author goes on to provide insights into how Toyota continuously improves and how to develop the improvement kata in other organizations.

I hope you enjoy the read as much as I have.

Buy It Here!

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