What can we do as managers, whether academic or professional to help our staff focus on their professional development and help build a culture for improvement? As managers we are not coaches, so how can we provide that coaching support?

Here, SUMS Associate Consultant Gretel Stonebridge, outlines how using the Toyota Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata as a routine or habit can help build team culture for continuous improvement. She shares the 5 simple coaching questions that can be used to enrich one-to-ones and develop staff to solve their own problems.

When we think of ensuring professional development for our staff, it feels sometimes another item to add to our list as line managers. We know how important Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is for staff and for ourselves, but we consider this a luxury when faced with day-to-day challenges. The definition from CIPD for CPD is “a combination of approaches, ideas and techniques that will help you manage your own learning and growth.” Linked to this should be the continuous learning and improvement feeding into the direction of the organisation.

By understanding Toyota Kata methodology and practising it, we can take on the challenge of helping staff to change the way they think about problems and be able to develop themselves. Whilst the Toyota Kata methodology is something that Toyota has for its whole organisation, and might not feel a fit for higher education, there are advantages in using this in your teams as a routine and reap benefits. Team meetings and one-to-ones are a popular way of working and built into working routines. Why not experiment with some simple questions to shape them? Models and approaches can easily be adapted to suit how we do things to ensure they fit.

What is Toyota Kata?

Toyota Kata is a systematic approach for developing continuous improvement habits that stick. The term “Toyota Kata” comes from Lean expert Mike Rother’s management book, “Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results”. Mike Rother spent six years observing Toyota’s continuous improvement process in action. His book builds on Toyota’s process, but adapts lessons learned from the production line into an improvement strategy you can apply to different settings.

The methodology was modified from Toyota’s continuous improvement model. Kata is the Japanese word for “daily practice,” “pattern,” or “small routine.” Katas are structured exercises that aim to develop skills through ongoing practice. Kata routines are a bit like activities such as driving or typing, which require a specific skill but can be done with little cognitive effort once learned. By using Toyota Kata routinely and consistently, it becomes second nature and over time an organisation develops a scientific approach to thinking critically and solving problems.

At the heart of Toyota Kata is the Improvement Kata. The Improvement Kata forms the continuous improvement habits of the method. It guides the people (learners), the teams, through a four-step process focused on learning and improving your processes.

The purpose of the Improvement Kata is to learn more about the organisation processes. Building an understanding of how the work works. With this understanding and ability to learn we can improve ways of working striving towards a vision using small, focused experiments.

The Improvement Kata has four stages:

  1. We must understand the organisational desired direction – vision
  2. We must grasp the current situation
  3. We must have sight of the next step or challenge on the path
  4. We run small “experiments” or improvements to get there using Plan-Do-Check-Act

Coaching Kata

With the Coaching Kata the leaders and line managers should take a coaching and supporting role with the people (learners) and teams. The coach would be the one that is challenging the learners to take a small step beyond their current knowledge threshold, to challenge themselves.

When practising the Improvement Kata, the focus should be on one obstacle at a time, allowing for incremental improvement steps towards the goal. For the Coaching Kata the focus should be on the obstacles in the way of the next step/challenge. It is the role of the line manager or team leader to help people keep that focus.

Done correctly it shifts the way line managers manage from a more directive style to a coaching one.

5 Coaching Kata Questions

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step? What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learnt from taking that step?

Take Aways

Perhaps reading about Toyota Kata so far, you might be thinking, so what? This can’t work in my university; it is too complex an organisation for us to achieve what Toyota has. The beauty of learning about tools and methods is to see if these can be adapted for our situation. The following ideas outline options to try:

1) How we lead our teams and structure one-to-ones

As a line manager, academic or research leader there is scope to use and develop the Improvement Kata for our teams to support overall direction. The principles of the Improvement Kata can be used as a framework for team meetings. Making this visual helps to keep everyone thinking about direction, obstacles and how to overcome them.

Coaching Kata can be used for one-to-ones. To make it fit team culture we can adapt the language used. As an extra the following four questions form a great Learning Review that can be used in meetings, whether full team meetings or one-to-ones.

  • What did you set out to do and why?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you want to do next?
  • What help do you need?


2) Method to review problems

Using the Improvement Kata and/or Learning Review for any problems or issues within a team. The questions always work and enable planning for the next step in the improvement cycle. The questions work for self-reflection and aid CPD.

Key points for success

  • Both Katas should be embedded as routine and not a one-off initiative
  • As managers we must allow failures or mistakes so that staff can learn from them.
  • As managers we must allow staff to own and set their direction and we must not be directive ourselves. This takes a bit of practice, and we must learn to sit on our hands!


3) Culture of Continuous Improvement

By testing and using these Katas as a routine, gradually staff feel confident owning problems and coming up with their own solutions, whether as individuals or as a team. This starts to grow a continuous improvement culture. By allowing failures to become points of learning there will be a much healthier environment where blame is absent. Lastly as line managers, practising these routines will also develop themselves.


Toyota Kata can be used as a routine or habit in teams, and both Katas can be adapted to fit local practices. They are linked to the Plan-Do-Check-Act and allow for incremental improvement AND development of staff. They also provide a simple framework of questions for the line manager to help them develop a ‘coaching’ type style and foster a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

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