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LEAN KATA methodology

Please ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do you know how to achieve your goals or challenges?
  • Are you trained for it?
  • Do you know and are you able to help others to achieve theirs?

If the answer in all cases has been NO, you need to know and practice LEAN KATA, because this is the methodology that allows you to achieve challenges in the long term, using Lean tools and based on the use of mental contrast, experimentation and deliberate practice, generating new habits in people and developing leaders.  This is what the people of TOYOTA have been doing for the last 125 years.

LEAN KATA[1] is a methodology where several techniques are associated, all of which used together, lead a person to achieve the challenges that are proposed in an effective way. These techniques, which form the core of the KATA method, are the following:

  1. Mental contrast
  2. Experimentation
  3. Deliberate practice


Let’s take a closer look at how each one works:

  1. Mental contrast

According to psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, when someone sets out to achieve a challenge or a desire, the person can take three possible attitudes to achieve it:

The first one: dreaming “positively” with the idea that it is going to be achieved, but this usually leads the person to inaction and a lack of decision making. The person thinks that only by dreaming and envisioning his challenge for the future, he is going to achieve it. Oettingen describes this group of people as “the indulgents”.

The second one: the person remains anchored in the current situation, overcome by the difficulties of the moment and does not take any action. They are the “dwellers”, the people who prefer not to move rather than try something.

The third one: the person accepts the challenge that is desired to reach, analyzes the current situation and begins to jump over the obstacles that reach him that challenge. Oettingen calls this attitude “mental contrast” and it works in the following way: from the moment in which the person accepts the challenge, also the reality of the present moment and values that the expectations of success are high, then a connection is produced in our brain at an unconscious level, which makes us jump the possible obstacles that we find along the way with the most appropriate instrumental behavior. The person fills up with energy and becomes self-motivated in pursuit of the challenge pursued.

The “mental contrast” is based on what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. The brain starts this mechanism unconsciously, when the person wants to maintain internal consistency between their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Gabriele Oettingen demonstrates in his book Rethinking Positive Thinking, through a multitude of experiments carried out with people, how mental contrast is the right attitude that makes it possible for people to achieve their personal challenges in matters of health, work, studies or relationships with others. Therefore, learning and training the “mental contrast” is a basic element for the practice of the LEAN KATA methodology in any challenge we set ourselves. The more the “mental contrast” is practiced, the more effective the person will be in achieving the challenges that may be posed.

  1. Experimentation

Accepting that the right attitude to achieve a challenge and face effectively the possible impediments that we find ourselves in the way, is to previously perform the “mental contrast”, we also need to learn and practice how to overcome these obstacles, as they are presented to us on our way to the final goal. Overcoming the obstacles is achieved through experimentation, something as simple as changing something, a variable, in current reality and checking whether this change has worked or not. If with this change that we have made, we manage to overcome the obstacle that prevented us from progressing towards the challenge, then we will maintain that change in the future and we will dedicate ourselves to overcoming the next obstacle that we find in our way. To experience and overcome the obstacles, Oettingen proposes something as simple as using the formula “if I do this…then…”. To perform such an action, something as simple and yet as complex as that, is to experiment.

When we experiment, we use what has been called for many centuries, “scientific thought”. Although this may sound more complicated than the simple formula proposed by Oettingen, it is not at all. It is so called, because this way of reasoning about problems has been used since the Renaissance by scientists to carry out their scientific advances, formulating hypotheses beforehand and checking whether they are true or not after carrying out experiments. If the hypotheses turn out to be true, then they overcome the obstacle and continue onward by advancing scientific knowledge, validating their theories, learning new things and crossing knowledge barriers. Mike Rother, author of the book Toyota Kata, suggests that to overcome the obstacles, it is necessary to carry out fast improvement circles or PDCA, Plan-Do-Check-Act, that does not stop being another way of visualizing the scientific experimentation and that was formulated, in the 20’s of the last century, from a concept devised by Walter Shewhart, engineer of the AT&T, and Edward Deming.

When we begin the journey between the current situation and the challenge we want to achieve, we know neither the number nor the type of obstacles we are going to encounter along the way. We do not have a concrete plan of what we have to do, but a compass that guides us to where we have to go to reach our challenge, guided and oriented by the results of the successive experiments, and a motivating energy product of having carried out an appropriate “mental contrast”. That extra motivation, that inner energy, is what will allow us to experience having a persevering behavior, until we overcome all the obstacles, we have to avoid to achieve the challenge pursued. And why not, insist again: the more experimentation is practiced, the more effective the person will be in overcoming the obstacles that may arise on the way to their challenge.

  1. Deliberate practice

But in order to meet the challenges with the LEAN KATA methodology, is it necessary to have some special gift? To have been born with an innate talent? The good news is no. Everything is a matter of practice, of good practice, of “deliberate practice”.

Says psychologist Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s foremost experts in skill development, that “we all have the ability to create, through the right kind of training and practice, skills that we would not otherwise possess, taking advantage of the incredible adaptability of our body and our brain. But it is not worth any kind of practice to become an “efficient challenge taker” and an expert performer. It is false that widespread idea that “keep working on it and you will get it”. Proper practice over a sufficient period of time only translates into improvement, but nothing more.

Ericsson describes in his book NUMBER ONE, that in activities where an expert execution as musicians, sportsmen, chess players or surgeons is required, the only significant factor that determines the level of skill and expert execution of each person in a certain activity, is the total number of hours dedicated to practice, with the help of a good instructor and following a specific method of training. In this way a clear distinction is drawn between intentional practice, in which a person makes a very important effort to improve, and deliberate, intentional and informed practice, which knows where to go and how to get there.

Thus, deliberate practice is characterized by using effective training techniques, taking the student out of their comfort zone, setting well-defined and concrete objectives, requiring full attention and conscious actions on the part of the student and the corresponding feedback from the teacher, creating in the student new skills that, with time and training, will lead to expert execution.

The deliberate practice, and only this type of practice, generates effective mental representations, intellectual structures in which the brain is thinking during the execution of the activity and that allow us to monitor how we are doing, allowing us to detect when we do something wrong and correct it.

Therefore, the deliberate practice is the one that must be used to achieve challenges with the LEAN KATA methodology. Through effective training and proper coaching, the trainer must guide the student with the techniques of mental contrast and experimentation, so that he is able to jump over the obstacles that present themselves along the way, generating and using effective mental representations.

The use of these three techniques, used together and in the right way, generate in people the habits and skills necessary to turn them into “expert performers” in achieving the challenges that are proposed.

But that’s not all. The continued practice of the LEAN KATA methodology, develops in people and organizations, the values of KATA leadership necessary to carry out the required cultural transformation, for a company to achieve its strategic objectives in the long term: spirit of challenge, mentality of continuous improvement or kaizen, “go and see” to deeply understand the problems, teamwork and respect for individuals and society.

These are the values that Toyota has developed over the last 125 years using the KATA method and that has made this company a world reference in its management and leadership style.

Carlos Martín Maroto

Lean Kata

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