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How to Achieve and Maintain the Real System of Continuous Improvement
Zuzana Lendvayová, 28. 09. 2017

He was leading the KAIZEN projects in the time when the publications as Lean Thinking by Jim Womack and Dan Jones, Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping to Add Value and Eliminate MUDA by Mike Rother and John Shook became bestsellers and a standard which drew attention to the LEAN transformation procedures for the first time. In 2012 he took part in a workshop organised by Mike Rother where he presented the results of his five-year research in the company Toyota and its five suppliers and he calls it a new pattern of thinking – KATA. He has implemented KATA in many industrial branches – from the aircraft up to the consumer goods and automotive industry.

Brandon Brown is Master KATA Coach and partner of the company W3 Group (USA) who told us about his experience with KATA and how to involve people to the improvement processes before his workshop in Žilina.

How were your Lean beginning steps when you start your carrier?

I graduated from the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and worked as a Design Engineer/New Product Manager for my first 3 years at Lincoln Automotive. The two US patented products I designed had to include cross functional teams from Manufacturing Engineering, Purchasing, Sales & Marketing, as well as Tooling Engineering. I had to make sure every aspect of the product was designed for manufacturability and meet cost and timelines for the new product launch schedules set by Sales and Marketing. This was my first introduction to understanding how design and Lean manufacturing (which had been referred to as "Just in Time” Manufacturing in the late 1980’s), and was just starting to be called "Lean Manufacturing” at the time. I had to re-design the products several times because I was just learning what "Design for Manufacturability” was all about. 

I then moved into a role for another company named Waterloo Industries as a Manufacturing Engineering Manager. I completed my Master of Science in Engineering (Industrial), my professional engineering license, and my first certification as a Lean-Sigma Kaizen Instructor as it was called at the time. This was before formal Lean – Six Sigma Green or Black Belt Certifications were being offered. I participated in a Value Stream Mapping event for our manufacturing plant and led dozens of Kaizen events and was sensei for my plant teaching others to lead Kaizen events. This was in the mid 1990’s, and books like The Machine that Changed the World; and Lean Thinking by Jim Womack and Dan Jones, The Goal by Eli Goldratt, Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping to Add Value and Eliminate MUDA by Mike Rother and John Shook, were becoming best sellers and the standard by which Lean Transformations were first getting attention.

Brandon Brown

My graduate project led to a paper and article published in Engineering Management Journal, 17(3), 2006, titled, "
"Transformation from Batch to Lean Manufacturing: The Performance Issues.” At the time, I was being taught by the "experts” in Lean that there was a systematic way to Lean Transformation and the recipe was:

  1. First Value Stream Map your main product lines by creating a Current State Map, followed by a Future State Map.
  2. Then put "Kaizen bursts” around all the areas where product stopped flowing.
  3. Next prioritize your Kaizen events and make a calendar of 8-10 Kaizen events/blitz lasting 4-5 days in length.
  4. The first event or episodic training was always to implement 5S Workplace Organization, which always caught the eye of the local site leader and the corporate office. I now reflect back at these as 4 days of cleaning and organizing followed by a pizza party or steak dinner at lunch with the local plant leadership team. They were just that…a cheerleading event that you would come back to in 3 months and 80% of the action follow up items were still unfinished and sustainability would erode due to entropy (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which loosely states,” every system is in a constant state of decay back into chaos and randomness”).
  5. However, 4-6 weeks would pass and it was time for the next Kaizen event/blitz. So, we were taught to have the next episodic event as Standard Work. This was, in theory to stabilize the degrading 5S system that was never hard-wired and did not form any long -lasting habits in the most important people doing the work – the "value adders”. This second event always added 10-15 action items to the list from the 5S Kaizen event/blitz which brought the total unfinished "To do” action items to about 20-25 unfinished follow ups.
  6. The next Kaizen event/blitz we were taught was always Total Productive/Predictive Maintenance. This was in theory supposed to become obvious because if we were doing 5S and Standard work correctly, then the poor maintenance practices, the machine leaks, and downtime would become obvious. And they did! However, these types of events over loaded the Maintenance department with 20-30 action items and as a Lean Project Engineering Manager, I was now trying to follow up on about 50 Kaizen action items within the first 3-4 months of Lean Transformation. The 4 days and a pizza party turned into 12 to 14-hour days and the "fun” part of making improvements started to pass quickly; along with the interest of the most important people doing the work – the Team Leaders, Supervisors and the "value adders”.
  7. The cycle would just repeat with more and more action items and started the creation of the need for a Lean Engineering staff, which obviously added to manufacturing overhead. But this was always justified by inflated projections of savings and false ROI projections. We never really changed the habits and culture of the most important people doing the work – the Team Leaders, Supervisors and the "value adders”.

How was it successful? What operate and what not?

In the article published in Engineering Management Journal, 17(3), 2006, titled, ""Transformation from Batch to Lean Manufacturing: The Performance Issues,” B. Brown, T. Collins, for my graduate project I explain the start of my lean thinking and my lean journey at the manufacturing facility where I was Engineering Manager for several major brands of toolboxes. During the U.S. recession post 11/09/2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Twin Towers, our production volume dropped dramatically as did most other U.S. and International companies. We were forced to adapt, but the only way our leadership knew at the time was to close one of our 3 manufacturing plants and consolidate production into the other two manufacturing plants. Lean was being pushed on the plants. Our manufacturing plant was the largest facility with about 430,000 square feet with a workforce that flexed seasonally between 450-800 employees. We received 2/3 of the product lines and we were asked to "Lean” our processes, reduce work in process, and create cellular manufacturing to accomplish this. Our painting capacity was at maximum so we were allowed to add paint line and 10,000 square feet. That was all we were allowed. So, our Kaizen events/blitz schedule moved toward creating work cells, eliminating work in process, and Kaizen training events to learn the tools of Lean to free up our limited floor space. After about 12-14 Kaizen events/blitzes and about 100+ unfinished action items, I could tell that using Kaizen events/blitzes as a Lean transformation strategy was neither sustainable, nor effective long term. We were given a vague direction and were being managed by results, not by the means of learning and problem solving. We were just copying tools and methods that Toyota developed to solve their problems. Our problems were different than Toyota, as are most manufacturers’ problems, and we were not learning how to develop solutions to our own problems, nor how to develop our team leaders and supervisors.

Brandon Brown

How did you start with Kata?

In 2012, I attended a 3-day workshop by Mike Rother and The W3 Group at a blood processing center in Fort Wort, Texas. Mike spoke on Day 1 about what this new scientific thinking pattern combined with deliberate daily practice that he had uncovered during his 5-year research of Toyota and 5 other Toyota suppliers that he calls "KATA”. On days 2 and 3, we were given a challenge to reduce cycle time, and put into teams of about 6 and began to build a Kata storyboard by observing the blood processing operation of 6 people working to produce platelets, plasma, and separate white and red blood cells into various blood products for hospitals. We had to practice the 4 steps of the Improvement Kata by defining the Current Condition of the process, and then envisioning the Next Target Condition and the obstacles to reaching the Target Condition. We then rotated as Learner and 1st Coach to develop our first Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) experiment and conduct a Coaching Kata. This continued into day 3 with a summary wrap up session with the instructors.

From that workshop, I began to correspond and talk with Mike Rother so I could envision how my employer, our State Manufacturing Extension Partnership, could use our Lean 101 training courses, and modify the last 4 hours of the workshop to incorporate this new deliberate practice of a scientific thinking pattern of PDCA (Kata), I had just learned. Along with other colleagues at work, we met to build a slide presentation with the assistance and periodic reviews by Mike Rother so we could develop a 3-day workshop that we could use to deploy Toyota Kata with existing clients going through Lean Transformations. I found a client organization, La-Z-Boy furniture, close to my home in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, that was attempting to practice Toyota Kata. I made a proposal to practice our new Lean 101-Kata Workshop with them and learn how to set 3 Improvement Katas into motion with the Improvement Kata/Coaching Kata (IK/CK). It was so successful, they asked us to do another 3-day workshop two months later, and deploy 3 additional Improvement Katas, however, this time they invited 3 of their other La-Z-Boy plants to join us from Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. From there, we conducted 3 more Kata deployments at their Dayton, Tennessee plants over the course of 18 months, each time deploying 3 Improvement Katas, for a total of 15 Improvement Katas in 3 of their manufacturing plants.

I’ve since deploy Kata in multiple different manufacturing industries from Aerospace to consumer goods, to Automotive suppliers. Along with my team of Kata Coaches are currently deploying and Master Kata coaching each month in Manufacturing industries and in the Healthcare industry for Baptist Memorial Health Care. We have over 7 individual Improvement Katas with Learners, 1st Coaches, 2ndCoaches, and Advance Groups that we currently Master Coach Kata each month.

Brandon Brown

What have you learned from Kata?

I’ve learned humility and that there is more to Kata that I do not know than I have learned. I’ve learned the fact that I don’t know everything about Kata, and I am not afraid to say it. I’ve learned that Question #3, "What Obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?” and how the Learner words the obstacles is at the heart of the Improvement Kata/Coaching Kata. In my opinion, this may be the most overlooked and "uncoached” question in the practice routine! I’ve learned that Kata is content neutral, meaning it transcends manufacturing, healthcare, human resources, office process, financial processes, and even within the home with your own family. I learned that team leaders, managers, and people closest to the work, when allowed to fail forward, make mistakes, and be encouraged by their Coach/Manager to learn from their experiments and try again, and again, without being chastised or reprimanded for failing, can overcome obstacles and achieve challenges they previously thought were impossible or unachievable.

Which company can be the best example of Kata implementation? Can you mention one from manufacturing and one from services?

Every company is different and faces different challenges, so it is hard to compare from one organization to the other. However, the best deployment in manufacturing that I have experienced from top leadership to the front-line supervisors and value-adders is without a doubt, American Axle subsidiary Cloyes Gear Company in Subiaco, Arkansas. Their Management team researched Kata and attended several conference presentations and 3 of my very own Buzz Electronics Kata workshop (a manufacturing simulation that uses Kata to improve manufacturing assembly processes) before deciding to pursue a full 10-month deployment of the Improvement Kata/Coaching Kata. Over the 10-month period, we deployed 9 Improvement Katas saving over $1M while reshoring $2.5M in additional business from low wage, foreign competition. 
  • We started with Current and Future state value stream maps of each area we started Kata deployment.
  • We then gave an initial Kata 1-day awareness training to everyone involved in the areas we intended to deploy. We first selected production areas in pairs – one area struggling to make production requirements without overtime (6 and 7-day work weeks across 3 shifts). The other was an area that was performing at standard production rates.
  • The people really grasped the concepts and management allowed them to experiment and say. "I have an obstacle, and I don’t know how to overcome it, but let’s try to experiment (PDCA) and see what happens and what we learn from it.” Essentially, the management team gave them permission to fail forward and learn.

Cloyes Gear Company then expanded Kata only as fast as they had coaching capacity to support it. We moved to value stream loops and connected departments by having them conduct joint PDCA experiments that broke down silos that had inhibited improvement for years. They allowed us to teach them how to deploy Kata and develop their own company specific training modules that produced solutions specific to their company. Many of their training modules are online on their YouTube Channel.

We have a saying that, "if we give you a fish you will eat for a day. If you let us teach you how to fish, you will eat for a lifetime.” The Cloyes Gear Company knows how use Kata to fish.

Brandon Brown

For service industry, I’d
have to say Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, Tennessee has by far the best Management System encompassing Strategic A3 deployments, linked to monthly status A3 updates, which are linked to weekly department huddle boards that are using TWI-JI, JR, JM and Kata to keep the system moving forward and expanding. They too have allowed their people to "fail forward” and say, "I don’t know, but I would like to try this…” They are keenly focused on continuously improving the patient care experience in all their 23 hospitals, 160 medical clinics, their Baptist Medical College, their Hospice and Home Health services, and joint ventures with Semmes-Murphey Spine Center. My team and I personally coach over 60 Improvement Katas at 4 of their 6 largest Hospitals and their largest Medical Clinic each month encompassing about 7,000 of their 15,000-person workforce. Their largest hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, attributes savings in the first 15 months of Kata deployment of just over $5.1M.

How do you describe changes in the management in last decade and now?

In the 2000’s, management was (and many still are) heavily convinced that the "stick and carrot” method of management by results (or reward and punishment method) was the way to incentivize people. We were convinced that a top down approach to Lean and teaching tools was the only way to Lean Transformation. While top leadership must buy into, strategically plan for, and demonstrate by example the Lean thinking and principles, Lean can’t be pushed down on the most important people – the team leaders, supervisors, and the "value-adders”. In the 2000’s, Lean direction was thought of as a cost cutting initiative. If cost cutting and efficiency are the only true north reasons for Lean, it is destined to fail. The most important people – team leaders, supervisors, and the "value-adders”, cannot fully buy in and sustain cost cutting and efficiency as a way to the future. After teaching, coaching and practicing Kata with management teams at various organization since 2010, I’ve seen a shift by management to engage these people at the grass roots level and tap into their true potential by setting customer driven challenges that seem impossible. Most people don’t wake up each morning and say to themselves, "I wonder how I can mess up today?” Or, "I can’t wait to get to work and do a substandard and terrible job today!” No, most people generally want to do a good job each day and be a part of a winning team. Who doesn’t like to win? But if they are not allowed to experiment and make mistakes in order to learn, then they will disengage with management and the challenge.


Brandon Brown

Why it is so hard to engage people in improvement?

We (management and leadership) must tap into what people are most passionate about as it relates to their daily work. Pay, money, and bonuses for meeting management’s goals is fleeting. In many organizations, the leadership is lacking and centered on achieving personal goals. However, in growth organizations, leadership thrives on removing roadblocks, obstacles, and supporting people to achieve the goals that the people are most passionate about. Achieving a challenge, previously thought impossible, is contagious and leads to people desiring to exceed the customer’s expectations every day.

How practically support people?

Three simple ways:

1) Ask them what they need to be successful at their job. And then help them understand the direction and challenges the organization is facing. This way they can relate what they communicate to management that they need and understand the direction and challenge of the organization.

2) Ask them what motivates them to do a good job and continually improve each day. And then teach and coach how to problem solve and strive for the organization’s challenges.

3) Ask them what could they accomplish if the fear of failure was removed from their environment and they were encouraged to experiment with new ideas and PDCA every day.

What is your message for management conference in Zilina?

Come learn, share, and grow with Us! Experience what a growth mindset focused on daily deliberate practice of scientific thinking can do not only for you, but for your people!

Focus on the PEOPLE, and the numbers will COME!
Focus on the NUMBERS, and the People will GO

Toyota Kata Brandon Brown


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