Think of a standard as a kata, not a rule


Kata is a Japanese word for a detailed set of choreographed movements: it’s the way we do things. It’s not a rule. It’s not a program. It’s the best of of our knowledge at a given time.

Sure, a kata is sticky – you don’t change what you know without forethought. But a kata that doesn’t evolve is a dead kata. Katas are passed down from master to student, but then, as the student learns the form, they make it their own and produce their own katas and so on.

Katas are also formal practice forms, in ideal or training condition. Although the kata supports how you react in real-life situation, it doesn’t determine it. It’s the learning scaffolding that trains you to react but you still need to:

  • Pick the right kata at the right time
  • Enact it correctly in adverse conditions
  • Think flexibly about fluid situations

I love these images of Kyuzo practicing his saber pull kata under the rain in the mud. Still, this is not battle as the rest of the movie shows (for instance, none of the 7 samurai have a kata to deal with firearms, they have to think flexibly, which is the hallmark of their leaders as we see early on as he confronts a bandit that has taken a child hostage).

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In the West, we come from a very different tradition, one largely inspired by the bureaucratic model, a rationalization of how Frederick II of Prussia organized his army in a winning machine through converting people into automats with:

  1. Rules: this is how you do things in any circumstance, obey (or else face court martial)
  2. Roles: put on the suit, wear the uniform, behave how your job expects you to, put your personal feelings aside
  3. Commands: instructions come from on high – you don’t have the bigger picture so just obey
  4. Controls: You’ll be rewarded if you do what you’re told, punished if you don’t
  5. Experts and enforcers: there is a bureaucracy that makes sure of the right process to follow and compliance

In the lean context, it’s easy to standards as rules as opposed to the adaptation of katas to industrial work. The early TPS texts are very clear: standards are a starting point (first know the standards) but they are meant to be changed, frequently (at least once a month) through kaizen (small-step improvement).

Rule-based bureaucracy is simply the wrong paradigm to understand standards in lean. Rule-based thinking makes you interpret standardization as uniformization: every one does the same every where, and not kataization: every one masters their own standards perfectly and takes inspiration from masters who are even better at their standards.

Change your perspective and frame this in a learning-based context:

  • Standards are a starting point: first you learn how it’s done – the first loop of learning
  • Standards evolve: as you understand more about the quality and effectiveness of your job, standards evolve to eliminate the waste that you know can see.

Both these learning as what we call “single loop” learning: we get better at sensing impacts and then adapting, evolving to respond better to the stimulus, and become better.

But standards in lean are also part of the second loop of double-loop learning, the deliberate, conscious act of learning which is a commitment to understand more and know more fully (the reason Kyuzo practices in the rain):

  • Standards allow us to write down what we know so that now we can step out of our minds and look closely at what we think we know (as well as spot the assumptions)
  • Standards allow us to choose a point to improve, with the methodical aim of getting rid of some waste for the customer or ourselves, so that we can direct our learning effort to a specific point that it stretching, but not impossible to achieve.

In learning theory this is called the “proximal development zone“: stepping outside one’s zone of comfort (from pulling the sabre in the comfort of the dojo to practicing outside in the rain) but not so far that you’ll fail: kaizen.

The commitment to both standards, as katas, and kaizen as learning to develop both one’s mastery AND one’s flexibility in real life situation bu 1) responding better (first loop) and 2) learning to change one’s mental models by studying one’s own responses (second loop) is the key to profound transformation, and might lead to the third loop of learning – modifying our values to accept the changes in our mental models.

The crucial point to understand is that without double loop learning, changing from one rule to another is always brutal, and always unsustainable until you’ve replaced one entire generation of people. People are people: if they don’t understand the reason for the change personally, if they haven’t changed their minds by themselves, they’ll return to their old ways of thinking at every opportunity. Acquiescing in public to bow to social pressure, doesn’t mean understanding or private agreement.

Lean is unique in that it is the only management method based on individual and collective learning. Learning has two dimensions: 1) mastering what is known and 2) exploring beyond it to seek deeper insights 3) with others and through experiments (transsubjective empiricism to be cute). This is miles away from 1) applying the rules as they are and 2) changing the rules according to a new ideology (or vision, or strategy, or religion, or any brilliant thinking that comes from high up). The challenge true lean thinkers have is to become more familiar with the language of learning, and progressively extinguish the language of compliance.

  1. Are you clear on the problem you’re trying to solve and how you’re currently addressing it?
  2. What would you like to try to change?
  3. What is the first thing you need to learn about it to understand the issue better?

It’s exciting, it’s fascinating, it’s endlessly new, but it does require to change one’s perspective quite radically. Cool!

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