Column Lean Manufacturing Management On The Floor

Develop Continuous Improvement Muscle Memory

Klaus M. Blache | November 20, 2020

By continuously working at continuous improvement, plant workers at all levels will develop the “muscle memory” that makes it an integral part of your operation’s culture.

Q : Is a Kaizen event or coaching kata best for continuous improvement?

A : There are many tools available to perform continuous improvement, but the one that will make your facility most successful requires a process that enables the entire workforce to become problem solvers. To discuss this requires a few definitions/explanations.

Gemba Walk: This is a Japanese term meaning “real or actual place.” It refers to the activity of going to see the actual process (where value is added). Having leaders go to the plant floor, ask questions, and observe the daily work practices helps improve communications and develop greater trust throughout the workplace. It’s also part of the process to listen, better understand the value stream, and remove waste in a meaningful way. Recommendations on time vary, but a 1-hr. Gemba walk every week (with a mentor) while you connect with and mentor persons in the plant is typical. It depends on the maturity of your process.

Kaizen event: Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better.” This team-based improvement event is typically done in three to five days. Often a value-stream mapping is performed first to identify focus areas. Some use a 5S process in the event. Kaizen workshops can align with long- and short-term efforts, based on the need and maturity of the team involved. Kaizen continuous-improvement efforts are known by most implementing a lean process. There are many similar efforts with other names, such as go-fast teams and rapid-improvement teams.

Many plant-floor processes already have some form of continuous improvement board/wall following a plan-do-check-act format. What’s often missing is the daily coaching that’s needed to make this process even more successful.

That brings us to the coaching kata. When I was in karate training years ago, many hours were devoted to practicing kata movements. Kata is a Japanese word describing specific sets of movements practiced to develop muscle memory. They are practiced repeatedly to attain perfection and develop automatic
reflex action.

Coaching kata: Similar to a karate kata, a coaching kata requires numerous repetitions to gain the reflex that sustains continuous improvement. These daily coaching events are typically short (15 to 30 min.) and the improvement steps are small. However, the cumulative small steps will lead to big results. Keep in mind that, although you may be coaching, you should also be mentored by someone more experienced, until you reach full coaching status. These coaching teams should be happening at various levels throughout the plant. They should use standardized questions for coaching. It is critical that they are learning questions that focus on process improvement and not blaming. Key is learning to ask the right challenging questions, but not give the answer. The result is increased confidence, understanding, and skills. This is difficult to do for those who live in an output-performance environment with short-term incentives.

Regarding workforce engagement, my studies have shown that North America can’t even average one suggestion per employee. Companies that perform in the top-quartile average nine suggestions per employee, with some as high as 30. Implementation of plant-floor processes and robust continuous-improvement practices continue to be an issue.

When I conducted a global study of what the best-performing companies do better, there were three items that were consistently evident in the best of the best:

• Robust small-team continuous improvement (engaged workforce wanting to make a positive difference)

• Everyone in the facility using the same Practical Problem-Solving Process

• Being consistent in the Check (C) in P-D-C-A. This refers to the daily coaching to continually improve, while maintaining current best practices.

By following standardized best practices, repetition to create correct habits, challenging current practices, and experimenting toward getting better, ongoing improvement becomes a daily practice. Think about what these three things are doing. They are changing the thinking process by doing (to create muscle and mental memory).

These items seem so simple to talk about, yet illusive for many in application. When NUMMI (New United Motor Mfg Inc.) started in California (1984), they sent about 400 coaches from Japan. At the start, everyone received training at Toyota City (Japan). If you were going to supervise, you shadowed a mentor, learning by doing. In the early years, more than 500 NUMMI employees (anyone who supervised) visited Japan for about two weeks of focused training.

In 2001, when General Motors started the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant (MI), at that time to build Cadillacs, similar massive training was done in Eisenach, Germany (Opel Assembly Plant). We had mentored steps to go through to allow deeper understanding, and then do, teach, and lead. The plant floor was mentored with regular Gemba walks and ongoing coaching.

You need to learn by doing to establish muscle memory and reflexive responses that result in improvements. The example that was often used in lean training was continually “lowering the water to expose more rocks” (opportunities for improvement).

All of these activities don’t just promote change. They also stimulate the thinking process, resulting in increased learning, problem-solving skills and, most important, the desire to solve problems (or be problem eliminators). The end goal is to develop a plant full of engaged problem solvers. How fast you can get there depends on the number of seasoned coaches you have. This requires discipline and patience.

As the number of qualified coaches multiplies, they will also be teaching others, so the process will grow exponentially. A good recent book on this process is “The Toyota Kata Practice Guide” by Mike Rother (McGraw Hill, 2018). EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at




Klaus M. Blache

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