Ask and answer to learn how to improve

By Hugh Alley   

Industry Manufacturing management manufacturing training

Coaching cycles provide structure for addressing changing circumstances.

Coaching cycles provide structure for addressing changing circumstances. PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

In a recent interview, an industry leader nearing the end of his career said he wanted to share his knowledge with “new folks in the industry.” Many trainers have similar objectives, but is it the best way to go?

Here’s the challenge. You and other experienced staff have accumulated a lot of knowledge, but there are two major limitations to sharing. First, it’s unlikely you have a systematic process to ensure the full breadth of your knowledge is transferred. Second, your knowledge doesn’t help learners figure out how to deal with new circumstances.

It’s the same for trainers. If all they do is teach specific skills, how does the organization learn or improve? By teaching people how to ask and answer questions.

Not that teaching skills isn’t important. Someone starting out has a lot to learn and needs foundational skills. But once they’ve been trained and are executing correctly, new employees need to learn how to ask good questions and how to develop the answers. People who come after you will face issues and challenges you’ve never encountered or imagined.


Applying kata

If you need a model, consider the work of Mike Rother and his colleagues ( who are exploring the concept of improvement and coaching cycles. They use the word “kata” – a Japanese term that means practice, routine or form. Anyone who practises martial arts knows the term. These cycles provide a proven structure for asking and answering questions (see 5 kata questions), even in very complex situations.

It’s also a great way to develop your crew’s management skills and steadily improve performance.

In a project last year using this model, a small team of front line staff learned how to ask and answer questions. After 12 weeks, there was a 46% reduction in customer wait times, and staff understood how to get hard data about their operations. Skill was demonstrated when one of the participants declined to draw a conclusion because there wasn’t enough data. Those skills will endure long after the project ends, which is a much better outcome than simply “sharing knowledge.”

5 kata questions

  1. What’s the target condition?
  2. What’s the actual condition?
  3. What obstacles are preventing reaching the target condition?
  4. What’s the next step? What do you expect?
  5. How quickly can we see what we have learned from taking that step?

Source: Toyota Kata website

Hugh Alley is an industrial engineer based in the Vancouver area who helps organizations achieve significant performance gains. Call (604) 866-1502 or e-mail

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 print issue of PLANT Magazine.



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