The title of this blog sounds more like a self help blog than a technical one! However, I actually find it really interesting to see how models and processes we apply at work can help in many different walks of life. The Toyota Kata is one such concept which actually makes a lot of sense to apply to various different situations.

For those who have not heard of the Toyota Kata, it is a pattern for continuous improvement. It works by allowing yourself to focus on an immediate goal to make incremental steps towards a larger objective.

Here’s how you do it:

Define a Vision

This is your overall long term goal, and does not necessarily have to be attainable either. For example, I want my application to be used by every single person in the world

Define a Challenge

This would be a more medium term goal, it’s attainable in the next few months, say, and you can sort of map out a way to get there. For example, I want the first version of my application to be available for use in the next 3 months. Overcoming this challenge must get you closer to your overall vision

Define a Target Condition

This is an very short term goal, where you want to be following the immediate next steps you take, e.g. I want to have a working prototype of the login feature of my application in the next week.

Define your Current Condition

This is your perception of where you see yourself now.

NB The time frames given in the examples above are arbitrary and should not necessarily be used. They were more given to illustrate the relative time frames.

The idea is to compare your current condition to your target conditions and ask yourself What obstacles am I facing that are stopping me from already being at my target condition? This may be things like

  • We don’t have a database available to store usernames and encrypted passwords
  • Our application doesn’t currently have the ability to encrypt passwords
  • We don’t have enough developers to be able to work on this at the moment

Once you have identified your obstacles, your next steps should be designed to overcome those obstacles until you reach your target condition. This should drive out the creation of your stories to work on (implement password encryption), or actions to take (speak to infra about creating a database, hire a new developer).

Once the next target condition is achieved, this becomes your current condition and you then define a new target condition, identify your obstacles and so on, until you have achieved your challenge (at which point you define a new challenge… and so the cycles continue)

Broadly, all it is saying is to take incremental steps towards a known vision. In short, understand your long, medium and short term goals, make sure they’re aligned to each other (i.e. achieving one brings you closer to the other), and figure out how to get there. When tackling any sort of problem, this way of thinking is useful, as defining a vision is easy but often seems unattainable and overwhelming at the beginning.

My mentor and I have been using this at work to track my progress as a developer. Using it for this sort of problem is not common, but I found it incredibly valuable and it got me thinking…

Using this way of thinking in a broader context

Today is Blue Monday, “scientifically calculated” to be the most depressing day of the year, as not only is it cold, wet, a Monday in general and January, but it’s the day people look back at their resolutions and realise they’re failing pretty much all of them. I haven’t really ever made New Years resolutions, mainly for the reason that I probably wouldn’t stick to them anyway and I’d end up feeling like a failure, but it seems a shame, as looking back on your life and seeing what you could do better is a virtuous thing to do and leads to self improvement. So why do these always fail? And how can we stick to them better?

The obvious answer is that people try and do too much. They define unattainable (or at least very long term) goals (visions), but don’t map out a way to get there, and that’s always overwhelming! The most common resolution is “I want to lose weight”, and at the beginning of January after Christmas and time off and festive cheer everything seems possible. You decide to stop eating unhealthy food, swear off coffee forever, vow you’ll cook more at home to avoid greasy takeouts, and resolve to go to the gym at least 4 times a week. Then you go back to work, and slowly slip back into your old habits until Blue Monday comes around and you realise you’ve not done anything towards your vision. And obviously when feeling down, ice cream is the route to long term happiness …

What’s missing here is the medium and short term goals. Without knowing how you’re going to achieve your vision, you can easily overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything. Instead, find your challenge and define your target condition. Once you’ve achieved that, define your next one and achieve that. Each time you get there, you feel accomplished and motivated to start on the next one and by the end of the year you may even have accomplished your vision! Or at least become significantly closer to it.