Mantra-Vision . . . Kata-Practice | Problems Pt. 1

improvement-kataOne of our guiding purposes for this blog is establishing disciplined reflection in our lives as aspiring leaders.  At Western Excelsior, we spend a great deal of time helping one another develop in our use of both the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata as detailed in Mike Rother’s award-winning book, “Toyota Kata.”  If you aren’t familiar with the Improvement Kata, here are the high-level steps guiding thinking and process development through problem-solving at Toyota:

  1. Understand the direction  (Vision)
  2. Grasp the current condition (The here-and-now… Gemba)
  3. Establish the next target condition (Milestones)
  4. Iterate toward the target condition (PDCA)

Most of us have experienced that knowing the right steps isn’t even close to the same as inspiring someone to do things in a better way.  My use of stories to better illustrate principles and visions pretty much sucks.  For a long time, I’ve been one of those guys whose factual recitations of facts surrounding the why kills a conversation (I’m still guilty, but trying to recover.)

For my next four blog entries, I will reflect in depth on each of the four questions/steps in the Improvement Kata and if I’m lucky, I’ll use a story to help.

How well do you cast vision?  Great leaders use vision to focus each and every interaction whether coaching through process or story.  Recently, I had the great fortune to visit the Naval Academy with the AME Champions Group.  We were blessed to experience the wisdom of several great presenters, but one leader’s time with us was especially valuable.

Col. Arthur J. Athens, USMC, (Ret.) is the Director of the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy.  As our final presenter for the meeting, Col. Athens’ eloquently shared the story of sending his son to war as a newly commissioned officer.  In the tense minutes preceding their final separation, Athens’ son probed his father for advice about leadership.  The Colonel, a bit shocked by both the request and the timing, collected himself and searched for the most effective way to quickly share the essence of his wisdom at such a pivotal moment.

Athens related a story from his past highlighting a close friend’s initiation into the world of military leadership.  The friend was mentored and stretched by a devoted Gunnery Sergeant whose storied past included three different theaters of war.  As a newly minted 2nd Lieutenant with no real-world leadership experience, Athens’ friend humbly asked the Gunnery Sergeant a question with far-reaching effect… “Why would you follow me?”

Gunny compassionately and wisely responded to the Lieutenant with three questions of his own, simply and beautifully casting vision for the young man to understand the essence of both leadership and followership:

  1. “Do you know your job, or are you striving hard to learn it?”
  2. “Will you make the difficult, but correct decision even if it costs you personally?”
  3. “Do you care as much about us as you care about yourself?”

These “3 Cs” of leadership: Competence, Courage and Compassion formed the background for the Colonel’s talk.  From this vision, the Colonel deftly drew focus to the C of Compassion for the remainder of the talk.  Athen’s story pulled the entire room together into a powerful shared vision we all believed in.  Once we believed, we were ready to go deeper and be taught.



Without a clear and compelling reason to change behavior, we remain mired in our current state.  Instead of leading, we only manage. No better existence calls us forward into continual improvement.

Without compassion for the people we are charged to lead, we will never have the hearts of those whose futures ironically draw on our effectiveness.  Barring knowledge of the hopes, dreams and hangups of our people… really knowing them… we will never truly understand the validity and weight of a vision in the lives of those whose participation is paramount to success.

As leaders, we must always start with the vision.  If we haven’t been given a vision of success, it is our job to create.  If the vision we’ve been given doesn’t apply in a gripping and relevant way, it is our responsibility to translate.  If the people we are leading don’t understand the vision and how it applies to their situation, it is our responsibility to explain.  Before anything else, we must agree on the vision of success.

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