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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E088: Using Toyota Kata to Help Local Food Banks with Hugh Alley

24 min read

Our guest is Hugh Alley, an experienced lean practitioner and industrial engineer, who has experience with the Toyota Kata method of improvement. He has recently applied this approach to a nonprofit food bank in Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada called Loaves and Fishes. This approach was based on the KataLab approach developed for the food bank Moisson Montréal by Jean-Marc Legentil, Marc-Olivier Legentil and Sylvain Landry.

He shares the following information during our interview:

  • His background in Industrial Engineering and how he self-taught when he didn’t know how to solve a problem
  • The four steps of the Toyota Kata approach
  • Why it should be called Toyota Kata, not just Kata
  • How to rethink failure as an outcome that wasn’t expected
  • The confusion about Toyota Kata on how to identify the next experiment
  • The format for a 2-day KataLab implementation at a food bank:
    • Day 1 AM – Intro to Toyota Kata training (with puzzle exercise)
    • Day 1 PM – Discover current condition over a few rounds of exploration
    • Day 2 AM – 3 rounds of experiments to improve, run process for 30 mins, analyze and reflection time, then setup next experiment
    • Day 2 PM – Coaching Kata process learning and practice
  • How they were able to double the output of food produced at the food bank with half the people and half the space
  • How they were able to use KataLab to reduce lab waiting time by 50% in 13 weeks without spending money or adding people
  • The 5 core skills that every supervisor and frontline leader should have

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You can watch the full video of the interview here…



Have you ordered the new book, “Lean Six Sigma for Good: Lessons from the Gemba (Volume 1)?” The book is made up of 8 chapters written about experiences from Lean and Six Sigma practitioners, to give you tips and tricks to help you work with nonprofits in your area. All proceeds donated to charity. We are also close to releasing Volume 2, so check back for the latest news.


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Brion (B): My guest today is Hugh Alley. Hugh, welcome to the podcast. Can you give us a little bit of background on your process improvement experience?

Hugh (H): Hi, Brion. I’m excited to be with you today. Yeah, I’d be happy to do that. In some level, I’ve been doing process improvement since I got out of school. I remember working in a mine where I just was always asking questions about could we do it differently. Those questions, even early on, naive as I was, kept surfacing savings so that was encouraging and I’ve just continued to develop my skills and experiences with the industrial engineering that I started with and it’s moved on from there. I’ve moved back and forth between running a number of different troubled manufacturing facilities with their associated warehouses and distribution. There, I had the practical problem of responsibility for making things better, and then I’ve also done a bunch of consulting work where I’ve been helping other people with that same set of challenges. So it’s been a wonderful career for 30 plus years now.

B: You are based out of Vancouver BC?

H: Yeah, a suburb of Vancouver in Canada, yeah.

B: Have you always lived in Canada?

H: Well, not always. I grew up in Toronto, did my engineering studies in Waterloo, but then I did a Master’s degree at Cornell. So I spent two years living in upstate New York which was a wonderful experience, and then moved back to Canada and have lived there here ever since, although my work has taken me into the States frequently and occasionally around the world.

B: Great. Tell us a little bit more about how you got into Lean and other parts of, I know your IE background, a lot of that is discussed and taught through that program and probably through your own experiences working and picked up some stuff, but did you get any kind of coaching or mentoring on some of these methods and maybe specifically when you learned about kata?

H: I’m one of the people that learns really well by reading. It’s just one of my favorite ways to take in new information. And so a lot of what I’ve learned was a response to client requirements when I was consulting or my own particular needs when I was running plants. And so I think about some of the early books I read, and they’re the classics, The Machine That Changed the World by Womack and Jones, and a book on sell manufacturing design, Shigeo Shingo’s book on SMED. Those were all things that clients had a need and I was looking for solutions that would be more efficient than just floundering.

B: Very much just-in-time learning.

H: Very much just-in-time, yes. And I made a bunch of mistakes along the way too. I look back at some of those projects and I think, “Hmm, could have done that better,” but at some level, those lessons stick with you much better than the ones where somebody told you what to do but you never made any mistakes.

B: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s how we learn. We have to be forced to deal with a failure or something that didn’t go as well as we’d like and makes us really [inaudible 0:04:21].

H: What I love is the way the kata practice you were just talking about it, it’s not that it was a failure. It was that the outcome wasn’t what we expected, and so that gives us an opportunity to reflect on, well, what is it we didn’t understand about the system that meant our expectations didn’t match what happened, and what can we learn from that? It’s that process of proposing how you think it will play out, and then looking carefully at how it does, and looking at the discrepancy.

B: So when did you start to learn the kata method, and then any other details you want to provide on that info for those who are new to this kata practice?

H: When I think about the Toyota kata, and I debate whether we can just use the word kata as a standalone because the people who practice martial arts, they’re doing kata too as they learn their set-pieces. If you’ve seen the movie Karate Kid, you know the wax on, wax off, and he’s teaching the guy patterns that he will learn. Those are kata as well, but they’re the martial arts kata. Rother coined the term Toyota kata as a way of saying this is the mindset patterns that we’re observing there. This is maybe how we can teach them.

But I got first exposed to it around 2016. Shortly after that, I had a very funny experience where I walked into a medical lab to get some blood work done and the process was just so horrendous. I watched people wasting time and just it was silliness. So I wrote to the Chief Operating Officer of the company and said, “You’ve got a problem here. Do you want to work on it?” and he took me up on it. It was like, “Oh. Okay, now what do I do?” And so I learned very quickly, okay, well there’s this pattern of how to coach it, how to create these small experiments, and how to track what you’re doing on a storyboard so you keep track of it and that was my first exposure to it. I was a bit dumb and naive and willing to make a mistake or two and just launched.

But the results were remarkable. In 13 weeks, we reduced the patient waiting time at this lab by 50% without having spent any money or added people; just a series of experiments, one after the other. It was fabulous for the team as they watched these experiments happening. We’d see the results and we’d try and experiment. One time, the results were so obvious after half a day, we said, “Stop! we’ll go back.” Because it was an experiment, it was easy to go back. These guys were so excited about what they were doing. I remember, about halfway through that process, one of the guys was really excited about what we’d just done the day before and he said, “Well, this is how everyone at LifeLabs should do it.” I can talk about the name. They know I talk about the company and they’ve given me permission, so it’s okay. And there’s another team member who said, “No, no. We’ve only got one day of data. We don’t know if it’s going to hold up for a whole operating pattern of a week,” and I thought we’ve got there. They understand that data can help them analyze it. To me, it was both my first foray, but it was so reinforced on how important their participation in the projects were.

B: What was the duration of how often were you doing the cycles? Was that a daily thing?

H: We were doing cycles daily and because they had a weekly pattern of patient arrival, the experiment periods were a week that we would gather the data. But every day, we would say what did we learn from yesterday? What obstacles did we see in the operating pattern that we’re trying? So we had a really good learning each day, and it reminded them what they were focused on.

B: What I like, I think, a lot about this approach is there’s always that desire to go and do something, but without knowing methodically how they’re going to do that, I think a lot of places just kind of guess at solutions and then they throw out these big solutions that they’re going to go do. I think what Toyota kata provides is gets us started but in small increments that are low risk and it moves us in that direction. And so I think it satisfies the urgency of doing something and getting going without launching to this very large solution that we have really no idea if that’s going to work.

H: Yeah, as one of my good friends puts it, these experiments keep the blast radius very small.

B: I like that.

H: But it’s interesting. One of the things about the pattern of experimentation that’s in the Toyota kata, and it’s a four-step process. Step one is to understand the challenge. What are you really trying to get done here? second is grasp the current condition. So how is this system actually functioning now? what’s the operating pattern? not just what the what’s the average, but how does it fluctuate day to day or hour to hour? and do things come in runs or do they come nicely spaced out? all those kinds of things. Because if you have an arrival pattern of 1 every seven minutes over the course of the day, that’s very different than having 400 arrived at 8 o’clock in the morning at the start of your shift. It imposes different requirements and so you need to understand that stuff. Grasping the current condition, which is step two, takes some time.

You were talking about how the Toyota kata gives some room for people who have this urgency for action. I find, when I’m coaching it, we actually have to hold people back to say but do you really understand the system? What about the variation? How much does it vary every day? Your average is two pallets a day, but what’s the maximum? Do you ever have one where you have 30 pallets arrive? “Oh, yeah.” Oh, well that really changes the complexion of what does this facility need to do. That’s on my mind because I’m helping a client right now to solve a warehouse design problem with exactly that kind of variation. Understanding that current condition at the front end is so important to do and to do well enough that you can then make a prediction that will matter to someone, that actually has a hope of being right as opposed to just a dart throw.

B: And so is that going into the third step of the kata?

H: Third step takes you to setting the target condition. So the nature of the Toyota kata says we’ve got this challenge out here. This is the big objective that we’re trying to do. But we’re not going to get there right away, so the challenge might be a six-month to three-year kind of picture depending on how big your organization is and how mature it is in using this model, so it might be far away. I’m dealing with one client right now and our first challenge was we set a 10-week limit. That’s the horizon. And so we’ve been dealing with target conditions that are a week away. How are we going to operate in a week from now that will be different and better, and what should we see? so step three is to set the target condition, what’s the next little piece we’re trying to get at.

At one place, we wanted to see the primary performance indicator increase by 75 feet a day. I know that one of the things we’re going to be working on somewhere down the road before this 10 weeks is over is how can we reduce the variation from day to day because, right now, it’s really extreme. What we’d like to do is just get it really down so it’s a really steady, stable production that maybe only varies 40 or 50 feet a day instead of 150 or 200. Everybody’s life will be easier when that’s happening, but that’s down the road as part of the bigger picture. Today’s challenge is just can we get the average up?

So you do that, and then step four is the actual experiment towards the target and address the obstacles as you go. The trick to understanding that, I think, is to realize that you’re experimenting on how to overcome obstacles, so it’s not experimenting to reach the target condition. We’re saying here’s the target condition and these are the obstacles we think are preventing that target from happening. What we need to do now is experiment how we’re going to get rid of those obstacles or overcome them. It changes what you’re trying to do because now you can actually say, well, wait a minute. The obstacle is that I don’t actually know what my yield is from this raw material. I can’t predict the yield from the raw material. Oh, okay, so how do we overcome that? Let’s go find some data, discover what the yield is. Now we know what our yield is, so now we know how much supply we need to have. That helps now we know, every day, we’ve got to have this much supply. So maybe that’s our next obstacle is how do we make that happen?

B: So if someone was going to run a marathon, that might be their challenge. And then they’re going to assess where they’re at today and what their ability is, and then set a target that says maybe I’m going to run a mile as a target condition.

H: Or maybe it’s that because my history, so far, is I don’t run at all, I’m going to, every day, put my running shoes on. It might be that small. That my pattern is I’m going to be dressed and ready to run every day, and then maybe the next target condition is I’m going to run for five minutes, whatever that is, because you need to be able to somehow get to that target condition from where you are. If my target condition is to run a mile, that may be too big a step from where you are now.

One of the things, I think, if you talk to Toyota kata coaches that I know, I think a consistent thread is that we keep needing to dial back. Don’t try and make it such a big bite. Just little steps because those, you can see how you’re doing. It’s easier to see the obstacles and it’s not such a big deal if you don’t get there. BJ Fogg, who’s got that book about habits, comments that the issue is not the size of the step; it’s that you do it every day and get the reward for doing it. It’s the consistency and that consistency of reward, so Toyota kata kind works on the same principle.

B: I think it’s Tiny Habits. Is that the book? that’s really good. I like he also tied it to something you’re already doing. Can you link a behavior or a change into something existing that triggers a when I do this, now I’m going to follow and add my new behavior change onto something I’ve already done.

H: Exactly.

B: There’s actually a lot of the behavior change piece as I’ve gotten into improvement work. That is really important. You could have all the right data and evidence and support, but sometimes, at the end of the day, you have to just get people to try something different and that can be very challenging. There’s a lot of reasons not to change or want to change, so I think making it very small is nice. It helps.

H: And yeah, and then there are cases like the Montréal food bank that Sylvain and Jean-Marc and Marc-Olivier were helping where there was an overwhelming immediate need to change because they got slammed with COVID and, all of a sudden, the number of volunteers they had plummeted. You were asking about this start. The three of them worked with the food bank there on some processing stuff to say it how can we actually achieve the production that they need with half the number of volunteers. That was the big challenge. And so they actually had to work on it very quickly because the people were still hungry. It was primarily Sylvain, who’s the thinker, he’s the professor of the three, who kind of came up with this design for a kata lab, as he called it, which they’ve run now seven times. Each time, they go through this two days and achieve really some remarkable improvements.

B: With the food bank?

H: It’s all been with the food bank in Montréal. And then, in the summer, because I had met Jean-Marc at a KataCon, one of the conferences a couple of years ago, this is Jean-Marc Legentil with Bell Nordic Consultancy, and we were chatting after his presentation and I said it’d be really neat to try and do that with a food bank out here in BC. And he said, “Give me a call when you get an opportunity.” and so I’ve been working with the Nanaimo food bank, Loaves and Fishes, on design for their new facility. I thought we could improve some of these processes, which will let them take less space, which when you’re building space at 400 bucks a square foot, that’s a big deal. I proposed to them that we run kata lab and try it out, so they went for it. So we had Jean-Marc Legentil and Marc-Olivier Legentil come out and they facilitated the two days. In that two days, we were able to increase– so they do a lot of sorting of produce because they do a lot of food recovery from grocery stores. They had been processing out about 13 bins of food an hour with a team of four, and they now can produce 30 bins of food with a team of two, which is just amazing improvement, in less space.

B: This is after the two days?

H: It’s a two-day process. The first morning is an introduction to the Toyota kata thinking process. They use the picture puzzles that are a common thing. If you google “kata in the classroom,” you can see an image of the puzzle that they use, but there are other ways to do that. For your listeners that aren’t familiar with it, you can do something similar with a card sort program, but there are lots of ways. You just give people a simple way to learn the pattern of thinking.

And so that’s the morning of day one, and the afternoon of day one, the participants go out and discover the current condition, so how is it currently happening. And so, in this case, the participants were actually doing some of the food sorting for the day and bring in the bins, bring in the pallets, and have at her, guys and ladies and gents. Go for it and discover what you’re actually doing and what’s actually happening. So we did a couple of rounds of exploration there, and then the morning of day two, we did three rounds of experiments to try and improve things. So we’d process for half an hour, and then we’d do the analysis and reflection, and what’s our next experiment going to be. In that process, we were able to simplify some rules, simplify some procedures, and reduce reaches significantly, all of which made it way easier for people to do their work.

And then the afternoon of day two is spent talking about the coaching process within the Toyota kata. Because within Toyota kata, there’s the improvement cycle, which I’ve described the four stages, but there’s also a complementary coaching cycle for the coaches to use to help the learner reflect on what they’ve seen. And so we were introducing that cycle as well, and so that’s the two days. It’s very full but very rewarding.

B: I think that’s a great way to make it very hands-on and very practical to the actual learning. You’re not overwhelming them with 50 Lean tools that they could apply, like kanban or value stream mapping or anything like that. It’s just keeping it simple to what’s the next obstacle, and work through that.

H: Yeah, because what happens is that if people get themselves in a situation where a specific tool would be really helpful, then a good coach can actually ask the question, “So do you think anyone has run into this problem before? is there another way? you need to learn something. What do you need to learn? how else might people have learned to do this? Do you need to do some research?” Sometimes the experiment is not so much a physical experiment as a step to go and try and learn something because we don’t know.

B: Which actually goes back to how you learned on just-in-time with, okay, now I’m stuck. What approach or technique can I use that will get me unstuck from this particular problem? so very efficient way to learn too, and then it’s hands-on application where you’re really going to learn the details.

H: Exactly. What happens is you learn the details for that particular situation, but after you’ve done a few hundred cycles, you’ve now started to see these patterns come up again and you say, “Oh yeah, that looked like what I did two months ago.” And so you start to recognize the places where that’s needed and what that does is just speeds up the whole experimenting process. So if you get somebody who’s well experienced in the Toyota kata and also has a good understanding of the library of Lean tools, they can experiment very fast because they can be very efficient about knowing, in this context, I don’t need to invent a kanban system. I know there is a library of kanban approaches out there. I can just go pick one. All I need to do is select the most useful one rather than invent it.

B: That’s great. So for you in particular with the Vancouver food bank, is there plans to do any other kata labs, or are you looking to work with any other nonprofits or groups?

H: Absolutely. The food bank I was working with was the Nanaimo food bank. They have a great empties program model return for a deposit. I know that’s not common across North America, but in British Columbia, it’s a big deal. It’s a good revenue source for them, but it’s taking a lot of volunteer time to do the sorting, and so they want to see about can they figure out a way to do that more efficiently. I’ve been talking with a couple of other food banks about doing a kata lab type of thing, and I’m now talking to Food Banks BC and it looks like Peter Sinclair, who is the Executive Director at Nanaimo food bank, and I are going to be doing a presentation about this at their conference next spring, so that should be fun. Happy to work with any food bank that wants to play in that environment.

B: I think that’s what was really intriguing to me, just as I heard about the kata lab and thinking through some of the work I’ve done in the past with some nonprofits too, and thinking that this approach could really be a way to get things rolling in getting some quick wins. I think a really important part is that you’re leaving them with a skill set that can be replicated easily and they can continue that. I think we’ve struggled with other approaches to take to get them going and to make it last, that they’re not dependent on us so much in the beginning, which is hard to be there to help them when they need the help.

H: Exactly, and they’re not-for-profits so they don’t have unlimited funds to pay for coaches. So once they can get that scientific mindset, that whole thing of what’s the current condition, what’s the next little step, and what are the obstacles, and how can we experiment against those, that meta-skill is so powerful.

I know Jean-Marc Legentil and Marc-Olivier have used that same model with a thrift store in Montréal where they’re dealing with large volumes of clothing. It’s how do you sort the clothing and get it onto a rack and get it priced and sold, and dealing with the volunteers who say, “But this is worth $700 in the boutique store.” It’s like, at the food bank, the volunteers, bless them, they’d look at a dragon fruit and say, “This is $7 in the grocery store. We should spend time on it.” The food bank folks are saying, “You know what? The people that come to the depots, none of them are interested in dragon fruit. They don’t know what to do with it; they’ve never seen it. Don’t spend time on it.” It’s really hard for them to get past that, so having that big picture challenge in mind of what are you trying to do and why really helps.

B: I’ve had that same discussion with people who are doing reuse. It’s, “We can salvage this. We can do something with this. I don’t want to throw it away. I don’t even want to recycle it. I want it to be sold again and reused,” and it’s just like we can’t spend the effort and the value’s not there to justify that when we have all this other better usable, easier to process material, whether it’s a laptop or a window or door. These things can fly through our systems much faster and we can’t salvage everything as much as we’d love to. You’re right, the passion’s there and you hate to say no, but also like this organization survives and thrives when we can deliver the core things efficiently.

H: And when you have people who have that mindset, what they don’t seem often is how it clogs their systems. I remember working with the client and they had five pallet racks full of offcuts that had been accumulating for years. When they actually had an order, nobody went to the wall to see what was in the offcut bin because it was too difficult. “But we might use it someday.” I had a supervisor that worked for me one time and he had pieces of threaded rod that were this long and the threads had been stripped. And he was saying, “Well, one day we could run it through the threader again and make them good,” and I’m thinking it’s $0.20 of steel and it’s occupying space. It doesn’t work. And I think there are probably a very large number of wannabe home hobbyists who have their workbench, unfortunately like mine, that has too many things that I might use someday.

B: My mother has a large number of scrap sewing material. And so when we went through and helped organize her sewing room, it was hard to admit that you’re probably not going to use that little section after all. It’s scrap and you’re not going to.

H: It’s beautiful, but…

B: It’s taking up a lot of space in your room, and it’s cluttering, and it’s making it hard for you to get to the other projects you want to get to, so it’s got to find a different home. But yeah, that is tough. Very tough. You also have a book that came out, I think last year?

H: I do, yes.

B: Can you talk a little bit about the book?

H: Sure. It’s Becoming the Supervisor, and it is really about how a manager can develop their supervisors to get them the core skills that they need. When I think about it, there are five core skills that every supervisor needs. They need to be able to instruct, they need to be able to improve, to set priorities, they need to be able to foster performance, and they need to be able to listen. But you can’t just put people in the classroom and have them learn that, and so the book uses a story to tell how one general manager used the common events of a manufacturing plant to teach her young supervisor the skills he needed.

So very readable because it’s told as a story, and I think it should be encouraging, both to young supervisors to see that they are learnable skills, and to the managers of those people who can, all of a sudden, see, well, wait a minute. I don’t need to run a six-week program. I can just coach them through the real problems that they have today because somebody quit. Gosh. Now I need a training plan. How would we do that? and so now we get them into learning about how to instruct.

B: Where is the best place for someone to get that book?

H: You can order it from any bookseller. The website for my book is It’s got links to a few different booksellers, but people like Amazon or people like they can go to Routledge, which is the publisher. They’ll ship them to lots of people wherever.

B: Great. I’ll put all of these links. I’ve got some book links, I’ve got some food bank links. Anything else that you think of that might be helpful for people, I’ll put it in the notes for this episode. Is there anything else you wanted to share or discuss?

H: It’s just so much fun watching people discover that they can make a difference too, and that they really can take small steps and have it make a difference to the people on your team. That’s really fun to watch.

B: Yeah, and I think getting it out of the hands of improvement specialists or engineers and saying everyone in the organization has this ability; it just needs a little coaching to get started.

H: Yeah, because if the only people that do it are the experts, then it’s not going to get done most of the time. I think that having the scientific mindset that supports continuous improvement, far more valuable to an organization than having a continuous improvement specialist.

B: Great. Thank you so much, Hugh. I really appreciate your time and this is really valuable info and I think it’ll get a lot of listens and views.

H: It’s been my pleasure, Brion. It’s been a fun conversation.

B: Hope to maybe run into you soon at maybe a conference, maybe KataCon someday.

H: That would be great. I look forward to that.

B: Thanks.

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