* Brand-new * A LEAN Graphic Novel on “Toyota Improvement Kata”


Engaging the Team at Zingerman’s Mail Order

Really? A comic about Lean management and improvement? Yes!
(3 Min. read)

Engaging the Team at Zingerman’s Mail Order: A Toyota Kata Comic

The advantages of a comic? …

  • It lowers the barrier to picking it up and start reading
  • it is a lot thinner than a regular business text book – you can read it in 2 hours
  • it’s easy to grasp and you get more involved – seeing the actual people and the company … it’s more like really “being at the Gemba (workplace) and seeing”
  • You still get quite a bit of detail, discussions and content – it’s not superficial
  • it is more entertaining

It is actually already the 2. comic by Eduardo Lander, Jeffrey K. Liker and Tom Root. Tom Root is the Managing Partner of Zingerman’s.

The 1. comic is “Lean in a High-Variability Business – A Graphic Novel about Lean and People at Zingerman’s Mail Order”


So, is it good?

The content: yes, a recommendation to read!

Interesting (but a bit confusing for me at first) is that the comic starts with their first tries: “Well, first we tried simple PDCA + 5 Why’s … and we got no employee engagement – failure … then we tried A3-thinking … and got stuck. Employees had no motivation – failure. We tried the “carrot”: grant bonuses for improvements! No do – failure. We tried Toyota Business Practices (TBP) with the 8 step problem solving … too complicated for us – failure … *phew*

… This reminded me of Taiichi Ohno’s quote:

“Don’t try to borrow wisdom! You can’t copy wisdom – you have to think, think, think and solve your own problems!”

Then they tried Toyota Kata improvement projects, with Lander and Liker as advisors and groups of Liker’s university master students that led the Kata experiments … and that set the wheel in motion. Employees liked the more visual approach, how understandable the approach is and that they could improve their own work processes.

The comic shows one improvement project from start to finish – the reader gets a very good view on all aspects on a real example.

I also liked that the management team seemed like a real, engaged team, very present on the shop floor in a positive way. Normal people doing management and leadership. Learning, making mistakes and being open about both. Really pulling weight to change to a culture where improvement is positive and normal for employees, not something “that just management does”.


… There is no “Kata” at Toyota. It is a process that Mike Rother created for western companies that do not have Toyota’s long-standing culture, from what he experienced at Toyota. I like that the comic says so and cautions the reader that this is a starting point. Zingerman’s have altered the “Starter Kata” since then to better fit their business and culture.

… the bad and the ugly?

One thing I did not like a lot was the impression I got that – though the comic writes about the associates (employees) being part of the improvement project teams – they don’t really play any role in the story. They barely show up. In my understanding, Lean improvements should be very employee self-driven! They develop the ideas, describe them and then try them out – not the students with their run chart graphs and time measurements in exchange with the managers … I may misinterpret the intent of the comic, but it didn’t show clear for me.

I love good comic books and great visualization! In this regard, I wince at the book … it is just not a drawing style that I find very appealing. It doesn’t matter much though because of the content.

Connecting the dots …

I thought that Paul Akers and Lucas Holland have a very employee-centric and simple approach to a Lean improvement culture with their
2 Second Lean approach. (Check the link – they really share their experiences for free as a book and very good YouTube channels. Paul Akers is … a Lean maniac in his own words. He wants it to spread as wide as possible.)

On bigger process improvements, a project approach like with the “Kata” may be very helpful though because of the structure it gives.


* If you want to talk to me 1 – 5 days about how Lean will make your company better – I can easily promise that – and help you overcome fake Agile, book my Training Lean Management & Lean IT (Foundation and Leadership course) or contact me for a closer talk or workshop! *

Best regards – Thorsten Speil


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