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Kata and Ba

Do you know there is a discussion about “Kata” and “Ba” in Japan?

“Kata” comes from the traditional arts of passing skills among generations. This thinking was applied to business as well.

The changing market dynamics made many “Kata” outdated. Yet, some companies were able to improve or change the “Kata.” The knowledge management called this “Ba.” They gathered people to change the “Kata.”

The Knowledge Management Society of Japan held “The Knowledge Forum 2008 in Tokyo.”

The idea was to discuss the relationships between the “Ba” and “Kata.” How to use both to better conduct knowledge management. The result of this forum was published as “Management of Kata and Ba (Knowledge Management Society of Japan; 2008).” Although the book is a collection of those who focus on “Kata” and those who focus on “Ba” without coordination. But then I recognized this is an excellent “Ba,” where different thinkers exchange thoughts to generate new thinking. I hoped for some follow-ups but decided to blog instead of waiting.

Traditionally, Japanese arts and craftsmanship have focused on “Kata.” “Kata” is a style or technique of art or craft. The “Kata” was typically passed from generation to generation, following the “Shu-Ha-Ri” principles. It made sense. Instead of trying to figure it out from scratch, copy your master. By copying, you will learn something. Once you know, you can try to change it. Such thinking was passed to business.

Sticking to a “Kata” became deadly in a changing market. This was the explanation of Japanese stagnation by knowledge management. The success of economic growth up to the eighties created many perceptions that Japanese “Kata” is almighty. Businesses became more conservative to keep the style. Those who evaluated were not the ones with good ideas. Only those loyal to the “Kata” got promoted.

The solution that the knowledge management defined or discovered was the use of “Ba.” To evolve the “Kata,” good companies were organizing the “Ba,” in which a diverse group of people came to improve the “Kata” with a great degree of freedom. “Ba” is where the members creatively destroy the “Kata.” A new Kata emerges from “Ba,” based on new knowledge. This cycle of “Ba” and “Kata” creates excellent companies.

The classic example of such “Ba” is “Oobeya (大部屋).”

Oobeya means large room. It doesn’t have a special meaning at the beginning. And there are many versions of Oobeya. It became something unique.

Itami highlights the “Oobeya,” which Takeo Fujisawa implemented at Honda. Fujisawa created an “Oobeya” for the executive team. These executives weren’t given an individual room. They were collected in one large room. The challenge presented by Fujisawa to this team was “to think about what is important for the business.” These executives did not have other tasks. In the beginning, there were resistants. Fujisawa stated that he hated that these executives think their job is just stamping documents. Therefore, he collected them in one large room. Eventually, the room created common topics to discuss. They developed a mutual understanding. It functioned far better when a crisis came. Fujisawa concluded that this room created a group thinking system instead of an individual.

What is essential about this Honda example is not the right or wrong format of “Oobeya.” It is different since the leader had other intentions. Fujisawa created a “Ba” where executives can directly communicate information, explicitly and tacitly. They will make try and errors. Eventually, these trials become a standard or a Kata. There are different versions of Oobeya because it results from the history of try and error in different situations. Such "Ba" was required for long-term successful companies. They have developed interactions or cycles between Kata and Ba.

Noting one crucial thing.

The “Ba” is set by the leader. The leader must provide the physical space for the group to interact. Some intentionally design free seating to promote more communication among different members. Who is included in the “Ba” is essential. It is better to collect different thinkers with diverse Kata. Of course, we must ensure these people don’t start physical fighting (It happens). How much time should these members allocate to this “Ba”? Completely free from other responsibilities or need to do both? What is the assignment or challenge? The way the “Ba” is set up will decide the outcome. The degree of freedom the leader gives the “Ba” will impact the outcome.

There is a debate on whether the development and outcome of a “Ba” is intentional or emergent. How to set it up is the intention of the leader. On the other hand, the leader needs to be open to emerging ideas. To some degree, if the outcome was within the leader's expectation, maybe that "Ba" was unsuccessful. However, the leader is responsible for the outcome. When the emergent idea is weak, the leader must think some of the components of the “Ba” the leader had set up were not inspiring. Creating an inspiring Ba is the ultimate responsibility of a leader.

The delicate balance of Kata and Ba creates excellent business. You need both. What do your Kata and Ba look like, if these exist?

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