Lessons from The Past Year on Lean Coaching

By Jon Miller Updated on March 1st, 2019

coach and teamLooking back on 2015, it was a career transition year. After 20+ years of being in the travel-based lean consulting and training field, I decided to take the travel out of the equation. It was a self-imposed constraint, forcing me to explore new ways of working while closing the door to certain old ones. It was an experiment without an assured plan for success. Fortunately, demand has built up over the past six months for lean coaching of the type that allows me to add value to customers while staying close to family.

The people I coach work within organizations that range in size from privately-owned small businesses to multinational corporations with tens of thousands of employees. With varying degrees of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, all of them are striving to put continuous improvement into practice. Some of my coachees are in full-time improvement roles, but most have other full-time management responsibilities.  The set of issues faced by full-time lean professionals tend to be about “hows” specific to situations and lean methods. While important, these questions do not teach me as much. Making continuous improvement a reality for managers with other full-time jobs, which is the majority of managers, has been far more instructive. Here are some of my lessons in lean coaching from the past six months.

Finding time to improve within full schedules. When we are constantly using the saw, it is difficult to sharpen the saw, much less contemplate better ways of sawing with it. “We are too busy” and “Where will we find time for improvement?” are common refrains. This topic itself is rarely the scope of lean consulting, because organizations rarely put a cost on the personal effectiveness of indirect workers. They are just expected to find the time to get the more done than before. This is typically accomplished through salaried managers, engineers and professionals working fifty or sixty plus hours. It is not the lean way. Coaching conversations reveal that meetings, e-mails and various type of “corrective work” – trouble shooting, problem solving or crisis management, consume up the bulk of management time. In all cases, the lean thinking approach breaks down and sorts these activities by type, tracks actual time spent on each, separates identifies value vs. waste, and questions the causes for waste. The issues that lead to overburden are large and deep-rooted, and individual progress in this area can be a few steps forward, a couple of steps back.

All management problems are social-technical problems. That the way most organizations approach problem solving tends to be either technically-driven or socially-driven, rarely a good blend of the two. People seem to rise to leadership ranks not on based on being moderate and well-balanced but rather on the strengths of biases, extremes and strengths. Those with a stronger social or technical skill set may fail to recognize the fact that systems are made of both human behaviors and nonhuman phenomena, or recognize this but go to their strength. My recent experience confirms my bias so this topic needs further testing and challenging.

Stay and listen might be as powerful as go and see. Being a coach allows me to look at how people are working in a far more objective way than when I was a consultant. Just as a trainer has a bias for enabling learning, a consultant, has a bias for results. It is what those roles are paid to deliver. Coaches are seldom responsible for results, and learning is measured over months and not at the end of a one-hour phone call. A coach’s greater freedom from bias is also enabled by the fact that the interaction is via voice-over-internet, and while video is an option it is not necessary or particularly useful. As tele-coach, I am not distracted by the physical environment, visible mistakes in lean application, problems in the physical environment, or the coachee’s body language. Likewise, the coachee need not be distracted by what I represent visually. This has been an unexpected finding, and is only true as far as a coach can be a good listener.

What the coachee puts in = what they get out of it. Just as the most effective business transformations involve everyone in the organization and extend the scope across the entire enterprise end-to-end, the individuals in the most effective coaching relationships commit their time and energy to improving themselves, and open up their total self to coaching, rather than just their business persona.

Although the sample size of the coaching interactions is relatively small, a couple of hundreds of calls across a few dozen people, the emerging themes are universal ones of prioritization, time-management, influencing others, and problem solving. As far as universal prescriptions to these, as a coach and student of coaching, I am still learning.

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