To Be a Lean Coach, Know the Wrong Answers

By Jon Miller Updated on April 17th, 2016

The success of lean systems, and continuous improvement in general, relies on engaging the hands and brains of everyone in the upkeep and renewal of the system. It requires constant practice. It requires a strong will to compete and to not become complacent. Towards this end, the role of coach has gained in popularity in business and organizations wishing to continue winning at a high level. Coaches make team members focus on practice, observe their performance and reflect on the results.

A lean coach is required to use the Socratic method, wherein the coach develops a student’s critical thinking by asking questions, hearing the answers, and asking further questions. This is much like root cause analysis. The coach is seeking to understand how and why the student thinks the way they do. Why the student is getting it wrong? Simply telling someone that they are wrong and giving them the correct answer seldom works. This can solve urgent and immediate problems, but does not teach the student critical thinking, or how to arrive at solutions to similar problems in the future.

Much of coaching is helping people to see that they are wrong. As long as people believe they are right, they are unlikely to change. This point was brought home in a recent NPR article titled Why Teachers Need to Know the Wrong Answers. Citing classroom examples, the article explains,”It’s very expensive in terms of mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself” and to replace them with someone else’s idea. Any lean facilitator or coach who has seen the rookie worker nod and accept one-piece flow, while the most seasoned worker or experienced engineer furrow their brow and shake their head, has seen how hard it is to dislodge wrong answers from a brain. When a person knows all of the reasons for doing things the way we do them now, their apparent benefits, and past efforts tried and failed, it is a lot of mental effort indeed to accept another idea. Coaches help people get through this via out-loud thinking with Socratic dialogue, while providing new evidence and experiments to help people develop the correct answers.

The article also hints at what makes a better coach. Coaches are chosen for their strong interest in lean, and their above average lean experience and knowledge, as we would expect. Many also have good interpersonal and communication skills, as required to ask Socratic questions without annoying the student. Based on my observation, the typical balance of lean knowledge to skill at questioning for a lean coach is 70-30. They are selected for their subject matter expertise and passion for lean first and foremost. The article reveals,

“Teachers who find their kids’ ideas fascinating are just better teachers than teachers who find the subject matter fascinating.”

A sports team coach that knows and cares more about the game than about their players is unlikely to bring out the best in people. The same is true for organizational business, life or lean coaches. This will be true as long as there is a need to recognize wrong answers and to help remove them from students’ minds.

How does your lean coach compare? How successful is your lean coach? How do they view their role as a coach? Why?

A common metaphor for a person eager to apply a successful idea at every (and sometimes inappropriate) opportunity is “a hammer looking for a nail”. But this ignores the fact that the clawhammer has two ends: the hammer to drive the nail in, and the claw to lever the nail out. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the lean coach would be “a hammer claw looking for a nail started in the wrong place”. A good coach uses both the claw to remove wrongly placed nails and the hammer end to tap it back in, getting the student started in the right direction.

  1. Rick Foreman

    April 18, 2016 - 8:51 am

    A great article that really focuses on a deeper return on lean engagement, which is reflection and awareness contributing to changed thinking. Many organizations haven’t sustained lean improvements because it is based more on “do it this way,” instead of drawing the awareness of team members to a better way. As a John Maxwell Team certified coach and someone who has been coaching lean for over 20 yrs, I’ve come to understand that we work with human “beings” and not simply human “doings.” This brings the aspect of coaching into a greater need today. Depending on the level of expertise or pass experiences with lean the ratio could be 70/30 or 50/50. As stated, I’ve seen to many of the 70/30 ratios not sustain because it wasn’t imbedded in the team members behavior. Change the habits – changes the behavior – changes the character – becomes who we are and what we do and not simply what we’re “told is a better way.” Everyone begins to own continuous improvement beyond the lean department. We’re specifically developing lean champions on a 50/50 level because, without leadership, change is not going to be sustained and coaching as a leader plays a huge role. The missing element in lean is leadership and I’ll add coaching or the ability to work with people. A great article and nice reflection.

  2. Deborah MacIntyre

    April 22, 2016 - 4:11 am

    The more I learn about “Lean”, the more I realize I could do more to be more.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.