The Lean Leader as Player-Coach

By Jon Miller Updated on July 13th, 2019

Player-coaches are far less common today than they were in professional sports a few decades ago. A few notable superstar players informally perform a similar role today, but under a dedicated head coach who guide the team. In modern business the player-coach is often an individual contributor who also serves as manager of a small team. Examples include tech startups whose founder-executives also write code, manufacturing team leaders who also work on the line part of the time, or regional sales managers who have their own sales quotas while directing sales people in their region.

The main reasons for using player-coaches in modern business is the lower cost to the organization compared to a full-time manager. A small team may need local supervision, but not justify a full-time overhead person. It is also a benefit that player-coaches are individual contributors and thus very familiar with the technical aspects and details of the work the are managing. Not only are they delivering directly, they are able to step in and do the work of their team members when needed. A significant downside is that player-coaches are often selected from high-performing individual contributors who may not be the best suited to be coaches or managers. Another drawback is that sometimes the team or process needs the attention of a full-time manager. Also, coaches who are great players can outshine other team members and hold back their development.

Organizations who assign one or more people to lead or manage continuous improvement efforts often treat them as player-coaches. These Lean leaders are expected to identify opportunities, set priorities, and manage improvement projects. In practice, they are often held responsible for much of the “doing” as well. When teaching these methods hands-on, it can be easier to show by doing it for them. Lacking a dedicated team of individual contributor CI engineers, the Lean leader becomes a player, gathering the data, creating maps, orchestrating physical or process changes. Many organizations rely on kaizen events or other focused Lean projects to bring temporary teams of “players” together under the player-coach. While this approach might win you an adult softball league championship one weekend, it will not allow you to play ball in the major leagues.

In the Lean context, all managers should be able to “play”. This means being very familiar through experience, and able to apply, continuous improvement methods, systems and tools. Part of every person’s job in a Lean organization is to “play” or practice continuous improvement. Further more, from team leaders to CEOs, all managers have the responsibility to coach and develop their people’s ability to detect abnormalities, improve and innovate. In other words, managers in Lean organizations need to develop both practical competence in CI methods and the ability to coach others. The Lean leader as player-coach soon realizes that not only must they coach the improvement teams but also the middle management, senior leadership team and CEO. This is where a Lean leader selected because they were the best “player”, as an engineer-facilitator of Lean methods, may not be best equipped to coach and influence both up and across the organization.

Professional sports leagues relied on player-coaches in their early years before they were on sound financial footing. The team owners could not afford to hire full-time coaches to work with each player both as athletes and as individuals, to direct practice, game plan, stand on the sidelines and watch the game progress and call in adjustments. As professional sports leagues became big business, they could no longer afford not to have head coaches, position coaches, sports psychologists, team doctors, nutritionists, whatever will help their players win. Today there is simply too much money on the line not to invest in the best possible resources to coach and develop their players.

Organizations on the continuous improvement journey can benefit from asking themselves whether they are more like the NBA teams of the 1960s or the teams of today, and what this means for how they structure their coaching staff.

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