Part of my role at Gemba Academy is to coach customers along their continuous improvement journey.  Coaching sessions are typically brief phone conversations that help clients continually realign their efforts with organizational goals and personal objectives. Part of the coaching conversation involves acknowledging obstacles.

Thoroughly understanding the obstacles between current state and desired state (current condition and target condition to use Kata language) is a key aspect of making progress.  Acknowledging what is obstructing the path from point A to point B seems to help reduce the sense of being overburdened.  Listing the obstacles helps bring clarity to the situation and allows the client to select the most pressing issue that comes to mind. As Mike Rother put it on his coaching kata card, “Which one (obstacle) are you addressing now?” not only helps learners (clients) focus, it also helps learners give themselves permission to let the other things go for the moment.

This is an important aspect of problem solving, improving, and learning.  Confronting the obstacles is where the decision making happens.  What will be done is decided as much as what won’t be done.  Both are important.

I typically don’t get involved in the obstacle selection, despite what I think the client should do.  Inserting opinions or making suggestions isn’t typically the role of the coach.  There is an exception–and it comes up often.

When the question “What is keeping you from getting to where you want to go?” is asked, the most common response is “Time.”  After all of the other obstacles are listed and we transition to taking action, the client selects the obstacle to address.  When “Time” is on the list, I disrupt the process and tell the client to address this first.

There are likely some coaches who disagree with the approach.  Taking action is the client’s decision.  In the case of dealing with time, though, I’m not really telling the client what action to take.  There’s a subtle distinction here.

Time isn’t an obstacle.  It can’t be managed, adjusted, overcome, or influenced.  Only the things that take our time can be.  Schedules, projects, and tasks can be managed.  Decisions surrounding these items can be made.

The claim that time is an obstacle reveals a lack of commitment, which could be for a variety of reasons.  The first reason is usually overburdening.  “I don’t have time” really means “I’m overwhelmed and other commitments are taking priority.”

This is a call for help.  As a coach external to the client’s organization, there is nothing I can reasonably do to change the client’s obligations, commitments, or responsibility.  What I can do, though, is help clients reframe their thinking by helping them acknowledge the things they can’t control (customer demands and time) and confront the things they can.  These would be things like deciding what projects or tasks will get attention and in what order.  What’s more important is deciding what not to do with the time available.

This is a shift from a reactive to a proactive mindset.  It’s deciding to take control of one’s own actions rather than being controlled by outside influences.  We can’t always choose our circumstances, but we can choose how to respond to them.  It’s a bit like deciding to take either the red pill or the blue pill, to borrow from The Matrix.  Making this particular decision can be a great challenge.  Once the decision’s been made, we typically see obstacle after obstacle being quickly overcome.



  1. Stewart Bellamy

    August 23, 2019 - 12:29 pm

    Great article. One of my mentors, Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth, often had to remind me – “Say yes to the few and wait to the many.”

  2. Tony Heath

    August 30, 2019 - 10:04 am

    David Allen’s Getting Things Done strategy first taught me how to prioritize my work. Then I studied Lean and discovered that flow can be enhanced by removing waste in processes. Now I find that I have plenty of time even when people around me are panicking.

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