Three Things to Stop and Start Doing for Better Lean Coaching

The act of lean coaching covers a broad range of formal and informal roles. We see lean coaching between managers on a gemba walk, a consultant overseeing kaizen teams, a kata coach and an IK learner, a black belt mentoring a green belt, and more. What they all have in common is the aim to help their learners grow through problem solving.

Often, this is less about arriving at solutions and more about fixing flaws in the learner’s thought process. This requires revealing what’s in the learner’s mind. Lean coaching does this through a combination of scripted and spontaneous clarifying questions. For many people, telling and directing come more naturally than asking and supporting. In addition to mastering the standard phrases, there are three things we can stop doing and three things we can start doing for better lean coaching.

Stop Asking “Why?” and Start Asking “Why do you think..?”

The first is related to the popular “Why?” question. This is a standard clarifying question and one that problem-solvers are encouraged to use repeatedly, if not exclusively. However, the lean coach should be very careful in their use of this question. There are a few reasons for this.

First, the role of the lean coach as people-developer is not to investigate causes or find solutions. The learner should do that. The coach’s “why?” question can easily lead the conversation away from the main focus of lean coaching.

Second, asking “Why did that happen?” often doesn’t help the coach understand the learner’s thinking. This should only be asked when it’s necessary for the coach to get thorough understanding of the process or issue in focus. “Why do you think..?” is an appropriate substitute.

Third, without proper framing, the learner can hear “Why?” as questioning their motivation or reasoning, rather than as intended, “How did A lead to B?” When it’s necessary to ask “Why?” the lean coach should consider rephrasing it as, “Tell me more about..” or “Help me understand how…”

There is a time and place for lean coaches to take learners through a 5 why exercise. The purpose of asking this question repeatedly is to give the learner practice at thinking through cause-and-effect. On the one extreme, “Why?” is used for interrogation. On the other end, for training. For lean coaching, it should be used not so much.

Stop Interrupting and Start Intercepting

One tough area for lean coaches is knowing when to interrupt and when not to interrupt. Unlike the structured questions on the front and back of the five questions kata card, clarifying questions are variable and spontaneous. The coach may be inspired to ask an important question by something the learner does or says. This may seem important enough to interrupt the learner. But often it’s better to hold the clarifying question until the learner has finished talking.

This does not mean a lean coach should never interrupt. In fact, the coach should intercept the learner, or prevent them from going in the wrong direction, in several situations.

The first situation is when it’s clear from the learner’s response that they have misheard the question, are giving an irrelevant answer, or went off on a tangent. The coach should politely interrupt by saying, “I think my question might have been confusing. Let me clarify…”

The second situation is when a learner repeats a mistake that the lean coach highlighted recently. The coach can say, “I need to stop you for a moment. Let’s review the previous step. How do we..?” There is no sense in waiting for people to finish practicing incorrectly, reinforcing bad habits. This type of interception should be limited to established coach-learner relationships, not as a “gotcha” for new participants on gemba walks or kaizen events.

Third, the coach should use judgement to intercept the learner when they feel the question is important enough. Take a breath, count to three, ask yourself if it’s truly necessary to interrupt.

In all cases, coaches should establish an upfront agreement with the learner, “I’ll do my best to avoid interrupting. But if I need to, I’ll give a sign. Is that okay?”

Stop Making It Personal and Start Making It About the Person

Sometimes lean coaches become focused on the process, asking the questions, and decoding the learner’s words and thinking. Lean coaches have egos. The coach wants to succeed, to do lean coaching right. We want to achieve a specific learning outcome. When lean coaches are under pressure to deliver results, it’s easy to forget about the learner as a person.

The goal is not to ask the perfect question. Coaches should use their eyes to look for non-verbal communication cues. What does the learner’s body language say? How is their tone of voice? The goal of lean coaching is to help the person grow in the understanding, practice and love continuous improvement. All three require making it about the person in front of you.

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