The Coaching Cycle Is Not a Judgement-Free Zone

By Jon Miller Updated on April 11th, 2021

Planet Fitness famously calls itself a judgement-free zone. This is an effort to combat the image of gyms as aggressive, competitive spaces. Beginners or casual users may not feel as comfortable. We are all beginners at one time, and we’d never get started if we worried about what others thought about how we exercised or looked. A judgement-free zone is accepting, self-paced, and open to individual interpretation of what to do in that space. In contrast, workplaces are rarely judgment-free zones. Sometimes this is an unfortunate legacy of the prevailing culture. Other times, it is salutary and by design.

Judgment During a Coaching Cycle

Judgement-free zones are all well and good for individuals engaging in self-paced exercise at a gym. However, “There’s no judgement here,” is not an appropriate phrase when attempting to learn a specific pattern of movement such as a dance, a musical instrument, or scientific thinking. For these we rely on the judgment of a coach.

In a kata coaching cycle, the coach must judge the correctness of the learner’s practice of the improvement kata. The coach does this by asking a set of scripted questions each time. The learner answers, using information prepared on their kata storyboard. This allows the coach to evaluate the learner’s recent efforts, but more importantly to understand their thought process.

Judging Adherence to an Agreed Pattern

Kata coaching is an exercise in interactive metacognition, which is to say, thinking about the coachee’s thinking. The coach is not concerned with the content of the answers. Was the last experiment a success or was it a failure? This doesn’t matter to the coach. What matters is how the learner answers the question, “What actually happened?” The coach listens for clear thinking, fact-based descriptions, and the limits of the learner’s knowledge.

An important point is that the coach is never casting judgement on the person. Their focus is strictly on how the person is following the agreed practice patterns of the improvement kata. This is no different than what a teacher does in any pattern-based practice, such as martial arts, music, or learning a foreign language. Learning happens through repetition of correct practice habits. The coaching cycle is an opportunity to observe these habits and give feedback on future practice.

How to Be a Good Judge as a Coach

The interesting thing about being a coach is that it’s not a requirement to have performed at a high level. In sports, business, or other fields, many coaches are not former superstars. In fact, top performers rarely make the best coaches. At the gym, there are exercises I can do that my trainer can’t. However, they have done those exercises themselves with less weight or resistance. And more importantly they understand exercise physiology, sports psychology, and proper form.

Coaching is a skill like any other. A kata coach must not only know the pattern in theory but also through the repetition of personal practice. The scripted questions only go so far. A coach must develop skill in asking clarifying questions. A coach needs to be a good listener and observer of people.

Coaches must celebrate the performance of a correct pattern, but also be ready to firmly judge thinking errors or habits that are out of bounds. A coach must be good at giving feedback in small, attainable increments for the learner to practice and correct daily.

This is a lot for a coach to remember during every coaching cycle. For this reason, the kata approach recommends a second coach who can periodically observe the coach-learner interaction. The coaching cycle is also not a judgment-free zone for the coach.

Daily Practice Is Judgment-free

A gym may be a judgment-free zone, but when we hire a personal trainer, we welcome their judgment of our form and other practice habits. An athletic competition must be a judgment-free zone, because it’s game time and the clock is ticking. Judgment and feedback come at halftime, or after the match. The exercise of developing our scientific thinking in our minds is no different.

After each coaching cycle, learners take their coach’s feedback and continue practicing. They run experiments, collect data, study the results, and prepare for the next coaching cycle. There is no expectation that their daily practice will be error-free. It’s important that the coach, learner, and other members of management state this explicitly. Daily work must be a judgment-free zone. This is where learners take the coach’s feedback, apply it in real life situations, and test the strength of their thinking patterns.

  1. Jonathan Wiederecht

    April 16, 2021 - 2:07 pm

    Jon – thank you for the last two blogs on Kata. I’ve started Rother’s book, Toyota Kata and now kicking myself that I waited so long to read this book. Like almost all things Lean, the concept is simple. Like most things Lean, the nuances require continued study to understand at deeper levels. Your last two blogs on this topic have helped me to better grasp this. What is also fascinating, when I started on my lean journey 25 years ago, 95% of the literature was about the tools/concepts (VSM, 5S, SMED, single piece flow, etc…). Today it’s about behaviors and coaching – which was missing/lacking in early literature. Thanks for being a part of this conversation. Jon

    • Jon Miller

      April 20, 2021 - 12:57 am

      Indeed. Thanks for reading Jonathan

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