Coaching Problem Solvers at Toyota

By Jon Miller Updated on August 27th, 2021

It’s widely accepted these days that sustaining excellence long term requires customer focus and continuous improvement. Organizations increasingly realize that people capable of thinking and solving problems are their greatest asset. There are many proven and mainstream methods for developing people into problem solvers, such as Toyota Kata, TQM, and Six Sigma. Coaching plays an important role in allowing people to practice, fail, learn and overcome challenges. In a recent 10-minute video and transcript on the Lean Post, Art Smalley responds to a reader’s question on the practical aspects of how people at Toyota develop problem solvers through coaching.

What Does Coaching Look Like at Toyota?

What are basic problem solving and coaching practices really like in Toyota? Art describes the common process as completing basic training, being assigned a team-based or an individual-based problem to solve, working on the problem, and reporting on it periodically. The coaching happens during the report-outs. The coach uses a feedback form to ask questions, evaluate the problem solver’s efforts, and give specific feedback on form and content. Art shares that there are nearly fifty scripted coaching questions, half a dozen questions for each of the eight problem-solving steps. They specify the content, sequence, and expected outcomes from each of the problem-solving steps. The coach evaluates each item on a three-point scale.

Some explanation may be helpful here. What Art is describing is TQM. Toyota has variously called this SQC, TQC, or TQM at different times and depending on what the term describes. The content remains the same. Individuals or QC circles address topics assigned to them or are self-generated, give progress updates in report-outs, follow the common QC Story visual problem-solving format, and manager-coaches use evaluation forms to give feedback. The question of “What does coaching look like at Toyota?” depends on the standpoint of the person who is being coached. For the vast majority of people coming up through the organization, it will be in this context of TQC or TQM.

Good Coaching Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Art points out that while there are standards for both problem solving and coaching at Toyota, there is no single standard. His experience was learning on the job, through classroom training, from peers and seniors assigned to support you, as well as from managers and specialists in various realms. The coaching is not one-size-fits-all. Rather, it varies by the learner’s progression, the need of the learner, as well as the problem-solving situation that puts the learner into a relationship with the appropriate coach.

Before engaging with a coach, the learner builds the foundation of skills and knowledge to put into practice. This includes the seven basic QC tools and fundamentals related to the “management cycle” otherwise known as PDCA. This comment is interesting, “It’s a form of basic problem-solving training, and I didn’t get any coaching specifically on this.” The contrast to the Toyota Kata approach which specifically coaches basic problem-solving is interesting. Perhaps this had more to do with where Art started from than how Toyota approached management development in general.

Toyota Doesn’t Practice Six Sigma…or Do They?

Art later learned a version of the eight-step practical problem solving pattern, called Toyota Business Practice today. There is often an impression in continuous improvement circles that the lean approach is this PDCA-based problem solving while the six sigma approach is DMAIC-based. The former is advertised as being easier to pick up, demanding less in terms of the study of statistics and data analysis methods. Some people in the lean community go as far as to say, “Toyota doesn’t do six sigma.” This, it seems, is more a matter of sibling rivalry between lean and six sigma practitioners than a fact-based discussion.

Toyota uses neither the terms “lean” nor “six sigma” except in their general meanings. They don’t award belts, run five-day kaizen events, or adopt other Western inventions and innovations in the field of continuous improvement. However, they most certainly practice the component tools and methods of both. According to Art, if you stay long enough in the company, you learn from advanced courses and various special problems and assignments over time. It’s not advertised, but Art says, “There’s specialist training and coaching going on for a very small segment of the population, very statistical in nature, very quantitative.” This includes reliability engineering, Weibull analysis, and various tools such as regression analysis, principal component analysis, multivariate analysis, and design of experiments.

Who Can Be a Coach?

Art points out that one of the biggest misconceptions with coaching at Toyota, and perhaps by extension to coaches in organizations striving for lean management, is that anyone who practices problem solving for a period of time can become a coach. Who is allowed to coach others at Toyota? The short answer is “not just anyone.”  Art describes what sounds like a six sigma MBB,

“It’s somewhat restricted to the better problem solvers and the coaches with that capability, especially when you get to the statistical quality control, SQC, realm. It’s very advanced in Toyota, and a very, very small percentage of the population is as qualified to do that.”

In contrast to organizations dedicated to six sigma, which requires that everyone of a certain level of manager take the classes, do a project, and be certified as a black belt, at Toyota, “…they’re very restricted in terms of access, and who gets to take those courses — and who gets to coach those is even more restrictive. I tapped out in the middle — at about the intermediate SQC level and multivariate regression analysis.”

This seems like a very pragmatic approach. One of the oft-mentioned faults of six sigma is that many black belts who do the advanced study rarely go on to use their skills. In some organizations, the certification is a gateway to promotion. When this is the case, training departments certify dozens of black belts whose skills erode due to the weak or non-existent requirements to put these methods into practical use.

Who can be an effective coach goes far beyond taking courses in advanced techniques. According to Art, “The best coaches know how to be directive, coaching, and supportive, and they know how to ask targeted questions that help people advance down the path of problem-solving.”

Coaching Both Process and Content

One of the biggest differences between lean-style approaches such as the Toyota Kata starter coaching pattern, and what’s expected from coaches at Toyota, is the focus on both process and content. In Toyota Kata the coaching focuses on how well the learner practices the improvement kata. The questions and feedback are aimed at ensuring correct practice, as well as finding the learner’s threshold of knowledge for setting up the next experiment.

Problem Solving Coaching & Feedback Form Source: Art Smalley, The Lean Post

Toyota’s TQM-based approach evaluates what the learner’s student did against the standard. The coach assigns a rating of 1 when this fails to meet the expectation, a 2 when it meets expectation, and a 3 when it exceeds expectation. “You have to say why it does not meet expectation, why it meets expectation and yet still could be better, or three, obviously, if it exceeds expectation, explain how it exceeded expectation what was really good about it.” This is understandable since many of the detailed 40-50 questions are somewhat subjective, requiring the coach to explain their judgment.

What Art Smalley observes as a mistake in lean coaching is the over-reliance on open-ended questions and not enough leading questions. The latter help with what Art Smalley calls supportive coaching. This applies when learners are mostly getting the problem-solving steps and doing the content mostly right, but still need support in some areas. It’s a skill in knowing when to stop letting the learner struggle to figure it out, but not quite give them the answer. This is a similar conclusion to one I made with regards to questions to ask during gemba walks.

Art of Lean on Problem Solving

If you’ve found this interesting, there are 7 previous video blogs by Art Smalley on various topics related to problem solving.

Part 1: Coaching Problem Solving

Part 2: Lessons From NBA Coaches

Part 3: Lessons From Martial Arts

Part 4: Military Science and Leadership

Part 5: Tuckman’s Model of Team Formation

Part 6: Team-Building Tools and Practices

Part 7: Dreyfus Model and the Stages of Learning

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