Leading Change

The Three Deliberate Practices of Lean Coaching

The Practice of Purpose

Decades ago W. Edwards Deming’s first principle of management was, “Create constancy of purpose for improving products and services”. In the 21st century purpose has been hijacked by the drive for profit. How can a leader clarify his or her purpose in a work situation? Author and consultant Kiyo Suzaki recommends a “so what” inquiry into finding a purpose. A leader is to ask repeatedly of any work activity “so what”, thereby drilling down to locate a meaning for the effort. It might resemble the following chain of questions one might ask silently inside.

  • ·      Why am I doing this task? Because my boss asked me to do it.
  • ·      So what?  If the task is done well it will be progress in an important project.
  • ·      So what? The project is important to a key customer who is important to our business.
  • ·      So what? I find meaning in our business mission to deliver value to our customers.

As new situations arise in a staff meeting, problem solving session, design review or water- cooler conversation, a leader needs to find a goal or target condition that fits her purpose and vision, one that leads to progress. Obviously if the “so what” questions short circuits to an “I don’t know” one should seek more information, talk to the boss or understand customer requirements. Once a leader has found a business purpose, how does he or she proceed?

These days coaching process improvements day in and day out is the preferred approach to implement lean production. Consider the analogy with a personal trainer at a gym or in a weight room. Would it ever be appropriate for the personal trainer to lift the weights for you? Of course not. Similarly, implementing lean production improvements must be led by employees doing the work. It can’t be mandated by experts.

Coaching is a word with many applications including teaching, correction, career development, process improvement and counseling employees to remediate their poor performance. In recent years, PDCA, plan-do-check-adjust and using an A3 were often seen as the way to do lean coaching. However recently Western experts have experienced, decoded and described Toyota-style coaching tools and protocols.[1] Websites to learn more about coaching continuous improvement are Toyota Kata.com and LEI.org. You can review the ways to use the A3 in coaching in John Shook's  book, Managing to Learn.

The A3 process aims at both managing work and developing people The A3 is a single sheet for problem solving that provides a structure of a, “current situation or problem statement” followed by logical steps all the way through a plan for implementing a solution.  It’s been well-described in the book Managing to Learn, by John Shook. Here’s an A3 coach’s description from a lean product development coach who uses it..

An A3 Coach Speaks

"The A3 puts together a logical thought process and mandates the collaboration of the key players. It helps develop the Esprit de corps you need to be successful. In one example product design engineers came together for a value stream mapping workshop initially. The workshop was four days and thee team spent two weeks together beginning the first series of A3s. Using that to structure their collective work the team developed commitment to each other over the two weeks. Then later back home they would talk to someone on the phone they’ll remember the evening you went out to dinner and he told you about his family. This stays with you and you are committed and they will put the team in front of themselves. Author John Shook describes the impact of the A3 as a developmental process: “The impact of mentoring can have a much deeper, even a meditative impact. I saw and experienced it having great impact. The A3 learning process evokes what the Buddhists call ‘beginner’s mind.’”[1]

Mike Rother and his colleagues observed and interview managers in Toyota to understand the unseen managerial routines and thinking that lie behind Toyota's success with continuous improvement. They found that, “What was being worked on differs from area to area and level to level, but the thinking pattern is the same.” They codified the steps and dubbed it a “kata”, meaning “form” of continuous improvement. They published the coaching and improvement methods or kata in the workplace practiced over and over the way that repetitive moves are used in the martial arts[1] The kata approach uses “five questions” as the standard way to structure coaching to a target condition with either a process metric or a qualitative description. Then the coach guides with discussion with what are called the “five questions”:

1.     What is the target condition?

2.     What are the actual conditions now?

3.     What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?

4.     Which one are you addressing now or next?

5.     What is the next step or a next experiment? What do you expect? When can we go and see what we have learned?

A Kata Coach Speaks

      Lean is a two-pronged approach, respect for people and improve with work processes. Most American companies are trying to make more money, but lean doesn’t solve that problem. Command and control tries to do that. If you shove a lean process into a command management culture, it’s like oil and water mixed and it makes no sense. The latter is a fear-based means to making money. The lean process requires the value of “respect for humanity” which includes employees, customers and me personally because I want to be successful too. I want to lead change in a way that we all gain." In kata, everyone at every level needs to coach others within their own purview, find their current threshold of knowledge, apply the five questions, and employ their kaizen minds in order to improve processes and work systems

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