Home > The Lean Post> Coaches Need Improvement Too
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Coaches Need Improvement Too

by Brent Wahba
October 22, 2015

Coaches Need Improvement Too

by Brent Wahba
October 22, 2015 | Comments (9)

While my very stylish wife and I were cleaning out our closet the other day, she lovingly (yet firmly) reminded me that people have a tendency to get stuck in the fashion era when they look their best. This makes a lot of sense based on how the brain works – we tend to stick with whatever gives us the most positive feedback because neurological reinforcement turns pleasurable behaviors into unconscious drives

While this mental process may have had past evolutionary advantages (“Grog think meat taste good, Grog want more meat!”), there is also a downside. A few well-meaning but misplaced compliments such as “Hey Jenny, those tiger-striped slacks look great with your saber tooth earrings,” and before you know it, Jenny is doomed to never pass along her jeans or genes for that matter.

So after waving goodbye to a perfectly good pair of brown pleated pants (that still fit, mind you), I started wondering, “Where else does this mental mechanism occur?”

It didn’t take long to discover that evolution’s darker side has frowned upon both politicians (“I got elected because I pummeled the other party, why on earth would I work with them now?”) and corporate executives (“Well I must be doing something right – I got to this level, didn’t I?”). In laymen’s terms, both read: “I really don’t know how I got to be this successful, but I’m just going to keep doing ALL the same things I did during my rise – no matter what the situation.” 

My next find turned out to be both ironic and downright frightening. Business improvement coaches are often some of the worst offenders. Not to suggest that everything has changed in the last five, ten, or even twenty years, but there are an awful lot of “experts” that have stuck with the same assumptions, tools, and coaching styles that made them successful quite a while ago – regardless of any data that proves there might be a better way. Any of you lean senseis still berating your clients for discipline? You really need to stop, that’s soooo Shogun Era.  

So after several decades of coaching, being coached, and observing other coaches (both good and bad), I have come up with some questions to try to drive some useful reflection and improvement – whether you are a coach yourself or are looking for a good one:

For coaches and consultants:

  • When things go badly, is your first instinct to blame your students for “not doing it right?” Just a thought, if your clients already knew what to do and how to get there, why would they need you?
  • Are you setting a good example of humble, servant leadership by being, oh, I don’t know , humble and trying to serve your client’s needs over your own? Down at the consultants’ bar, I hear a lot of trash talk about everyone’s wacky clients and it’s more than a little disconcerting.
  • How do you control your biases? How do you keep yourself from only seeing the world (and your customers) from the same old perspectives? The next time you hear yourself saying “Yep, seen that before – you just need to…”), stop and try to restart as if you know nothing about the actual situation.
  • Are you adding value to the science of coaching and continuous improvement or just repackaging/regurgitating the same old things and calling them something new and catchy? Do you ever run experiments to try new methods?
  • Have you extended your domain knowledge and experience to the point where you are endangering your clients’ success? Maybe I shouldn’t complain, but a fair amount of my Lean consulting business comes from organizations where their original coach tried to extend Lean Manufacturing techniques too far into Sales, Marketing, Product Development, and Strategy and completely missed some critical differences.     
  • Are you avoiding confirmation bias or are you only hearing the good feedback about yourself?
  • Do you ever learn outside your discipline / methodology or do you just outright dismiss different perspectives (not to mention data and others’ success)?
  • Do you have your own continuous improvement strategy? Do you ever seek observation, feedback, and new approaches from other coaches?    

And for those of you choosing or evaluating a coach:

  • Is your coach truly interested in understanding and helping you with your specific problems, or is s/he more interested in deploying his or her specific solutions? I’ve heard a number of organizations complain that their coach “wouldn’t let us try XYZ.” Way to go, coach – just squash their experimental initiative outright.     
  • Is your coach learning and evolving over time? Does s/he use both short- and long-term PDCA cycles? 
  • Does your coach ask for and really do something with your feedback?
  • How has your coach failed in the past? They all have at some point, so what did s/he learn and how has s/he changed as a result? And maybe more importantly, how willing is your coach to openly discuss his or her failures? Hint, hint, isn’t reflection a behavior we are trying to instill into all organizations?
  • Does your coach take at least partial responsibility when things don’t go well? How good is your coach at solving problems that might include her or him?Has your coach actually done, first-hand, what s/he is teaching, or is s/he just describing what others have done? Not that you cannot ever teach something that you haven’t practiced, but sometimes that first-hand experience gives a Socratic coach more insightful questions.
  • Is your coach adding value to the science of coaching or just regurgitating and repackaging the same old thing? Sometimes you need to turn your “fluff-o-meter” up to 11 before selecting a coach, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you are unsure. 

What’s at stake in all of this? Whether you are a coaching client or a coach yourself, it really is the future of your business. You both have decided to pursue the world of continuous improvement, so why wouldn’t continuous improvement apply to continuous improvement itself? Just like everyone else, coaches need improvement too.  

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Search Posts:
Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata
Elizabeth Carrington, Mike Rother & William Costantino
Management on the Mend
By John Toussaint, MD
Was this post... Click all that apply
23 people say YES
28 people say YES
20 people say YES
26 people say YES
Related Posts
9 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt October 22, 2015

Absolutely spot on. I have had several collegues that thought that they knew it all, and at some point were humbled. Sad thing is they didn't understand why because in their eyes their way was not only the right way, but the only way.

When we as coaches cease to learn and try new things, it's probably time to find something else to do.

Reply »

Rick Whiteside October 22, 2015

Great article.  I think you've identified one of the key issues which is that coaches often forget the principle of continuous improvement in their own practice, staying committed to the model they think is philosophically correct and which has worked in the past. Unfortunately that means they often push their way of working onto the client even when it's not a good fit.

We think a better way of working is to be FLEX-ible, letting the client pull a response from you based on what they are "saying" at the moment (YES, NO, MAYBE, YES BUT, NO OK).  Coaches can then adjust their approach to the needs of that particular client in the specific situation to more effectively reach the goal.

Reply »

Erik Lindborg October 22, 2015

One of my favorite LEI articles. Love the style and the messsage. Caused deep reflection. Thanks!

Reply »

Brent Wahba October 22, 2015

Ken, Rick & Erik - thank you for the positive feedback!  Brent

Reply »

John Shook October 24, 2015
3 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks for the Post on this important topic, Brent. You give us a useful reminder to avoid the expert trap - emphasized nicely by Ken in his comment - by applying continuous improvment to ourselves with a "science of coaching" to avoid fluff. Amen -- let's stay practical and grounded.

In that regard, note the reference Rick makes regarding specific means of applying specific techniques toward actualizing a science of coaching in the process of moving coaching interactions from push to pull. For more on that take a look at the Planet Lean article by Frances Steinberg: http://www.planet-lean.com/how-to-work-with-challenging-people-be-flexible-and-let-them-pull-the-right-reaction-from-you.

- john 

Reply »

Brent Wahba October 24, 2015

Thanks for the link to Frances' article, John - thats a very powerful model.  Brent

Reply »

Steve October 26, 2015

I really appreciate this post, Brent.  Everyone's comments have been good for me to read as well.

What feedback/advice would you give to a new coach who has already had a major realization that he has been approaching his work incorrectly thus far?  Yes, I'm that guy.  ??

I  have been in my new role with a new company (healthcare) approximately three months now as a coach.   I have more than a decade of experience as a coach, but that is coaching my front-line managers and front-line employees in the actual healthcare operations. In my new role, I am based in the corporate office and support all of our medical offices by coaching their transformation work.  The company has been on the transformation journey for about a year and have been looking  to me for guidance on how to do what we did at my last employer.  During my first kaizen workshop two weeks ago, I finally realized that I was doing exactly what you mentioned in this post. I was asking questions and providing input but I was doing  it in a way that was resulting in the team members trying to replicate what my previous employer had done. This felt very comfortable for the team, and it was incredibly comfortable for me as well because it's what I have known for the last five years.   At the end of the workshop, I was having a discussion with my boss and that's when I had the realization of what I was doing. At this point I am not sure how to be the best coach that I can be without defaulting to my past experience.   Do you or anyone have advice on how I can  evolve my own style so that it does not stifle the creativity of the frontline team and, simultaneously, provided a very good growth and development opportunity for myself as a coach?


Thanks again for the post,



Reply »

Brent Wahba October 26, 2015

Hi Steve,


Thanks for your willingness to share your situation as well as the great question. Something tells me you already are a very thoughtful coach.


My guess is that you were really hired to reproduce the types of results you achieved at your last company rather than to try to implement the same solutions. I often say it is much more important to learn about how Toyota (or Apple or Zappos or…) created their own solutions than to copy the solutions themselves. So in that spirit, what were your successful coaching behaviors in your last job and how can they be reused in your new one? In other words, don’t worry about those specific solutions, but rather how were you able to move the organization’s thinking and performance in the right direction? The levels and work processes may be different in your new role, but people are still people and will react well to good coaching.


Here are some additional concepts that I’ve both observed and tried myself, and I invite others to chime in with their techniques too:


  1. People learn incrementally – a good coach helps each student or team bridge their specific knowledge and skills gaps, but does so at a controlled pace of building on their existing understanding rather than creating more confusion by trying to jump too quickly to the end.
  2. People learn by doing – a good coach helps students find opportunities to practice their desired thinking and behaviors.
  3. Lean coaches focus on facilitating good problem solving skill development (through A3s, VSM, Strategy Deployment, 5 Whys…), but avoid solving others’ problems for them or outright correction.
  4. There is a tremendous amount of pride that comes from solving one’s own problems. Your students’ solutions may not be as technically perfect as you know they could be, but even small corrections can significantly reduce motivation – especially as brains are being stretched.
  5. Examples (especially from your own past) should be used very selectively – otherwise students might try to copy instead of broadening their thinking and problem solving skills.
  6. Relentlessly use PDCA on your coaching goals for each situation. Without PDCA you won’t know if you need to change your situational techniques (i.e. the FLEX model).
  7. Ask questions to drive deeper student or organizational understanding rather than to make your own points.
  8. Sometimes a bit of self-deprecating humor or even stories of your own failures both build rapport and demonstrate good, self-reflective behavior.


While there isn’t room to summarize it here, there is a book I particularly like on building coaching relationships – Helping by Edgar Schein.


Does that give you some useful ideas to experiment with? [note my strategic use of PDCA ;>) ]



Reply »

cucoq October 23, 2017


I'm Cucoq from Malaysia, my situation is quite 80% close to Steve's situation, maybe slightly different.

My situation:

1) Im hired to develop continuous improvement culture in the company, as it was mentioned that the company struggles to sustain any lean or CI approach for the past few years, and the driver for CI previously before Im hired were the General Manager himself. So being hired, Im the first CI here without any other focus.

2) The company already has a set of lean tools, strategy and implementations that they've done it worldwide, but not particularly in Malaysia. So its a matter of activating those back, but I would like it to be more cultural manner rather than just re-apply all the tools, coz it will be the same impact i.e it will be sustained.

3) Im doing this alone, with no partners or subordinate assisting me.

4) Executive level people generally suiggests that they knew lean and implemented it already, whether in different company and current company, but I can see its not sustained.

5) I can say before reading this posts, I actually done the same as suggested in the post, but just unsure in terms of the impact it will do. Now I know more that if will definitely help me and the company learn to be better.

6) I would like to have more suggestions on how I would approach this situation culturally.




Reply »

Search Posts:
Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata
Elizabeth Carrington, Mike Rother & William Costantino
Management on the Mend
By John Toussaint, MD
Operator #1
Ask Art: How high is up with lean?
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean