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Would you have a few tips about coaching on the gemba?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Would you have a few tips about coaching on the gemba?

Um. Yes, don’t touch any parts or machinery and don’t do anything yourself. Beyond that … coaching, in principle, is fairly simple. It can be boiled down to five questions:

  1. What are people trying to achieve?
  2. What skill(s) would best serve them to achieve their goals?
  3. How should I teach them these skills?
  4. What difficulties are they experiencing in executing the skill?
  5. What exercises can I give them to overcome these difficulties?

From what I’ve read of traditional coaching environments, in sports or in music, the game is usually set and the challenge is how to play it well. Lean coaching has the added twist that you need to define the what before the how. In my experience, this is the trickier part. Before we get into how we play the game, we need to define what the game is.

My first tip is no tip at all, really, but a reminder that people are people and they do things for other people (internal or external customers, bosses, community, taxman, etc.) with people. It sounds like a motherhood, but understanding what fires up people and drives them is personal and is key to successful coaching. The alternative is to impose goals without meaning (improve productivity, reduce inventory – uh, why?).

Lean Coaching for Executives

I begin executive coaching by asking myself the question: “what is it they’re trying to prove?” The CEOs I know are rarely in business to make money – they’ve got pretty unique and personal motivations for growing their companies, and profit is both a means to further their ambition and a way to count the score but not an end in itself. And yes, this is self-selecting as well as I’ve never been able to work with financial managers who see profit as the goal and accounts as the main tool (my experience with companies taken over by financially managed acquirers has not been good). CEOs I work with are out there to prove something, and it takes time to put one’s finger on it:

  • I will show them this new technology makes better and cheaper precision parts with lower environmental impact
  • I can have a diverse firm and make money
  • I can to radically reduce the energy consumption of a new condominium without increased cost
  • I can turnaround this business – look at how badly it’s managed
  • I can sell globally and to establish selling partnerships on every continent
  • I can build the dominant product in the industry
  • I can replace metal engine parts with plastic parts
  • I can improve cooling performance
  • I can build lineside equipment to have both productivity and protect workers from harm
  • I can create a more congenial working environment and hit profitability objectives
  • And so on…

Any of these motives, and I’ve listed them randomly thinking of the people I know firsthand, require running the company well and profitably, of course, because if you fall into survival mode there’s little chance to prove anything. But as a coach, I’ve found it essential to capture what exactly is the bee in their bonnet that gives managing its meaning.

Sometimes, the guy tells you upfront what he’s all about, and you’ve got to be able to hear it, and sometimes you have to work for years with a person before this gets clearer. In any case, one of the keys to being a successful coach is to try hard to find out what makes the person run, the source of their internal tick tock, because they’re going to do the work, not you.

The next step is then to figure out what conditions need to be created for the person to prove their point. In this, we are fortunate with lean, because the system itself gives us as great starting point. Let’s start by:

  • Focusing on customer satisfaction
  • Spot defects, stop and fix them, think deeply about why?
  • Pull work through the flow just-in-time
  • Involve workers in modifying their workplace and standardize their work

No ifs and buts, that’s lean, period and if the person you coach starts arguing with any of it, there’s no point going further. Lean is a system and, as a coach, this is your value added – so in order to help them achieve what they want, they’ve got to let you help them by doing lean. When they start playing around with these principles on the gemba, they’ll start to see, usually quite quickly, how lean thinking reveals their current situation, and how they create their own misery by doing many things that detract from their goals, every day. At this stage the coach’s problem is twofold:

  1. Link the lean principle to business results to the exec’s ambition
  2. Demonstrate how the principle applies in the current situation in order to bridge the disbelief gap

For instance, just-in-time is rather straightforward, but how does it apply to constructing a building (long projects with a multiplicity of trades)? To making precision parts for luxury watches (huge diversity, low volume, all-over-the place demand variations)? To getting patients in and out of a hospital ward? There is no other help than experience, because as a coach you absolutely need to figure out:

  • In which case you find yourself: high-volume low-variety short processes differ markedly from low-volume high-variety long processes; controlled processes differ from less controlled ones; equipment intensive operations differ from manual assembly, and so on.
  • How the problem can be framed: for instance, it took us literally years to figure out in the construction business that pull meant focusing on the relay between trades in a building: as trades do the work one after the other, but with very different speeds they tend to walk all over themselves, and pull means having each specialist pass through the apartment, in sequence at a takt. Obvious (if hard to do) with hindsight, but hard to see at first.
  • What is the context like: industries have cycles, companies have morale ups and downs, people have mood swings, and there’s always a new fire burning somewhere. When I started out, getting into an argument with a union leader whilst wage negotiations were going on was not the smartest thing I’ve done. Context should not stall work, but it does matter to the people living there, has to be acknowledged.

All Ears

To my mind, the “what” part of coaching is all about an on-going discussion at the gemba about the deeper questions the executive is addressing and how the lean principles work out in his or her specific situation. There is some teaching in it, certainly, but also a lot of listening to, progressively, create a clearer idea of what we’re trying to do and why. I’ve met many consultants who dismiss this sort of talk as too abstract, or beyond their remit, but then they find that even when they succeed at correctly implementing whatever tool they’re peddling they struggle to interest their customer in the results, or the follow-up. They’re out to prove their idea (better flow improves productivity) rather than help the client prove his or hers. Tall order.

Then comes the how part, and we all know that any skills coaching feels like two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back. We can’t just open heads, put in a new chip, and watch the robot perform differently. People have to learn how to do anything, and, from the coach’s perspective this is more akin to pottery (once more round the wheel) than to architecture (I’ve designed it, someone will build it).

The trick to teaching how to do something is to hang on to “NOT GUILTY”:  they try hard, but invisible (sometimes imaginary) impediments stop them from doing the task successfully. It’s terribly easy to confuse will problems (they’re not trying hard enough) with skill problems (they’re missing one critical element) – usually because when people fail to progress quickly, they feel deflated and it shows. Conversely, skill difficulties can be hidden by over-cheerfulness and go-get spirit. In general, emotional arguments hide specific difficulties with the job at hand – which doesn’t make it easier to keep a cool head and look beyond the tantrum to see the real problem. As a coach, the idea is to:

  1. Visualize the ideal performance with your inner eye
  2. Spot the specific difficulty the person is having (they’ll tell you – just listen)
  3. Explain that (though sometimes they won’t want to hear it)
  4. Spell out a simple exercise to practice overcoming the difficulty.

Certainly, repetition makes perfect, but repeating a mistake can be tiresome, so it’s well worth to take a step back and focus on dismantling barriers before moving on.

Again, this is about being aware of case, frame and context. The production manager might well be trying to implement pull but he’s struggling with his leveling board because he has many references in a cell but his CEO has told him to do a model line and prove the concept on one product (which means isolating one reference from others), the logistics director will not release information to establish a leveled plan, and he’s just had a new baby so he’s sleeping two hours a night. The argument at the leveling board can easily become heated because the poor guy is just out of it and he is unlikely to tell you that he’s understood what you try to teach him, but his bosses won’t let him do it.

I know it sounds twee, but to be a successful coach, as my British colleagues used to say, learn to relax and enjoy your problems. Because, to use another aphorism, the juice is worth the squeeze. The juice is watching people realize themselves in their work. The squeeze is to constantly shuttle from the larger question to the specifics of the situation, big picture, back to details, details, details. This, I find is how both the coach and the learner learn collaboratively and, as they do, change the world (okay, in small ways, but still).

As you get them to zoom into the specifics of the situation and then zoom out to the BIG questions and back, you’ll hit many setbacks both because reality exists and reality resists, and because people are people and tend to want contradictory things. As you hit trouble, take heart from another sporting experience: don’t dwell on lost points, worry about the point being played now. As a coach, your objective is not to obtain results – that’s the person you’re coaching’s role – but to keep them fighting. We humans absolutely hate losses. Hate them. But, in order to learn, we’ve got to own up to our mistakes and analyze them. So make it easy for them. Tell them not to worry about what went down, but focus on the next play and how to move one step further towards proving what they have to prove.

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