Home > Gemba Coach> What's the main quality I should look out for in hiring a lean coach?

What's the main quality I should look out for in hiring a lean coach?

Permalink   |   2 Comments   |   Post a Comment   |  
  |   RSS

Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m in the process of hiring a Lean Coach for my team and I wondered if there was any one quality I should look out for?

Curiosity. Your question really threw me off my stride. My first reaction was persistence. And then I thought “open mind,” because this is certainly key as well. Then I listed all the great lean coaches I’ve been privileged to meet over the years and the one personality trait they all shared was … curiosity.

Your fascinating question touches upon a deep aspect of lean, and one that is extremely hard to convey. I remember one of my sensei describing a Gemba visit with his Toyota sensei. The plant manager is desperate for help on reducing costs on one of his cells –-if he can’t find a way to do it, corporate will take the cell away and transfer it to a low cost country.

“What is your quality like?” asks the sensei

“Quality is fine,” answers the plant manager, “we’re under 8 ppm” (8 bad parts per million, incredibly good)

“Ah,” answers the Toyota sensei, “this means you must have very few defects.”

“Yes, yes, quality is not the issue, cost is killing me though.”

“So these defects must be very interesting,” continues the sensei. “Could you show us your latest defect?”

This exchange sums up one of the key misunderstandings of lean thinking. The aim is not to get the results: the aim is to learn. And results are the only real-life test of true learning.

Bottom-line level results derive from improved capabilities on critical topics. Fixing the immediate problem is interesting only inasmuch as it leads us to confront deeper skills gaps and to enhance what we know.

Why, Why, Why?

This comes down to a fundamental motivational issue. If your goal is to solve your immediate problem, your search for information and ideas will be limited at the first “why?” Lean thinking is all about asking “why?” again and again until we not only discover how to countermeasure whatever is happening now, but better understand the deeper boundary of knowledge, the grey area where what we know and what we don’t know blur. The only thing that takes you there is curiosity.

In visiting suppliers to Toyota, I’ve witnessed many examples where the problem has been solved but Toyota engineers keep nit-picking and asking for parts and testing stuff until they’re satisfied that they understand what happened. This is very frustrating for the supplier as they feel the problem has gone away and they have many more other issues to work on. Why is Toyota being such a pain? They’re just curious, that’s what. First true “why?” starts once the countermeasure is in place and has worked. The First PDCA cycle is but the beginning. “Why did the problem occur in the first place?” is the truly interesting question.

Typically, companies don’t hire lean coaches for their curiosity. Lean coaches are sought out for their mastery of the lean tools and their (perceived) ability to get things done. It’s hardly ever said at the individual level, but the underlying question is “what is the return on investment on a lean coach?” The question never asked is “what is the cost saving of a mistake avoided?” or “what is the benefit of an innovation?”

Hiring lean coaches to fix operational problems will not, cannot, improve competitiveness. The company’s processes are perfectly adapted to its current level of performance, and hiring people to make sure these processes work as is, as opposed to challenge and explore them is a sure way to … not get very far quick.

The eternal hiring question is do you hire skills and instill attitude? Or should you hire attitude and teach skills? Obviously, this is a chicken-and-egg question. Without enough prerequisite knowledge of tools, how can we evaluate the person’s attitude towards solving problems? And, conversely, even the best attitude can hit the barrier of too high a skills gap – too much to learn before being effective. So we look for an attitude/skill compromise:

  1. The attitude to understand that the aim of kaizen is not just solving the issue but deepening the person’s own understanding of their own job – as close to basic physics principles as we can – and increase their knowledge.
  2. The skills to figure out which tool will best help the person to learn in which case, and how each tools applies differently in different cases. For instance, Kanban in a machining area will work on the same principles as Kanban in a software design office, but many practical aspects will differ considerably. Regardless of form, the skill is to see that the tool does what it’s expected to do, as opposed to be forced on to people regardless.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Curiosity is often seen as a distraction to efficiency. A curious person is likely to get lost in unexpected details, to get side-tracked by what is considered a side-issue, to make unconsidered changes to basic tools so that they no longer perform as they should and to spend far more time on a problem than is considered sensible. On the other hand, the curious person is also the most likely to put their finger on the breakthrough that will fundamentally crack the problem.

A current myth is that discoveries are happy accidents – they happen through serendipity, mistakes, errors and dumb luck rather than by research. Be that as it may, discoveries also happen to people who have devoted their life studying a subject. Sure, the answer is rarely where we look for it. But we’ll only recognize the answer if we’ve been searching for it for a long time. If we’re still curious for the answer.

The choice is yours: effectiveness or efficiency? Ask “why?” or fix the problem? Develop a kaizen mind or improve processes to reduce cost? The selection of a lean coach really depends or your own take of what kind of lean you’re after. Do you aim to help line guys learn to better solve their own problems? Or have you sold a lean program to your CEO and do you intent to roll it out no matter what? Who you hire, in the end, will reflect as much on what you intend to do as to who they are.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Chuan Peng Low May 18, 2014


Great advice! especially also to current and future coaches :)

As I read and digest this column, it reminds our Lean Coaches to be constantly curious with ourselves - "what are the qualitites look upon by ourselves to be a better coach?"...

Is it not this same persistence curiosity which makes a Lean Coach always a continuously improving coach... and learning-coaching-relearning can truly be harmonized?

Let's all Enjoy, Embrace and Effect curiosity in our lives...

MArk Jaben May 19, 2014

But then isnt this akin to  always being open to challenging the plausable explanations your brain concocts-- 'your misconceptions about the method of production adds unnecesary cost'.

Results as merely feedback on the learning - not the conventional belief and a hard one to advance.-especially with leaders who are focused otherwise as in this question. The challenge is what it would take for this leader to be open to the possibility that 'results as feedback' may be a more successful approach than what they are doing and then, if so, what would they need to experience to take their next step to find out?
Other Michael Ballé Related Content

Gold Mine Master Class



  • Are You Narrowing Your Problems Down?
    "Rationality did not lay in higher reasoning powers, in visionary schemes, but in the ability to narrow down problems until one reached the nitty-gritty level at which one could actually do something about them," writes the protagonist of Michael Balle's The Gold Mine.
  • Lead With Respect Shares Tangible Practices That Develop Others, Says Author Michael Balle
    Michael and Freddy Balle's book Lead With Respect portrays on-the-job behaviors of lean leaders which can be learned through practice. Michael explains how these can help fulfill the promise of lean by aligning the company’s success to individual fulfillment.
  • How Can Lean Affect Shareholder Value?
    Lean can help challenge assumptions and surface opinions that ultimately improve shareholder value, argues Michael Balle.