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Is there a difference between executive coaching and lean coaching?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Is there a difference between executive coaching and lean coaching?

Yes. This is not an easy question to answer because there are as many different interpretations of the word “coaching” as there are coaches. But, in my experience, the difference is that lean coaching is a direct teaching method, whereas, what I’ve encountered in organizations as coaching is more of a self-discovery and feedback method. The main difference is content. Lean coaching is not content free – it’s essentially a training method focused on getting the learner to think things through rather than just do. Of course, the specificity of lean thinking is that understanding comes from doing, so there you go.

In some large organizations, I’ve come across coaching support, in various forms. What I’ve understood of it is that the coach helps the person formulate personal issues in their job or career, and through questioning and discussion, by imagining thought experiments and homework, the coach helps to reframe the situation and open up new options. Throughout the process, coaches provide personal feedback and support to help the person work through difficulties in a secure emotional environment.  Some coaching approaches are purely one-to-one, others involve group discussions and sharing in the Kurt Lewin tradition of small-group dynamics where the group acts as a support for commitment and action.

Deep Knowledge

Lean coaching is more directly linked to on-the-job development. It’s a direct training method. The idea is that although hands-on activities can be taught in a TWI show-practice-correct manner, more complex situations require you to dig deeper into technical issues, which rests on three core assumptions:

  • The manager is more experienced in the job than the person she’s coaching. That doesn’t mean she can do the job better (although that helps), but that they understand the ins and outs of the work – much like a sports coach is not supposed to best the best player, but is expected to know all there is about the game and more.
  • The manager has a preferred way to handle typical situations and typical problems and is trying to teach this to her subordinate. In order to teach a way of looking at technical issues, reaching the understanding level of deeper technical principles is unavoidable.
  • Deep understanding requires space to think and to experiment by oneself. Monkey-see, monkey-do works with simple tasks, but in solving complex problems, we need to explore a mindscape in order to figure out the hidden calculus that drives decision making (and yes, “gut feel” and intuition at some level rests on a worldview calculation that needs to be surfaced and challenged).

In lean coaching  therefore, the coach needs to have a deep knowledge of the topic coached as opposed to process knowledge of “coaching” in general terms. The manager-as-coach will have a preferred way of addressing the problem and rather than tell her subordinate what to do, will help her figure it out through practical problem solving exercises – but in order to coach, the manager must first lead. Lean coaching is closer to medical problem-based training than executive coaching:

  1. From going and seeing at the workplace and/or participating to a kaizen workshop the manager will identify a specific weakness or misconception in one of her staff.
  2. The manager will then have to clarify what specifically she wants her subordinate to learn – not just the action, but the underlying reasons for doing this or that in such and such situations. The aim here is to see a mechanism that applies differently in different specific situations.
  3. She will then spot a current work problem reflecting these exact difficulties and ask the person to solve it. Very often this involves being demanding and asking for challenging results as people tend to shy away from situations they don’t feel comfortable with and they must realize this is not optional but a direct instruction to tackle this issue.
  4. She then needs to support the person as they struggle with the problem. First, she sees whether her subordinate takes the problem on board or not (it’s easy to procrastinate on challenging issues), then how they go about it, and finally with how much resilience when reality resists and sometimes fights back.

coaching in lean terms means handling both the space to think and the motivation of the person coached. However, it is not directionless. The coach needs to be very clear about what he or she wants the person to “get” through the practical problem solving. The coach also realizes that although they have a clear idea of the direction of the problem solving, they won’t know the specifics until the trainee figures them out and is open minded (indeed actively seeks) surprising or outside-the-box ideas.

Before You Can Coach …

Ideas are hard to kill. In the West, we’ve inherited from Greek philosophy the idea that all answers are somehow in us and need to be revealed through insight and Socratic questioning. Science has taught us better: learning occurs through exploring known theories in detailed specific cases. Discoveries occur through painstaking empirical work and discoverers are superbly trained to both existing knowledge and discovery procedures.

The lean approach is very different from platonic “all knowledge is within you.” We assume people are both motivated and competent but will misunderstand some things leading to adverse decisions or actions. The aim of coaching is getting the person to realize their own misconceptions and correct their mental model through hands on examination of many cases. The focus on misconceptions makes lean coaching demanding and only appropriate if the person coached is truly committed to self-development.

Indeed, in Developing Lean Leaders at All Levels, Jeff Liker hits the nail on the head: the first step of lean leadership is a commitment to self-development. Second step is coaching and developing others, third is supporting daily kaizen and fourth is creating vision and aligning goals. Without a commitment to self-development both from the manager and the subordinate, there is no point in starting the lean leadership development wheel.

Lean coaching is in fact a dimension of the leadership development method and, before you coach, first you have to lead. Leading in lean means committing to understanding work in greater depth and width in order to focus on value and eliminate the waste caused by misconceptions.

This means accepting that, in the end, all problems are technical problems and innovations are born of technical insights (if there was no technical difficulty, the situation would not have arisen in the first place). Specific know-how and learning is what we seek rather than changing the “culture” or fixing the “system.” Don’t worry about the organizational noise (this is usually the status quo defending itself): solve the problem, lead the improvement.

7 Comments | Post a Comment
Tim February 23, 2015

This was a really great post, I took a lot away from it. Thank you!

Michael Ballé February 24, 2015

Thank you for letting me know :))

Kevin Earnest February 24, 2015

In his book Requisite Organization, Dr. Elliott Jaques was - to the best of my knowledge - the first to separate coaching and mentoring. For Jaques, managers should be held accountable to coach subordinate employees towards becoming effective in role. The importance of role descriptions, with time-span analysis, and slotting employees in the right roles, is critical. Also, anyone's manager MUST be one (cognitive) developmental level above the subordinate role/level; it has to be to provide value-adding coaching. The manager's manager should be held accountable for mentoring his/her subordinates once removed; the focus here is on an individual's career intentions, etc. After reading Jaques, to me, the confusion between coaching and mentoring disipated. Both are required, but should be accountabilities of different managers. Helpful?

Michael Ballé February 24, 2015

Ellioot Jacques' Requisite Organization! absolutely a classic. I haven't thought of this book in years and don't remember him making this distinction, but his model based on length of time-span was absolutely brilliant and spot on in my experience - as well as the fact that time-span needs to be significantly different for hierarchical levels to make any sense. Must read it again! Thank you for the reminder :)

Christian Dinesen February 24, 2015

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your perspective on Lean Coaching. I believe that most of what you a touching on bring a good angle as to what is nessesary for integrating Lean Coaching as part of your Lean Leadership. My thought to your 3 core assumptions is that I agree if it was in a perfect Lean Culture /Organisations. Most organisations are lacking the conditions in order to perform this.

One can argue whether coaching should be directive or none-directive in order to achieve the goal. And in the question as to have deep knowledge about what you coach on is from my perspective a question about what you want to achieve...

Coaching in organisations is for me about creating a learning organisations where from the principles and philosphy of KAIZEN build people to sel reflect on their role, responsbility and task in order to conduct contionous improvement.

Coaching is not directionless in business, if this is the case the intervention methodology and intervention of coaching practice has been misunderstood or the lean leader has been poorly trained. There are always the organisational or strategy goal for everybody to achieve and then you set goals with each individual to secure performance leading to the overall goal.

When we talk about coaching in regard to lean I have discovered a tendency of neglecting the importance of beeing trained as a coach complimenting Lean Kaizen or Six Sigma training. TWI is still very much a directive approach which are important in some situations and coaching in a none-directive way increase the ability to transform people, thinking and behavior. And as much Lean is very rational and in the favor of IQ, Lean leadership and coaching is about a high level of EQ in order to lead, engage and empower the people on the shop floor to take responsibility and ownership of Lean philosophy and practice. Thsi way we start bringing life to meaning and purpose of lean as to what we hear over again and again that Lean is a way to rationalize, cost-cut and remove waste = people.

So I am pleased you take the time and effort of writing this
piece, though there are some nuances which need more attention. There are the whole concept abot coaching ethics, the whole area about the learning organisation and the concept of valuebased leadership of which all three are key principles in supporting Lean thinking and behavior combined with high level of coaching behvior and coaching performance.

I am in my position both an executive coach, a lean coach and a coach trainer and started working with lean experts in 2009 and introducing lean coaching and have been coaching and delivering certifications trainings since 2002.

I look forward to do a joined Lean coaching training which meet both the requirements of highlevel of lean practice and behaviour together with a high level of coaching practice, ethics and EQ behavior.


Michael Ballé February 25, 2015

Hi Christian,


Thank you for your comments. As Kevin mentioned maybe we should talk about mentoring rather than coaching. In lean work I've come across four specific, every day "coaching" situations:

first, teaching standards, which is very much TWI style and directive.

Second, problem-based training, which is asking someone to solve a problem (problem, cause, counteremeasure, check) and discuss with them and others how they went about it, what kind of results they had and why.

Third, kaizen, when you ask the person to see for themselves improvement potential and amanyze their own work methods to try new stuff. This is the least directive.


I've also seen teamwork coaching whcih is when someone is stuck on a technical point and we take them to meet someone else in the organization who can get them unstuck, or asking people from different silos to work together to solve an issue.


In my experience, these situations are very specific and quite technical - I've rarely come across "kaizen" issues out of specific technical problems and in general when people go into managerial or cultural debates I suspect they're working around a technical difficulty.


I'm certain coaching is very valuable and a full discipline to itself, but like other such words, it has many meanings (sports coaching is very different from business coaching, etc.) 


I always fear that in extending rather than restriciting concepts we're increasing the general complexity and confusion of organizations. 


Our challenge is indeed to create learning organizations, but as Art Byrne recently reflected, the lean approach is to lean in the business to develop people - it's a very specific method, hinging on putting customers first,  Jidoka and JIT and I worry that if we make to much case about coaching in and of itself, we're creating yet another red herring and more distraction rather than focusing on learning what is specific about lean?

Tania Lyon February 25, 2015

Another thoughtful post.  My comment is a sidebar--just a small thank you for your use of gender inclusive pronouns.  The lean world is a bit male-dominated, so I take grateful notice when someone makes a hypothetical coaching manager female!

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