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Helpful Coaching? Part One: Who Says What’s Helpful?


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Coaching is a hot topic in the lean/continuous improvement community these days. There is growing interest in developing problem solving cultures in organizations as the path to achieving sustainable lean implementation and continuous improvement. This is causing the role of managers, leaders, lean/CI coordinators and people with belts (certified lean or six sigma) to be redefined or expanded to include a significant focus on coaching.

The question I want to raise in the midst of all the excitement about the potential of coaching as a way to transform the culture of our organizations is whether or not we can assume that coaching is, in fact, always helpful. I invite you to think about that question with me. I wish we could discuss it but in place of an actual person-to-person exchange I will raise questions and offer my thoughts in response. Please explore your ideas and talk back to me in your heads. I will put the questions I am suggesting we consider together in Italics. I may not have the answers but I do have a lot of questions for both of us to think about.

Let me be more specific about my purpose for engaging you in this discussion. What I really want us to consider together is the question: What kind of coaching is helpful for someone with problem solving responsibility? I don't want to tackle the question of whether coaching in general is automatically helpful to the person receiving it (although I do have ideas on that.) I want to focus on a specific situation and that is when we are trying to be helpful as a coach to someone who is trying to think about and deal with a problem.

That leads me to two additional questions I want to throw on the table.

When is coaching not helpful to someone trying to do problem solving thinking?

And, Why does coaching for problem solving thinking need to be helpful in the eyes of customer (coachee) to actually be helpful?


I would like to share the story of Julia and her A3 with you. It is when I was first forced to consider whether or not my efforts to be helpful as a coach were in fact helpful to the person I was coaching. Julia was a young team leader going through training to apply for a group leader position at the Toyota plant in Kentucky where I worked in the late 80's and the 90's. I lead a team that delivered the course on A3 Problem Solving that was part of the training program Julia was going through. She brought me her A3 (the third version) to read and tell her how she was doing.

We had to create our own course on A3 preparation because Toyota in Japan did not have a formal course on the practice to give us. I studied several translated A3s from Japan and talked about the thinking behind creating one with many Japanese executives, managers and trainers assigned to our plant. I had even written three A3s of my own (one on the purpose, content and process of an A3 creation) that had been signed off on by the two Japanese managers in our department. In other words, I thought I pretty much knew what there was to know about doing A3s. I had not yet had the benefit of subsequent work in Japan with one of the company's designated experts on A3, who told me even though he was close to retirement he was just starting to learn about the A3.

I was very happy to share my knowledge and wisdom about the A3 format with Julia. I went through her A3 section by section pointing out things I thought were good A3 thinking and things I thought were not. I offered suggestions on how I would revise sections to make a better A3 problem solving story and even threw in advice relating to grasping the actual conditions at the gemba that I thought would make her a stronger PDCA problem solver. When I finally wound down I handed the A3 back to Julia and asked, "Did that help?"

She thought for a long time and then said, "I don't know." "What do you mean, you don't know?"

"I don't know if it helped me, she said. "You did all the thinking. I still don't know if I can do an A3 in spite of all you told me."

The English have an expression, "gobsmacked." I don't know exactly what it means but I take it to mean something like being hit in the head with astonishment. At least that sums up what I felt. My first reaction was to think it was something having to do with her being young, unaware of her lack of understanding and ungrateful. Then I thought, What did she have to be grateful for? I did all the talking, made myself feel good by what I knew and spewed a ton of advice on her. But did it do anything that actually helped her?

Apparently not, I concluded - and why should I think I had been helpful? Because I told her a bunch of things that I thought needed fixing and how I would fix them. It was still her A3. She had done the thinking to get it this far. She was going to have to do the thinking and the work to get it to the next level. And not once did what she was thinking about how to address the problem or what she knew about the situation come into the discussion.

I took a breath, looked her in the eye and said, "Let's try this again. You talk me through your A3 and how you got to what you put in each section and I'll ask questions if there is something about your story or the thinking behind it I don't understand." "Thanks," she said. "That would help. I really do want to learn how to do this."

"Coachee" as Customer

We have the best of intentions when we coach other people to help them reach a higher level of thinking or performance. But as I learned from Julia and a few other "customers" of my coaching later (it took several repetitions of the lesson for me to fully get it – and I still sometimes slip) for coaching to be actually helpful it has to be experienced as help she or he wants or can use by the coachee. That means the coachee has to be open to receiving the help and at a point he or she is able to use it.

That was for me an important realization about the requirements for a successful coaching relationship and one I would like to explore with you. What exactly does it mean when we say the coachee must be open to receiving help and ready to use the coaching for it to be helpful? First let me share a lame joke from the 70's and 80's and an old saying that is probably Buddhist to illustrate what I mean. The "joke," which is one of hundreds from the "light bulb" period of American humor asks, "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?" The response is, "It doesn't matter how many psychologists you have; the light bulb has got to want to change." The Buddhist saying is much more elegant and profound. It says simply, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

The light bulb joke has a bit of lean thinking to it. The "helpee" or "coachee" is the customer and defines what value is for her. I find it interesting that we don't have real words for the receiver in either case. It is as though helping and coaching is a one way relationship and the receiver is passive and just a receptacle for the other person's good intentions or wisdom. The bottom line is, however, that the help given or the coaching given are only helpful if they enable the receiver to address a need he or she has or is able to put them to a use he or she has.

The Buddhist saying speaks clearly for itself. You can tell and teach and preach and coach but you cannot learn for another person. He has to take what he or she is told or shown and translate it into something that has meaning or utility in his or her life. And the limits to coaching even with good intentions are clear. You can tell or show someone how to correct his or her performance but he has to do the correcting. And the limits to correcting someone's thinking or telling them how to think are even greater.

Socrates, Coaching Extremist

A further point I would like to stress in our efforts to understand what coaching is helpful for problem solving thinking is that not all coaching is the same or will work as well in every situation. If somebody is trying to learn a skill or a process, one kind of coaching is needed. If she has been shown or told how to perform the skills or execute the process, then drill and practice with coaching is in order. If she knows how to perform the skill or process and is trying to develop ability to apply it in a different situation, then the coaching needs to involve observation and questioning to prompt reflection on the decisions made and the thinking that went into making them.

As stated earlier the limits on what is helpful in this kind of coaching are even greater. Telling someone what to do or think does not work well when you are trying to coach him on thinking about how to apply a process he or she already knows or thinks he or she already knows. We have a natural resistance to being told what we should think and how we should feel. Problem solving is a process that requires thinking both about the problem situation and about how to work through the process of solving the problem. And it is thinking that most of us think we know how to do and are fully capable of doing. We do it all the time in all aspects of our lives. We live, survive, and thrive by solving problems and we are usually not open to being told we should do it differently than how we have been doing it.

I can illustrate my thinking with two examples at the extremes of coaching. At one extreme is the boot camp drill instructor. Her mission is to prepare the recruit to stay alive and not endanger others in combat situations. A lot screaming and yelling and verbal abuse are used to get the recruit's attention, teach him survival techniques and how to function as a member of a team, and to coach to correct performance and impress on him or her consequences of mistakes and bad decisions. A similar style is used by many athletic coaches to prepare their players and "correct" their performance.

At the other extreme is Socrates. He had to influence and lead in a senate of his peers. He could not tell them what to think but he had to get them to think through issues and decisions in a way that taught rational and logical thinking. So he asked questions to focus them on things he believed they needed to consider and more questions to get them to examine what they were thinking and why. His aim was to influence and in a way develop their thinking. He focused on the thinking they needed to do and not on what their thinking should be. The point I am leading to is that when coaching someone on their thinking process an approach closer to Socrates than to a drill instructor is likely to be experienced as helpful for meeting another's needs.

If you are willing to accept that the coachee is ultimately the customer in coaching for problem solving thinking and that it is a good idea to consider if he or she is open and ready for the coaching you have to offer, then the next questions is, How do you learn whether the coachee is open to receive and ready to use your coaching? The answer is simple, ask her or him. Get the voice of the customer. The coachee is trying to get something done – such as address a problem. Ask her to describe what she is trying to do, and maybe, why also. That will give you a sense of where she is in her thinking about the situation. Then you can ask how she feels you can help.

Listening to someone describe what and how he is trying to do something and what help he feels they need will give you a sense of their openness and readiness for coaching. The information will help you match the coaching to his or her need and level of learning. The following levels of learning are frequently used to describe a person's readiness for applying lean thinking and practices:

  • Able to teach
  • Able to apply to new situations
  • Able to do consistently
  • Able to do (perform)
  • Knows how and why
  • Knows about (bottom to top = least ready to most)

As we discussed, it does no good to coach someone in her thinking when she is trying to learn a process or skill. At that point she is focusing on trying to recall the process steps or remember the essential behaviors. It is important to remember that as a coach you have options for how you try to help depending on where the person is in their development.

  • If the coachee is just learning about the process or skill and how and why to do it, you can say, "Let's work through the steps together. You try doing what you remember and I will make suggestions and explain why I am making them."
  • If she is learning how to apply the process or skill in a situation, you can suggest, "You take the lead in working through the process or thinking how to use the skill in this situation and I will ask questions about what you are thinking and why to help you stay on track."
  • If the coachee has been successful in applying the process or using the skill in a typical situation and now is trying to use it in an unfamiliar situation, you can offer as coach to watch his performance or listen to his thinking about what to do and why he or thinking that is what he wants to do. You will ask just questions about things you are wondering about in his thinking before he does it or questions about how it turned out after it is done.

But there is one absolute requirement for being a helpful coach in this kind of coaching. You have to hear the person out without jumping in with your own ideas of what to do to be able to grasp the situation of the person's openness to being coached and readiness to use it and then offer observations or ask questions that prompt thinking and reflection by the other person. And that is no small challenge for a coach. It is our natural tendency to immediately start thinking of what we would do and want to be helpful by offering our experiences, insights or suggestions.

To be truly helpful a coach has to learn the self-discipline of attentive listening. That is, listening that goes beyond just hearing and involves focusing on the person speaking, trying to turn down the chatter of you own thoughts in your mind and following the words being spoken, considering their meaning and taking in the information from the message, the speaker and the situation. You can't consciously process what is being said and occurring unless you are attending to the words, their source and the context in which they are said. And you cannot do that effectively when you busy thinking about what you want to say or suggest.

Helpful coaching is a balancing act for the coach. On one hand you want to help the coachee be successful by making her more aware of what she knows and how she knows it and by prompting her to look at what she is thinking and consider what it is based on. On the other hand you have to allow the coachee to stay engaged in her own line of thinking without taking over the problem solving thinking with your coaching or your own ideas. That balance is especially challenging to achieve and maintain when you are coaching another person on his or her problem solving thinking.

What Would You Do?

Here is a short exercise for you to try your hand at striking that balance. You are Lee Shannon, the CI Facilitator for the Control Modules department in a facility that produces water-proof control boards that are installed in a variety of outdoor equipment. You have just returned from a week on vacation and find the email below waiting for you in your inbox. The question for you is, How are you going to respond to Jason. What do you want to ask or say? To help you decide please consider what help Jason is asking for, your sense of his openness to help and his readiness to use coaching on his problem solving thinking.

Subj: Meeting Request

Date: 7/10/2007 7:12:43 AM Eastern Standard Time

From: Jason Redden, 1st Shift team leader, Control Modules

To: Lee Shannon, CI Facilitator, Control Modules

I heard you talk about the importance of operator-initiated projects to several of the teams. You said the most important improvements in our performance would come from their problem solving efforts. Do you think you could come talk with the team working in Sealer in my area when you're back. They are getting discouraged because they keep running into more problems getting the new robot to distribute the sealer evenly and it's taking a lot longer than they thought to complete their plan, Also every day the robot isn't fixed cuts into their meeting production schedule. Thanks.

There is no right or wrong answer that I want to stress but you can reflect on your thinking by considering the following questions.

  • What was your first instinct for how you wanted to respond?
  • What is your assessment of Jason's openness and readiness for coaching as a problem solving thinker?
  • How did you decide to respond or what did you decide to ask or say?
  • What's your grasp of the situation and what was your thinking behind that decision?

This is the first of three articles on the topic of Helpful Coaching. Verble's next article will explore the skills involved in doing helpful coaching in any situation. His third will address in more detail the special requirements for coaching someone on their problem-solving thinking. Send him your thoughts and questions at dverble@lean-transform.com


About David Verble

David Verble learned his lean organizational skills at Toyota's Georgetown, KY, plant where he worked in management and organizational development during the facility's startup phase and beyond. During his 10 years at Toyota, David became the manager of Human Resource Development at Georgetown and then manager of Human Resource Development for North American Manufacturing at Toyota's manufacturing headquarters in Erlanger, KY.

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