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"Your Job Is To Stay In Inquiry": Highlights from the Lean Coaching Summit


The inaugural Lean Coaching Summit, presented by the Lean Enterprise Institute and Lean Frontiers, featured talks by John Shook, keynotes by lean healthcare leader Paul Levy and former NBA player/John Wooden protégéSwen Nater (BeLikeCoach), interactive learning sessions led by lean thought leaders and practitioners from all different fields, and a compelling video clip from the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid in which Jackie Chan teaches a frustrated Jaden Smith something about discipline and practice.

Why include a scene from Karate Kid in a lean Coaching summit? Not because lean thinking or Coaching is as simple as practice, practice, practice (jacket on, jacket off) either for the coach or the "coachee"—there's more to learning than just practice. But perhaps practice is what makes real, meaningful learning possible.

In other words, learning is good and fine; we have opportunities to learn in theory all the time, but if we do not do the hard work of attempting to put our learning into practice, we have no chance of doing anything productive or impactful with that learning for ourselves or our business. Without day-in, day-out practice, our learning remains only a set of observations and ideas. It doesn't change the way we work, it doesn't encourage our teammates, colleagues, or customers to think or act differently.

Lean Coaching Summit

Coaching Summit attendees listen to John Shook's opening keynote

So, where to begin with a topic like Coaching? Lean Coaching at that?

In his opening remarks on day one, John Shook explained that there are three ways to think about Coaching: there are Coaching concepts, Coaching activities, and then there is the language we use to talk about Coaching. All three are important and are worth exploring if we aim to be effective coaches. Shook went on to discuss four key concepts related to Coaching that he learned at Toyota while at NUMMI, a former General Motors plant (and 50/50 venture between Toyota and GM) in San Francisco Bay that he had the privilege of helping to turn around in 1984:

  • Build people before cars
  • Establish mutual trust
  • Lead as if you have no power
  • No problem is a problem

These four concepts (simple in theory, challenging in practice) changed everything at NUMMI (read more in the MIT Sloan Management Review), and they can be very beneficial to us as lean leaders and coaches… if we experiment with ways to put these ideas into practice. As Shook says, "It's easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting."


Practicing True Dialogue

Lean Coaching Summit

LEI Faculty Member Margie Hagene

In this spirit of action, LEI faculty member Margie Hagene followed up Shook's talk on key concepts around Coaching with an experiential session on how to ask effective questions. To prepare us for this activity, she reminded us of another helpful Coaching concept: advocacy versus inquiry. We can approach a conversation advocating on behalf of our ideas and opinions and what we believe to be solutions to our problems (or an organizational problem), or we can initiate a true dialogue by speaking from a place of inquiry. We do the latter by asking questions that help us focus on the work and help the problem-solver understand where he/she is in the problem-solving process. For example, the following are some questions we might experiment with as coaches:

  • What's the problem you're trying to solve?
  • How would you describe what is happening and what should be happening?
  • What have you looked at or heard?
  • What makes you sure you have the cause/effect link?
  • What have you thought about trying?
  • What impact do you expect this countermeasure to have?

For the activity portion of Hagene's talk, we broke into groups of three and practiced asking effective questions by playing three different roles: the problem owner, the questioner, and the observer. The problem owner explained a real problem he/she was experiencing at work. The questioner asked what he/she hoped might be effective questions to assist the problem owner in addressing the problem. And the observer did exactly that, observed. To those of us playing the role of the questioner, Hagene reminded us: "Your job is to stay in inquiry!"

This theme of inquiry showed up everywhere at the Lean Coaching Summit, in learning sessions categorized along the themes of Coaching for Problem-Solving, Coaching with TWI (Training Within Industry), Coaching With A3, Coaching Coaches, and Coaching Leaders. On day one of the summit LEI faculty and lean thought leaders led sessions along these themes. On day two lean practitioners from Maersk, IBM, Timken, Herman Miller, and Capital One took the lead. On both days, presenters shared stories, offered learning activities, and invited questions from summit attendees.


Try, Then Reflect

Lean Coaching Summit

LEI's Mark Reich speaks with a summit attendee

For her learning session on Coaching With A3, LEI faculty member Tracey Richardson explained the connection between the problem-solving process (PDCA) and successful business and leadership practices, showed us the role standardization plays in lean leadership and management, and suggested helpful daily behaviors for lean leaders and coaches to use with employees.

On day two, George Mason and Dan Bos (two operations managers and coaches) led a unique learning session in which they shared videos showing how they practice Coaching at Herman Miller. Participants discussed what they noticed in each video regarding process, environment, and people. What did the process look like? What exactly about the environment (physical environment, visual management, and culture) supported learning? What behaviors were people practicing or struggling with?

Another highlight from the summit was a talk by LEI Director of Strategy and lean coach Mark Reich on what it means to take responsibility for organizational learning (by way of learning cycles) as a leader/coach and what it means to take responsibility for our own learning as individuals/"coachee". He reminded us that learning (Coaching too?) is about trying something and reflecting, trying something and reflecting again until we reach our target, not necessarily "coming up with the right answer."


A Thinking System

To close the summit, John Shook left us with a few more concepts, activities, and ideas regarding language that we might think about and experiment with. He reminded us that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. We ALL have learning to do if we want to be effective leaders and make valuable contributions to our organizations. All lean change, he says, requires three things:

  • Intention (manifested in a decision)
  • process (a means, routine, kata)
  • Practice (right practice, meaning deliberate practice, perhaps with a coach)

Toyota uses the Toyota Production System (TPS), but it might as well be called the Toyota Thinking System because that's what TPS and lean is all about, thinking better by way of problem-solving. In order to do this, Coaching and dialogue must take place at all levels within our organizations: top down, bottom up, across teams and departments, across companies within the extended value stream, and across sectors.

This kind of work, lean thinking and Coaching, isn't easy. It demands respect and humility from all of us… respect for the work of the organization, for others and others' work, for our own work, and for ourselves… and the humility and discipline to practice daily PDCA in the spirit of what we call continuous improvement, which is really just learning.


Continue Your Own Learning

We'll continue the dialogue on Coaching at the 2013 Lean Transformation Summit March 13-14. Act today to save on this uniquely designed conference.


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