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One Simple Thing You Can Do To Improve Your Coaching

by Tracey Richardson
November 21, 2013

One Simple Thing You Can Do To Improve Your Coaching

by Tracey Richardson
November 21, 2013 | Comments (10)

Ever interpret an email differently than the sender intended? Do you find it difficult to read the tone of an email, or find yourself wondering about the reaction of the person on the receiving end of your email? Minor things can spark major misunderstandings.

Email is perhaps our simplest, most frequent reminder about how much the quality of our interactions matter. It’s the little things that make the difference in how we communicate and understand each other.

This concept holds true for lean coaching and any kind of coaching as well. The language we use and approach we take largely determines the quality of conversation we have. Empowering people to do things they don’t believe they are capable of is a gift, one I received through the shared wisdom of my Japanese trainers at Toyota. A good coach should play the role of a servant leader. The leader works “for” the learner/coachee, removing barriers and constraints, helping them improve their work. Every coaching experience is an opportunity to figure out the best approach to communication; it depends upon the personality of the “learner."

Some people are extroverted and some introverted, which is a factor in how some people (especially adults) process information. Extroverts talk to think, introverts think to talk. As a leader, how do you adapt and respond to these and other learning and communication styles? 

I was taught that the information you want to relay may be better received if you take the pressure off the learner and place it on yourself. Think of this as transferring the power to the learner. This is quite the paradigm shift for leaders who “tell” rather than coach. In many cases, I may know the answer or think I know the answer to a question I’m asking, or know what I want the learner to do, but what I really need to do is transfer the power to them by asking them to think with me, helping them realize I need them and their ideas. If they think I have all the answers, this is the exact opposite of what we want to be doing as coaches. Good coaching is about asking the right questions in an inviting manner. The learner must feel their expert opinion is needed since they are the process owner. It’s up to me to create that environment. Asking questions well is the key to building a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Only in this way does the learner realize the company is not just result oriented but concerned about processes as well.  

How does a coach ask questions effectively? Let me give you an example of what I call the “YOU versus I” technique, something I learned at Toyota.

In many work environments where there is low morale I’ve witnessed a leader try to quickly remedy a quality or productivity situation by hastily walking up to one of their team members on a process and asking, “Why did you do that?” Often this leads to let’s say a “spirited” discussion. With some people this type of question can quickly bring out the claws or at least put them on high alert. Little then gets investigated, much less solved because this can easily shut down the team member’s willingness to be engaged. When you use the word “you,” this infers blame, so of course defensiveness is a result.

A more productive way to approach this same situation is to engage the team member and ask a similar question but change the YOU to an “I”. For example, “The quality group has asked our team to double check our processes. Is it possible I can get your help in order for me to understand this process?” Asking the question this way shifts the weight to you, the leader, and engages the team member in a more receptive manner. Nine times out of ten the team member is more inclined to share their standardized work or describe the current state. This creates a dialogue so both coach and learner/coachee can grasp the situation together, and build trust that the goal is always to improve the process.

Remember, about 80% of problems stem from badly designed processes not people. Blaming people is an easy out, it requires no investigation, it only requires pointing of a finger. Unfortunately, most of us have been conditioned to place blame. When things get hectic, it’s all too easy to want the simplistic way out or a quick excuse. I see people receive corrective action due to leaders’ assumptions (based on past trends) all the time. When this happens, the leader has totally failed to look for the facts of what’s really going on at the gemba. Often they don’t even talk to the person involved in the work.

As leaders, if we continue to ask questions that make people defensive, we’ll slowly condition our workforce to shut down and just go through the motions as if they were robots.

A workforce without the power to think is like having a vehicle without an engine, it isn’t going anywhere. Remember to invest in your people, getting to know them, walking in their shoes from time to time. A quote from Zig Ziglar says it all: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Fisher November 21, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
Wonderful article Tracey, you have hit the nail on the head. The way we approach a person can ignite a war or spark a friendship all within the same dialog. Its how you approach them and conduct yourself that truly lie at the heart of how someone interprets your intentions.

The last thing leaders or coaches need is for their team to shut down and for them to be the cause of that reaction. As I always say "EMpower not OVERpower". 


Reply »

Tracey Richardson November 21, 2013
Thanks Daniel, appreciate your feedback and your participation on The Lean Post. I do agree and think "how" leaders coach is so very important, sometimes its the simplest of things we can do with words mean the world to the people we should see as the most important asset in the organization :).

Reply »

Fred leland November 21, 2013
Tracey, great piece on coaching and the power of words. A critical part of my job in policing is to conduct after action reviews of calls we respond to. Early on i often used YOU in a similar fashion as you mentioned. I also got the resistance you mentioned. I have adpated a similar method to what you advocate in the piece and it has had a powerful and positve effect. Great advice you offer here. Thank you!

Reply »

Tracey Richardson November 21, 2013
HI Fred, How are you doing?  I hope well.  Im glad to hear the technique is working.  It was a lesson I learned while at Toyota.  It is an effective coaching method.  Love to know its being practiced. Thanks for sharing!  Tracey

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Mark Donovan November 25, 2013
Tracey - Thank you for posting this great article.  I'm sure it will improve my interactions with my team members and leaders.  I also find that body language and intention play a very important role in determining the direction taken in these types of discussions.  I try to lead with a smile or even a laugh at the absudity of the situation we are facing to break the ice. I try not to cross my arms.  Finally I tell myself what I hope the outcome of the disucssion will be.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. :)

Reply »

Tracey Richardson November 25, 2013
Hey Mark, thanks for your feedback. Im glad this is helpful for you. Im really glad you brought up the body language example, that is the next level of coaching that leaders can work on. Maybe that can be a subject for a future column. I do think it is important to be cognizant of. I remember at Toyota we had a class on body language and how it can effect a leaders role dramatically. Like you said a grimace, and/or arms crossed can give off a signal that might say "Im not interested". Maybe more to come on that in the future. Great feedback, thanks for your input!!

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mohamed fathy November 28, 2013

This great article which reflect the reality
of the leadership.

Actually one year ago I have tried the first style of the management with not sufficient response and feedback, then three months ago I have converted to the leadership style of involving people instead of direct them, I really wondered from the responsiveness and feedback I have seen.



Reply »

Tracey Richardson November 28, 2013
That is great feedback to share Mohamed, I know others like to hear how simple changes in our approach can make a difference in how people respond!   Thank you! Tracey

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Vijay verma April 25, 2014

Great article Tracey, Its an eye opening for me. Asking the right question in a most respected manner is the key to the success of the coach. Can you please provide some reference books or source where i can learn more on effective coaching skilll. Thanks onceagain for sharing such a wonderful article.

Reply »

sid joynson June 16, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Tracy, I agree with your recommended change from YOU to I. The final extension will take us to WE.

Zen has some advice for improving human perception. ‘You must learn to hear with your eyes and see with your ears.’

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