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Inspirational Performance

The Olympics are always great fun. It is inspiring to see human performance taken to such astounding levels. Watching the London games, I found myself observing the coaches almost as much as the athletes.

Gabby Douglas became famous as the first African American gymnast to win the individual all-around Olympic gold medal.  Known as the flying squirrel, Gabby won over the judges with her remarkable ability to appear weightless as she seems to literally fly through the air.

It was notable to watch coach Béla Károlyi praise Gabby's inspiring performance afterwards, motivating others to be like Gabby: "Gabby was like a bird in flight," he said. "She will inspire a whole new generation of young girls who were watching her!" And these words came from a legendary coach who, in the words of writer Atul Gawande, "couldn't do a split if his life depended on it."

The Hungarian handball team made it to the quarterfinals before losing the bronze medal in a tough match with rival Croatia. Coach Lajos Mocsai of the Hungarian team joined us earlier this year at the first summit of the Lean Enterprise Institute Hungary, where institute director Szabolcs Molinar invited him to explore the dynamics of improving human performance. Coach Mocsai reminded us that the outer limits of capability are usually extended tiny bits at a time, through attention to minute detail to fix many of the little things that go wrong while seeking new levels of overall performance.

Which leads to a thought – if individual and team performance can be improved to the levels we witness in Olympic sporting events, can't the same methods or dynamics of improvement be applied to improvement at work? And, if so, what is the role of the coach?

So, what is a coach, and why don't I have one?

Coaches help us make the routine things we do habitual so that you don't even have to think about them, creating the space we need to focus on other things – things gone wrong and things that could go better. Coaches help us put more of the things we do in the routine category, and then help us consider what we really should focus on -- how to improve the things that will make a difference.

In his New Yorker article "Personal Best," Gawande observes that top athletes and singers have coaches and so should you. Gawande was a successful surgeon for eight years who noticed that while he had improved daily in his first two or three years, after that his performance seemed to plateau. After asking a mentor to serve as his coach, Gawande was able to reduce his complication rate during operations.

"Coaches are not teachers, but they teach," Gawande notes, adding that while they are not your boss, they can be bossy. He concludes that coaches are invaluable resources for anyone seeking to improve performance. But just what do coaches actually do?

He finds that they mainly "observe, judge, and guide." Coaches are not even necessarily masters of the skill in which they provide coaching. Just as Béla Károlyi would kill himself on the balance beam, my father taught dozens of teenagers to water ski yet never once even tried to ski himself.

What great coaches can do is serve as what master musicians consider "outside ears" -- someone who can listen closely and help keep them on track by providing feedback, and helping you remain aware of where you are falling short. Moreover, in the case of a master coach such as John Wooden, they understand "how to break down performance into its critical individual components," and by doing so, focus you on the fine details (the performance gemba as it were) of what you can improve.

Master and coach

When a coach is both master of the skill and the coaching, the impact can be enormous. I experienced this first-hand over 25 years ago in Toyota City.

I participated in my first three-day, zero-sleep kaizen workshop in a machining welding cell at Motomachi plant in Toyota City, Japan. Motomachi produces sedans but we were working on a small feeder line away from the main assembly operations. The way these events work is that you start out by observing the actual conditions of the operation. It takes you most of an eight hour shift to confirm what is happening at each job or machine under different conditions. Then, following a quick bite to eat, you have to confirm what is going on at the same operation during the night shift. That confirmation takes, again, most of the shift.

Then, having thoroughly grasped the current conditions, it is time for the fun part – thinking of a better way. How to make the work easier for the worker (that's always the most fun and fulfilling, since most of the time you are getting in the worker's way), how to eliminate some waste such as excess inventory, or to fix a recurring quality problem. Most of those ideas flow very easily from the detailed observations that have been documented.

Then, kaizen ideas fleshed out, it is time for the hard part – trying out the changes. Of course, none of the ideas work quite right. Sometimes the workers can tell you right away, "No, that won't work." This trial and error, sometimes fairly well-constructed experiments but often just simple trial and error ("that didn't work, let's try this …") would continue, through day two, then night two. And, through it all, no one slept. No one. Not the first night, not the second night. As dawn led to day three, I am – confession here - exhausted. My sensei for the event, Usui-sensei, was a mix of relentless and patient.

We were focused on productivity. That is, trying to get more product out. Inability to meet requirements without overtime was blowing the budget and bending spirits. Especially since more volume was on its way. No improvement would mean even more overtime would be required. 

And, with no sleep and our deadline approaching, Usui-sensei was still dissatisfied with most of the ideas we came up with.

We were trying to push productivity up, push more production through the cell. Asking, how can we speed up this process or that step.

Finally Usui-sensei asked, "Why do you keep trying to push for more when all you have to do is remove what's in the way?  Look at their struggles, all the extra walking – can't you eliminate it? Look at all the lifting of that heavy material – can't you take it away? Look at all the waiting – can't you remove the blockages so things will flow smoothly?" Then the kicker, "You really can accomplish more for the workers by asking them to do less."

Following the three-day event, I asked Usui-sensei why he didn't tell us that from the beginning. "I didn't tell you anything. I just removed a blockage from your mind. I couldn't remove it until it was in the way."

For me and my fellow learners, that was coaching that made a difference.  

coaching coaches

coaching is an essential practice for lean leaders.  David Verble, who teaches coaching for LEI, observes that, "If traditional managing is about thinking (often trying to do the thinking for others), leading through lean thinking and practice is about getting others to think … and to think about the right things." And that's the essence of good coaching.

Skillful coaching focuses attention on the right things for improved performance.  So shouldn't the same dynamic apply to the coaching itself? I think so. I may not have been born with the inspirational coaching ability of Béla Károlyi,  but I can approach coaching as I would any other skill and determine – perhaps with the help of a skillful coach! – to get better and better.


John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.

Join us December Dec. 4-5, 2012,  in Orlando to explore questions of coaching at the first Lean Coaching Summit that we are organizing in partnership with our friends at Lean Frontiers and BeLikeCoach.

And sign up to get Matthew May's forthcoming new book The Laws of Subtraction, which will help you remove from your experience "anything obviously excessive, wasteful, complicated, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly."

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Matt May August 27, 2012
Thanks for the shout out, John, and thank you for contributing this great story to The Laws of Subtraction!
Nagaraja Iyer January 26, 2013
Hello John, Thanks very much for "three-day, zero-sleep kaizen workshop". After reading this, I tried the same and really this is useful method.
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