In the 1550s in the village of Kocs (pronounced coach) in Hungary, located about 40 miles northwest of Budapest, wheelwrights created a new kind of horse-drawn wagon. Some say it had a steel-spring suspension, others say it didn’t. Whatever its features, one thing is clear: it was recognized as a good idea and the idea spread all over Europe. So did its name. It was called a “cart of Kocs” (kosci szekér in Hungarian), after the name of the village. In English it became known as a coach. Before long, kings, common folk, and even the mail were transported from one place to another in coaches.
Fast forward 300 hundred years and the story takes a turn. The word takes on a new meaning thanks to a group of university students. In the mid-1800s, students at Oxford University began using coach as a colloquial term for a tutor who carries a student through an exam. Here is an example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Besides the regular college tutor, I secured the assistance of what, in the slang of the day, we irreverently termed ‘a coach’ (1850 F. E. Smedley Frank Fairlegh xxix. 251). A word used to describe the physical means of transporting people from one destination to another began to be used to describe a person who helps a student prepare for an exam. A few decades later, in that same collegiate environment, the meaning of the word evolved again. This time it was used to describe one who trains athletes for a boat race. The rest, as they say, is history.
So what does any of this have to do with Lean and the improvement sciences? Words matter. Knowing the history and evolution of a word broadens, and may even challenge, our thinking about its meaning. As Karen Martin notes in her book The Outstanding Organization, the words we use can create clarity or cause chaos. Words are the currency of shared understanding. If we want to see, know and act together, we must also have a common interpretation of the words we use.
At the University of Michigan Health System where I work as a Lean Coach, we use the word coach as a verb to describe the process of helping others solve problems and make improvements. We talk about coaching teams, coaching sessions, and requests for coach assistance. We also use coach as a noun to describe those who do the helping, such as lean coach, central coach, embedded coach and, importantly, leaders at all levels as coaches. We coach as we teach classes and facilitate improvement workshops, helping learners move toward deeper understanding of work processes. We coach by asking questions in service of those who own the problems and for the purpose of developing better habits and stronger muscles in rigorous scientific thinking.
Of all the possible words that could be used to describe this process and these helpers, why coach? Search Google images for the word coach and you will see pictures of designer hand bags, large buses, horse-drawn carriages, and a man in a track suit with a whistle around his neck. What, if anything, do these interpretations have in common? How might the origin and evolution of the word coach broaden our thinking about it?
If words matter, shared understanding of words matters even more. The word coach reaches much further back than the image of a man in a track suit. When I am reminded of a coach as a mode of transporting people, I begin to think more deeply about where teams are today and where it is they are trying to go. As a facilitator of that movement, how is what I am doing speeding them up or slowing them down, or making the ride more or less bumpy? When I think of a coach as a tutor helping a student prepare for a milestone exam, I pay more careful attention assessing the needs of the learner. What is it that this student really needs to know, not just to pass the exam, but to transform the way she thinks? As for Coach™ as a high-end designer hand-bag, well, I wouldn’t mind having one of those, either!