Dear Gemba Coach,
Is there a difference between executive coaching and lean coaching?
Yes. This is not an easy question to answer because there are as many different interpretations of the word “coaching” as there are coaches. But, in my experience, the difference is that lean coaching is a direct teaching method, whereas, what I’ve encountered in organizations as coaching is more of a self-discovery and feedback method. The main difference is content. Lean coaching is not content free – it’s essentially a training method focused on getting the learner to think things through rather than just do. Of course, the specificity of lean thinking is that understanding comes from doing, so there you go.
In some large organizations, I’ve come across coaching support, in various forms. What I’ve understood of it is that the coach helps the person formulate personal issues in their job or career, and through questioning and discussion, by imagining thought experiments and homework, the coach helps to reframe the situation and open up new options. Throughout the process, coaches provide personal feedback and support to help the person work through difficulties in a secure emotional environment. Some coaching approaches are purely one-to-one, others involve group discussions and sharing in the Kurt Lewin tradition of small-group dynamics where the group acts as a support for commitment and action.
Lean coaching is more directly linked to on-the-job development. It’s a direct training method. The idea is that although hands-on activities can be taught in a TWI show-practice-correct manner, more complex situations require you to dig deeper into technical issues, which rests on three core assumptions:
- The manager is more experienced in the job than the person she’s coaching. That doesn’t mean she can do the job better (although that helps), but that they understand the ins and outs of the work – much like a sports coach is not supposed to best the best player, but is expected to know all there is about the game and more.
- The manager has a preferred way to handle typical situations and typical problems and is trying to teach this to her subordinate. In order to teach a way of looking at technical issues, reaching the understanding level of deeper technical principles is unavoidable.
- Deep understanding requires space to think and to experiment by oneself. Monkey-see, monkey-do works with simple tasks, but in solving complex problems, we need to explore a mindscape in order to figure out the hidden calculus that drives decision making (and yes, “gut feel” and intuition at some level rests on a worldview calculation that needs to be surfaced and challenged).
In lean coaching therefore, the coach needs to have a deep knowledge of the topic coached as opposed to process knowledge of “coaching” in general terms. The manager-as-coach will have a preferred way of addressing the problem and rather than tell her subordinate what to do, will help her figure it out through practical problem solving exercises – but in order to coach, the manager must first lead. Lean coaching is closer to medical problem-based training than executive coaching:
- From going and seeing at the workplace and/or participating to a kaizen workshop the manager will identify a specific weakness or misconception in one of her staff.
- The manager will then have to clarify what specifically she wants her subordinate to learn – not just the action, but the underlying reasons for doing this or that in such and such situations. The aim here is to see a mechanism that applies differently in different specific situations.
- She will then spot a current work problem reflecting these exact difficulties and ask the person to solve it. Very often this involves being demanding and asking for challenging results as people tend to shy away from situations they don’t feel comfortable with and they must realize this is not optional but a direct instruction to tackle this issue.
- She then needs to support the person as they struggle with the problem. First, she sees whether her subordinate takes the problem on board or not (it’s easy to procrastinate on challenging issues), then how they go about it, and finally with how much resilience when reality resists and sometimes fights back.
Coaching in lean terms means handling both the space to think and the motivation of the person coached. However, it is not directionless. The coach needs to be very clear about what he or she wants the person to “get” through the practical problem solving. The coach also realizes that although they have a clear idea of the direction of the problem solving, they won’t know the specifics until the trainee figures them out and is open minded (indeed actively seeks) surprising or outside-the-box ideas.
Before You Can Coach …
Ideas are hard to kill. In the West, we’ve inherited from Greek philosophy the idea that all answers are somehow in us and need to be revealed through insight and Socratic questioning. Science has taught us better: learning occurs through exploring known theories in detailed specific cases. Discoveries occur through painstaking empirical work and discoverers are superbly trained to both existing knowledge and discovery procedures.
The lean approach is very different from platonic “all knowledge is within you.” We assume people are both motivated and competent but will misunderstand some things leading to adverse decisions or actions. The aim of coaching is getting the person to realize their own misconceptions and correct their mental model through hands on examination of many cases. The focus on misconceptions makes lean coaching demanding and only appropriate if the person coached is truly committed to self-development.
Indeed, in Developing Lean Leaders at All Levels, Jeff Liker hits the nail on the head: the first step of lean leadership is a commitment to self-development. Second step is coaching and developing others, third is supporting daily kaizen and fourth is creating vision and aligning goals. Without a commitment to self-development both from the manager and the subordinate, there is no point in starting the lean leadership development wheel.
Lean coaching is in fact a dimension of the leadership development method and, before you coach, first you have to lead. Leading in lean means committing to understanding work in greater depth and width in order to focus on value and eliminate the waste caused by misconceptions.
This means accepting that, in the end, all problems are technical problems and innovations are born of technical insights (if there was no technical difficulty, the situation would not have arisen in the first place). Specific know-how and learning is what we seek rather than changing the “culture” or fixing the “system.” Don’t worry about the organizational noise (this is usually the status quo defending itself): solve the problem, lead the improvement.