In 2011 a new term entered my company… we went “lean”. The office buzzed with anxiety as whiteboards were erected, and the word “consultant” kept getting tossed around. Soon we were poised with raising problems and solving them ourselves. I’ve worked in the insurance industry going on 8 years. I’ve seen mergers, acquisitions, and brand name changes, but I’d never seen this.
Cut to a few years later, and I thought I was as lean as they came. As our organization took ownership of our transformation, jobs dedicated solely to continuous improvement became available. So I stepped up and became the Lean Coach for my regional office. I took the job after a few of my fellow co-workers suggested that my demeanor and ability to work with people matched perfectly with the role of a coach. I thought I’d have the office up and running, adding more value to customers then they knew what to do with! Boy, was I wrong.
Within weeks of accepting the role I noticed a change in the people I’d known my entire career and how they behaved around me. People would get tense when I asked questions. Others would challenge the lean tools and practices that myself or others implemented, as if just for sport. I would observe, provide thoughtful feedback, and observe some more. To my dismay, I didn’t see any real fruits of my labor. I tried to create structure for standing meetings by sending out agendas. I tried experimenting with whiteboards to make things more visual. Neither achieved my desired outcome, which was more active problem solving. I became discouraged quickly.
Everything changed when a really big problem landed in my office. How do we increase our market share, and still provide the same quality of service to our customers? The problem had more tentacles than a family of octopuses. I knew the only way we could tackle it would be to go through the problem solving process. We slowly began working through the data until my team members and I were able to see the measurable gap of the real problem we were trying to solve. The next step was finding the root cause(s).
“I feel like there are so many issues. Where do we even start?” someone said.
I knew if I suggested a fishbone diagram they would instantly shut down. So I tried:
“How about we just list 3-4 major categories, then write possible factors relating to those categories underneath each one?”
I had them. We all got to work. By the time we finished, we had 4 long lists of possible causes. I tried to use this opportunity to coach: “You realize you all basically just did a fishbone diagram, but vertically,” I told them.
“Really? Well, how about that,” someone said. And that’s all it took. A small step towards improvement, a huge win for me, and a lesson learned to fellow workers. We were getting somewhere. They learned by practicing. To me, that’s what good coaching is all about.
As for me, I try to remember:
- I have a lot to learn, and I always will. There is no end to learning. There is always something new to understand or an improvement to be made. Just this fact means that I need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. If I am comfortable, I am not challenging myself. This was and still is my biggest hurdle as a coach. It is okay to fail. How can I coach others to step outside of their comfort zone if I am not able to step out of mine?
- Reflect. Reflect. Reflect. I mentioned how disappointed by what appeared to be the lack of results from my coaching efforts. What I failed to do at the time was stop, look back, and ask, “What did not work according to my plan? Why? What will I do differently next time?”
- Change shouldn’t happen overnight. Long term change doesn’t happen instantly. Has a doctor ever recommended not eating to lose weight? No, they advise patients to slowly reduce calories to achieve the desired outcome. The same goes for lean thinking. One small step in the right direction may not be noticed the following day, but looking back (see lesson #2), this is what helps you make progress.
When I try apply these takeaways, I feel more fulfilled. Instead of focusing on what isn’t working, I work on slowly improving (and I mean very slowly) the things that are working. I still have less than a year of experience as a lean coach, but the amount I’ve learned in this new role is ten-fold over what I soaked in over the 8 years I spent on the front line.
Every coach as challenges (if you don’t, e-mail me your tips!). What are your frustrations or lessons learned?