All lean coaches are not equal.
I’ve often seen coaches act not as caring guides but as one of the three types I call Anti-Coaches:
- The Jerks berate their clients, frustrated that they haven’t already improved, or treat them like idiots for having a current state — though everyone has a current state, even those coaches.
- The Oracles sit back on the sidelines, dropping cryptic hints like pearls of wisdom in the vain hopes that the client will suddenly have a magical epiphany and instantly become a continuous improvement expert and leap beyond their current state. But even those of us who wear the “Lean Leaper” on our t-shirts or hats lack that ability to leap beyond our current state.
- The Anointed inflict teaching on prospective converts, coming with an arsenal of tools, rules, and platitude jewels, expecting their students to craft their way out of their plodding, desperate current state. However, even when we know every tool in the book, we still find problems we struggle to solve, workloads that slow our progress, and internal corporate politics that change the outcomes we would like to see.
They act the way they do because they are human, and so are we.
I include myself as an occasional Jerk, Oracle, or Anointed lean coach, exhibiting those tendencies with embarrassing regularity. This reality is not something I’m proud of, but something I try to avoid by employing standardized work.
In my new book The Collaboration Equation, I talk about “Humble Hubris”: having the hubris to see possible change and a way to achieve it and the humility to know that anything you improve can and will be improved upon by others. Like all lean practices, you adopt and sustain Humble Hubris by following standardized work, some of which I’ll spell out here for the first time.
While standardized work can help you not be an Anti-Coach, you’ll have to think differently about it. (Standardized work is a topic we all need to revisit, but I’ll save my thoughts on that for a future article.)
Historically, we’ve viewed standardized work as a set of rote or nearly rote actions currently perceived as the best way to conduct repetitive tasks. In today’s work environment, however, such accepted best practices are only marginally helpful. The variation in work, the market, and the opportunities available require much more creativity and collaboration to complete daily work. The world has become more complex, requiring us to react elegantly to change rather than attempting to design change out of existence.
Today, we can see that standardized work is a set of defined reactions to a given trigger or stimulus. Our standardized work is now a good practice requiring the professional or the team to analyze a situation and respond quickly, professionally, and appropriately.
If that doesn’t freak you out enough, let’s further say that almost all problems in business today are caused not by the need to calibrate equipment but by the need to respond to changes or breakdowns in human communication or interaction.
Lean practitioners have always understood that change that requires action and how to act appropriately: They pull the andon, start an A3 problem-solving effort, huddle with their team, go to the gemba, run experiments, etc.
But the experiments we are running today do not involve the location of objects in a factory; they are almost always around the need for alignment, understanding, and action between busy people. This difference means there is more variation, more complexity, and fewer defined success criteria than in the past, which is frustrating for everyone, including the coach.
The Standard Work of Humble Hubris
Humans weren’t designed to deal with such bewildering change, yet I find it wherever I work. Constant change is simply the nature of a world where information (valid or invalid) travels at the speed of light. So, lean practitioners — and coaches — must adapt to this new world by deploying standardized work that meets the challenge of this level of uncertainty and potential reward.
In this fast-changing environment, the risk of losing my professionalism and falling into the habits of the Anti-Coaches is real. To keep myself in check when I am working with a team, a company, or an individual, I engage in actionable standardized work:
Respect People: I must see the changes people have already endeavored to make as gifts. Even if I can see process or structural issues with the changes, these professionals have made a good-faith attempt to impact their status quo positively, and I should not belittle their efforts. Condescension is inhumane and not a characteristic of lean thinking.
- Hubris: I can and will see flaws in my clients’ work. I can and will address those flaws at the right time.
- Humility: Simply because I see flaws means neither that I am right nor that my clients won’t notice them themselves.
- Stimulus: I see a system with potential benefits and flaws.
- Response: I seek to learn the details of that system, including its purpose and the thinking that went into its design, to check my initial assessment. I give the professionals a chance to tell me why.
Value My Ignorance: All teams work in a disorienting storm of conflicting processes, value streams, expectations, regulations, and foolishness. My job is always to ask questions that highlight my ignorance and, in so doing, surface their understanding of the situation. I must show that I am learning along with them, for my sake and theirs.
- Hubris: I immediately build internal process and relationship maps of how these teams work — and assume I am right.
- Humility: I immediately begin asking questions or making statements that make my assumptions transparent, allowing them to refine my systems.
- Stimulus: I interpret how the teams describe, verbally or through VSMs or other tools, their processes and interactions.
- Response: I engage this new information by quickly assessing and assuming I am right until proven otherwise — and I seek out every opportunity to be proven wrong.
Value Their Ignorance: People’s understanding of their situation is always and without fail wrong in a variety of ways, which can be frustrating for me but is also why I’m there. Understanding that these professionals are individuals who work in teams to create value and that, as we start working together, they all have different ideas of why they are there, what their teams do, and what value they provide creates the base from which all change can happen. (The primary job of lean management is alignment.)
- Hubris: Every lean journey is a guided tour in manipulation. We are working with groups who are good professionals but have never tried to manage work or solve problems systematically. We will always tolerate some amount of ignorance because we can’t solve it all, and trying to would be overwhelming. Therefore, we must actively choose which ignorance persists.
- Humility: The absolute joy in helping others manage work and solve problems is seeing them confront and value their ignorance and, in turn, we appreciate our own. Every A3 problem-solving effort is a process of confronting ignorance and addressing it. No matter how amazing we are at lean thinking and practice, we understand there are always things we don’t know, and those discoveries are valuable.
- Stimulus: Teams conduct value-stream mapping or other activities and learn while I want to teach them everything and solve their problems for them.
- Response: Teams learn at their own pace by confronting problems and doing the work to solve them. Their natural progress, even if it is slower than I’d like, is the rate at which they develop their learning skills. At a slower pace, they will always discover things I didn’t foresee.
Find the Narratives: Humans run on stories. In lean practice, every A3 problem-solving effort is a story, a hero’s journey. What are their popular stories (ones they have alignment around)? What is the pain in those stories? Who are the heroes and the villains? What is the backstory of those actors? What are the missing pieces — the casual omissions, the logical gaps — in those stories?
- Hubris: When I see the solutions to problems, I want to share them. When I have tools to use, I want to provide them. I must wait, perhaps withholding helpful information, until the moment when that information will do the most good.
- Humility: The narratives of the team dictate when a coach rolls out certain tools, teaches specific lessons, or allows sub-optimal situations to run their course.
- Stimulus: A problem arises that could be solved.
- Response: Analyze the state of the team, the problem’s complexity, and the internal narrative. Decide if people will care about and work on the problem. Then deploy the minimum number of lean or other tools to solve the problem and teach the group simultaneously.
Exploit the Gaps: When we hear our clients’ stories of work bottlenecks, we know what problem we need to help them solve. Working to resolve an issue they’ve identified is critical because “the problem to solve” is no longer an academic exercise. They have real bottlenecks to solve for: Information didn’t get somewhere or to someone, quality metrics or criteria didn’t get defined, roles were left unfilled, funding was misappropriated, and the like. But now we have an “in” for coaching them on lean problem-solving methods. We have specific stories with specific known impacts that are unthreatening to approach, definable problems to solve, and, usually, collaborative avenues for solutions.
- Hubris: I am wise enough to be the steward of my clients’ stories.
- Humility: Every problem we solve together gives them a way and reason to steward their own stories in the future.
- Stimulus: Problems (stories) have multiple systemic causes/influences.
- Response: Select stories to work on that can be solved not too easily but have ample opportunity for two achieving two goals: to solve the problem and create an internal problem-solving system.
Find the Collaborative Path: Lean thinking and practice is a dish best served collaboratively. Problems are most effectively solved when viewed through multiple perspectives. Lean efforts often fail because they produce over-personalized individual champions who become the “face of lean” in the team or the company. In this situation, “lean” becomes their job, not everyone’s. When we share an understanding that our stories are opportunities to explore or problems to solve, we can agree on the bottlenecks and resolve them together. In this case, we build a problem-solving obeya to track our A3 problem-solving process and progress. The team takes on the work of solving and collaborates on the solution. As that happens, the application of lean ideas and ideals becomes a social norm throughout the group.
- Hubris: I am selecting the opportunities to explore that meet my criteria as a coach.
- Humility: The exercises I choose rarely go precisely as planned and often prompt the collaborative group to create or discover new opportunities.
- Stimulus: Learning is required, opportunities exist, and selections need to be made.
- Response: Find opportunities that logically and logistically require collaboration between individuals and teams and have a high likelihood of success. Use this collaboration to normalize the actions, processes, and expectations of lean thinking and practice in the future. Be willing to revise based on learning.
Help them Walk the Collaborative Path: This is key. I am not building the path for them, but I am there teaching them how to do it, — sometimes by doing some of their work with them. I am deploying humility by working with them. I am deploying hubris by occasionally stopping and directing them to toward favorable outcomes. If I were to tell them what to do every day, the activities would be one-offs. If I never told them what to do and merely comment on what they’d done, they would not view me as a participant or trust me. I am there to help as a team member. I should understand the problem, the direction, the investigations, and the drive to a solution as much as they do.
- Hubris: Again, hubris is the nature of coaching and direction. I will have many ideas of the proper path. I will want to show them the way.
- Humility: They must chart their path. They have skills, and I have skills; we will collaborate.
- Stimulus: We need a structure to achieve a successful outcome.
- Response: Always consider myself a team member and help devise the minimal structure required. Never assume I am building to a particular predetermined outcome but instead creating a system within which to learn.
Show them Their Success: As we go through the process of practicing lean together, they will do things — many things. I spend a lot of time informing professionals of their successes: “You see this? It was great! You did this and the result was astounding!” Quite often, people are so busy just getting things done that they have no idea when they’ve done something extraordinary. So, even when an effort to use a lean practice is successful, it can be overlooked and not repeated. Why is that? Because lack of feedback did not reinforce potential learning and that learning, therefore, did not become standard work. We must deliver immediate and crystal clear feedback.
- Hubris: I know what good looks like.
- Humility: I know what good looks like.
- Stimulus: I see good.
- Response: I show good.
Accept that People do Monumentally Stupid Things (MSTs): I have a whole box of rocks for those who want to cast the first stone here, but it should be clear to us all that everyone does MSTs. And every MST is an opportunity to apply lean thinking and practice: It creates a new problem to solve. When I feel the Jerk in me welling up to lay into someone for doing an MST, I merely need to remember my own; then I feel horrible and need coffee.
- Hubris: I know what MSTs looks like.
- Humility: I have learned what MSTs are through direct personal experience.
- Stimulus: MSTs happen.
- Response: Oh, there are many, so let’s go with this: When an MST happens, we need to know if people even see it as monumentally stupid. Many companies have standard work that is mostly MST. The response to MSTs could be a book in and of itself, but the overall humane response is: Don’t get angry or self-righteous or blame someone but treat the outcome like any other problem to solve. Also, people often get protective of their MSTs and want to double down on them because these situations involve ultra-high emotion and variation. So, the standardized work is to accept that people will do MSTs and that lean coaches must craft a response. In the world of complexity science, this would be chaos, which requires novel responses. Oh, and if it is your MST, don’t expect anyone to give you a break.
Coffee: Coffee is at the heart of lean thinking and practice — not necessarily the drink, but the idea. Coffee means a break, a conversation, a neutral ground. Coffee represents that space where the humane work that enables all other work takes place. Even without an MST looming, if our work entirely happens in meetings and does not respect that people need the ability to speak openly, emotionally, and directly (as in: “Let’s go get a coffee.”), then we all lose. The social element of work is crucial but is usually treated as a nice-to-have, something that happens on its own. It does not. We must treat work’s social aspects, for better or worse, like any other standardized work. If I am too busy to have coffee, I really need coffee.
- Humble Hubris, Stimulus, and Response: Work should be humane because it involves other people. And everyone needs other people, including me, the lean coach. I need other people, and other people need me. You can’t solve problems without people.
Tonianne DeMaria and I help teams deploy all types of standardized work every day, ranging from the rote checklist-style standard work to what I’m describing here: situational and emergent standardized work.
The standardized work of Humble Hubris isn’t a sequential list of things you will wake up and do everyday. But every element in it will appear as a phase-gate that will arise — in maddeningly arbitrary ways — throughout your work week. Sometimes the narratives will be readily apparent, and sometimes you must seek them out: Successes and problems show up when they show up. And Monumentally Stupid Things happen — hopefully not every day.
While you don’t apply this standardized work a defined value stream, there is a general flow of Probe, Sense, Respond. Today’s work involves groups of people who are heavily and consistently in discovery mode. Even when you’re following “rote” standard work, you will encounter situations that can and should alter that checklist.
We can calm the chaos in this new work environment with lean thinking, but we cannot achieve the consistency we did on the assembly lines, nor should we.
The future of work is emergent, so the requirements and balance of humble hubris are emergent.
But this emergent work still requires standardized work.
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