We all need a Lean Coach

///We all need a Lean Coach: Why a ‘Sensei’ is for life, not just for Christmas!

We all need a Lean Coach: Why a ‘Sensei’ is for life, not just for Christmas!

Greetings of the Season to you all. It’s been a while since I last blogged, but the arrival of some colder weather in the UK and the feeling of hurtling towards the festive period with few plans in place, has spurred me into action. If I don’t commit to writing something now, then it could well be the New Year before I get chance again!

I wanted to focus my discussion in this blog on the role of the Coach in our own personal Lean development. It struck me recently that I am spending more and more of my time ‘coaching’ individuals and teams in their use of lean generally, and structured problem-solving in particular. In some cases I am even coaching people on how to coach others; acting as a second Coach as it were.

This has served to reinforce my belief that actually, we all need a Coach, wherever we are in our lean journey, and that includes me. So if we find ourselves needing to act as Coach for our people in their lean development, or we are looking for a suitable Coach to help us along the way, what are the attributes that we are looking for? What should we be able to see in a good Coach, that show s they have the skills, behaviours and approach to enable people to learn and to achieve the improvements required by their businesses? Here are my thoughts on what makes a great Lean Coach.

Firstly, a Coach needs knowledge and experience. There’s so much more to coaching successfully than experience alone, but it’s fair to say that to advise and guide team members through a Lean activity, you need to have learned for yourself, discovered things for yourself, made your own mistakes, and had your own successes. I don’t think that there is a ‘minimum’ threshold on this, but ‘more’ is better. I would say though, that if you are contemplating paying for a Coach to come and help you and your teams, I would look for about 10 years of Lean experience at gemba – genuinely! A word of warning also about who you hire. Be sceptical of anybody calling themselves a ‘sensei’ – the Japanese equivalent of coach or teacher – in a Lean context. True ‘sensei’ show tremendous humility; I’ve been lucky enough to meet and be coached by one or two of them in my time. They would never refer to themselves as a ‘sensei’. It is a term to be conferred upon people by others, never something to be used on a business card or online marketing!

The second required element of a great Lean Coach is the correct mind-set and associated behaviours. This allows people to successfully develop understanding for themselves, whilst also ensuring that a business gets measurable benefit in the short and long-term. I think that one of the things that distinguishes a ‘Coach’ from a ‘Leader’ is in who makes the call on which potential solution to take. Leaders will assume it’s their job to choose, a Coach will encourage the team member to make the choice, based on the understanding they have gained. I’m indebted to a friend and fellow Kata-geek, Joakim Bjurstrom (from Leankata AB in Sweden) who taught me a great phrase when talking about successful Coaching:

“Always remember, it’s not your learning, it’s theirs”.

A great Lean Coach allows people time to learn, to experiment, to reflect. As tempting as it might be to provide ‘answers’ – to flex your own lean muscles and show off a bit – you should resist. On occasions you might have to guide an individual a bit more, especially when you sense that they have genuinely exhausted all of their own options, or there’s some urgency that means they need to make a quick intervention for reasons of product or personal safety. But, if at all possible, a good Coach shouldn’t give you the ‘answer’. As a trainee of course, that can often be VERY frustrating!

“Why don’t you just give me the answer, and stop messing with my head!?” was a comment I got from a trainee recently. Of course, they knew exactly why.

Being a good Lean Coach is not at all about being ‘pink and fluffy’ though. You need to know when to be firm. Sticking to the process isn’t easy, and a great Coach will not let you move on until they are absolutely satisfied that you are ready to do so. Probing questions challenge and confirm that the trainee understands where they are. Questions such as “Have you defined the problem properly?”; “Do we have enough data?”; “Would it help if we analyse this a different way?”; “Have we found the true ‘root cause’ yet?”; “Have we checked thoroughly that our countermeasures are still working?”; “Does our KPI tracking show that our improvement has delivered the benefit we predicted?”; The list goes on, but the key is to be tenacious – and patient! The human mind seems pre-programmed to want to rush to the answer all the time, to ‘get on with it’. But a great Coach realises that to allow this to happen means that the pupil hasn’t learnt, and that vital improvement opportunities that really deliver benefit to an organisation might be missed. A great Coach respects and trusts the process, and insists that his trainees do too.

So if you are about to start coaching your team as they work on their improvement efforts, and you are unsure how or where to start, let me give you two words of advice – Coaching Kata.

Those of you familiar with my previous blogs will know how much I enthuse about the Lean Kata approach, and the Coaching Kata is a great way to start practicing your coaching skills. It provides a structure – a framework – for your coaching efforts. Kata are practice routines that when followed (to the letter, at least initially) provide a structure to help you and your team build improvement capability. As a reminder, the Coaching Kata asks five basic questions:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What problems or obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition – and which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step?
  5. When can we ‘go and see’ what we have learned from taking that step?

Over time these questions will provide powerful coaching support to teams using a Lean approach to problem-solving. A Kata also exists for the bit that the team member does too – the Improvement Kata. Notice that the Coach never gives an answer in the Coaching Kata, and that lean tools are not mentioned at all.

I’ve written much more on Lean Kata on my website, so please take the time to have a look (the link is at the bottom of this page). If you want somebody to help coach your teams in Kata, or you need a Coach to act as your 2nd Coach, please get in touch. I can demonstrate that I have over 10 years of relevant experience!

Finally, as we approach the end of another busy year, I want to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who have read and commented on my blogs. Thank you also to the customers of Lean FSL Associates, and to my Coaches too (you know who you are!). Have a great Christmas break, and let us hope that ‘goodwill to all men’ and ‘peace on earth’ become abiding themes for the whole of next year, and not just lines in Christmas carols.


Merry Christmas, and stay Lean!



For more on Lean Kata, please follow the link below:


By | 2018-06-13T11:19:36+00:00 December 1st, 2015|Lean Coaching|

About the Author:

Graham Canning, the Managing Director and founder of Lean FSL Associates has worked in lean and kaizen consultancy roles for more than 10 years, supported by 15 years working in the Manufacturing sector for companies such as Toyota, Black & Decker and Pilkington Glass. He has an impressive record in leading lean transformations in many different industries (including Healthcare and Financial Services). Graham has developed a network of Associates to Lean FSL who are capable and skilled in all aspects of lean and continuous improvement, which means that Lean FSL are able to support their customer’s lean activity at a significantly lower cost than other consultancy firms.

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