13 Essentials of Coaching for Process Improvement

As organizations embark on their process improvement journey, one of the things that they seem to forget is to focus on coaching skills that creates change agents, says Debashis Sarkar, author and Asia's pioneer in Lean for services. And that’s a mistake, because you need change agents who can embed a problem-solving into the daily routine of the firm. Here are the 13 essentials to creating real process change agents.

True learning happens through repeated practice. Take an athlete learning to play football, for example. A player may be able to learn the strategy and some techniques of the game in the classroom. But it’s not until he gets out on field and starts trying to make them happen that we can say he’s really starting to understand the game.

And just getting the experience on the field isn’t enough. An athlete that wishes to truly perform and master the game must be constantly improving his techniques, his strategies, his understanding of other players on the field. Can he do this on his own? In some exceptional circumstances, perhaps. Would it help if he had the assistance of a coach to guide him? Undoubtedly, yes.

Similarly, building world class problem solvers requires that they practice their techniques under the guidance of an experienced coach. Classroom sessions and simulations are all fine – and an essential part of the learning process - but skills get sharpened in the workplace by solving real life problems. The objective of coaching is to help your employees hone those skills and behaviors that facilitate continual improvement.

Even the best athletes in the world require the feedback and guidance of experienced coach – yet many companies either underestimate the importance of coaching their employees, or they fail to get the ingredients right to achieve desired results.

So what are the essential components of coaching change agents for successful process improvements? Here are 13 essentials you shouldn't ignore.

Essential #1:

Coaching is not HR’s responsibility

The responsibility of coaching for process improvement (PI) cannot rest with human resources. It’s the line leaders to make change happen where ownership should reside. However, when an organization embarks on a PI journey; the ownership for creating these change agents often rests with the corporate PI leader. To begin he should coach senior leaders to become coaches for PI.

Essential #2:

Give them real business problems

The best way to coach a person is to make them solve real business problems. It’s through problem solving with guidance that a person builds skill and mastery in tackling business challenges,

Essential #3:

Deliver coaching on the "shop floor"

The majority of your coaching should happen in the workplace where the process and the teams are operating. This ensures that there is a clear link between what the employee is learning and the environment in which he is to act on it. In case of manufacturing companies this would be the shop-floor while for service companies this would be where the process is operating or the service delivery to customers is provided.

Essential #4:

Help them break the problem down into parts

Teach the coachee to break the final outcome into milestones or target conditions which need to be achieved on the road to achieving the final outcome. This not only ensures regular focus on the process on its way to achieving the final outcome but also makes sure that actions are taken early if things go off the rails. Review progress using a PDCA structure.

Essential #5:

Review progress frequently

The coaching process should be take place frequently – it’s important to review progress frequently and given feedback to the coachee. The coaching process should happen at least after the achievement of each milestone or target condition. Even shorter periods of time between sessions is recommended.

Essential #6:

Let them think for themselves

Never provide answers to the person you’re coaching. Your approach to teaching has to be through a series of questions that helps the person to find the answer. The coachee should learn through his own discovery as he works on the projects and works on the questions posed by his coach. The process of asking-questions to help the individual come up with their own answers – also known as the Socratic method - unfurls the thought process of the coachee.

Essential #7:

Teach them not to assign blame to individuals

Inculcate into the individuals that you mentor that problems happen because of process and the system not because of people. So whenever someone reports a problem or blames someone, the first response has to be to go and look at the process / system and not to point the finger at any one individual.

Essential #8:

Help them learn to see

Teach the change agents the power of observation. The coachee needs to be taught to look for both explicit and implicit things in a process. Can this be taught? Yes, it can be. Observation is just not about the process but also about the customers, the context in which the process functions, etc.

Essential #9:

Highlight the importance of the "softer" skills

Beyond technical skills on tools and methodologies, it’s imperative to `teach the coachee change management skills. The reason why process improvement fail when teams do not seem to apply proper change skills.

Essential #10:

Reflect on what’s gone well and what hasn’t

Every coaching session has to have a slot for reflection. The coach spends times with coachee to reflect on what went well and what requires improvement in the journey of problem resolution taken so far.

Essential #11:

Take ultimate responsibility for ensuring success

The responsibility of success of the project rests with the both coach and coachee. While the coach may not provide the answers to the coachee, he is responsible for the outcome of the project. An organization serious about PI should scrutinize the acts of the coach if the project is ultimately not successful.

Essential #12:
Write it down

Use a document to facilitate the discussion during the coaching process. While an A3 document is ideal for this but one can create any other simple document which encapsulates what has been accomplished so far, next steps to be taken while keeping the larger objective in mind. The A3 sheet really helps as it is a simple easy to read one-pager that captures the entire project which gets built through an iterative process.

Essential #13:

Know what you’re talking about

The Coach cannot just be an arm chair consultant dissociated from the context. While he may not provide all the answers, he has to have pretty good understanding of the problem to help the mentee find the way forward. Without this understanding a coach cannot expect to do a good job.

In an ideal world, the process excellence journey should involve top management becoming such coaches and demonstrate the desired behavior through their actions. Early in the journey, it may be difficult to get everyone in the entire leadership team demonstrate the right coaching traits. In such a case we should at least make sure that at least one or two leaders (preferably the CEO) coach in the manner that we just discussed.

And who should take the lead to create these coaches? The Corporate PI Leader / PI Sensei or if this role doesn’t exist at your company, it’s worthwhile hiring in external consultants.