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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Going by small Experiments

by Tilo Schwarz | Tips for the Kata Coach | Episode 26

This article discusses coaching for quick experiments, reflection, and adapting accordingly. To be successful in a changing environment, we need to experiment, learn, and adapt quickly. We might need a coach to help us do this.

Episode #26

It is Tuesday morning, and Denise is on her daily coaching walk. She observes Joe, one of her team leaders, coaching Ted, one of his shift leaders. Ted is currently working towards his next Target Condition. It is about reducing errors with pins automatically pressed in on an assembly workstation. These pins are often pushed incorrectly. That leads to a considerable amount of rework.

Ted has observed that the machine works at a different pressing speed for each type of product, although the pins are always the same. Only the parts they are punched into vary slightly. Ted has discovered the pressing force being adjusted differently on each changeover to another product as a possible cause. Now Ted has the hypothesis that this is the reason the pins are occasionally not pressed in thoroughly.

When Denise arrives, Joe and Ted start their coaching cycle. Denise observes the following conversation.

Joe: "Ted, what exactly is the problem?"

Ted: "I think that the different press forces lead to different results when pressing the pins in. Probably the force is set too low for some products."

Joe: "How should the pressing force be set correctly?

Ted: "I don't know exactly, but it should be high enough to ensure the pins do not get stuck halfway."

Joe: "Don't worry if you don't know. What is, therefore, your next step to find out?"

Ted: "I will do a series of measurements with different pressing forces to find out which minimal force is necessary".

Joe: "And what do you expect then?"

Ted: "That I know the minimum force required and that we can adjust the press accordingly during each changeover. Should I write that down?"

Joe nodded, and Ted filled out the next line in the Experimenting Record on his storyboard. Afterwards, Joe asked: "When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Ted thinks aloud: "Well until I've organized everything and carried out and evaluated the series of measurements...hmm...on Monday next week, maybe.“

Joe hesitates as today is Tuesday and that would place the next coaching cycle nearly a week away. Denise notices that Joe doesn’t know how to deal with this situation.

☞ Pause for a moment and consider: As a coach, how would you react in Joe's situation?

Joe continues: "That's a long way out, can’t we get this done more quickly?"

Not a good idea, Denise thinks immediately. Ted also reacts slightly irritated: "Joe that's a lot of work, I have to prepare this well, we can't just stop the line and do a series of measurements in the middle of a shift. I also have to figure out exactly how to proceed. To vary the pressing force, I have to change the tools and set up the controller program of the press for the different products. That takes quite some time. And then I also need the parts for testing. I'll have to find out where to get them. Maybe use some damaged parts, so we don't end up with a pile of new parts with pins pressed in only partway.

Joe tries to back up: "Let's fix our next coaching cycle for Monday. And maybe you can let me know sometime during this week how things are going.“ "Yes, of course," Ted replies and writes down next Monday as the due date on the Experimenting Record.

Pause for a moment and reconsider: As a coach, how would you have reacted in Joe's situation?

When Ted has gone, Denise asks: "Joe, how did the coaching cycle go from your perspective?

Joe: "Not good. Now we will meet in a week from now. That is far too long, but I don't know how I could have got Ted to agree to an earlier appointment. That kind of situation happens to me quite often".

Pause for a moment and consider: As a 2nd coach, what feedback would you give Joe?

Denise thinks for a while going through her observation record. She has noted several points. The problem was that the step was too big. As often, the issue had already started before the phase in which the coach recognized it. In Joe's case, with the step being too big and therefore taking too long, that had already started in phase 4 of the coaching cycle. When Joe asked Ted about the next step, Ted had proposed conducting a series of measurements. That sounded simple. However, taking a series of measurement was often elaborate.

At this point, Joe could have asked deepening questions about what exactly Ted intended to do.

For example:

  • How will you proceed to do that?

  • What exactly would you like to observe?

  • How are you going to measure that?

  • How will you document this?

Very likely, they would have hit Ted's threshold of knowledge regarding preparing the series of measurements, or how to measure, or how to evaluate the results. In return, that would have lead to a small next step to find out, e.g. to think about when or how to conduct the experiments. Ted would have been able to do that much more quickly.

However, Denise still hesitated to give that as feedback to Joe. For using that approach, the coach would need to recognize already in phase 4 that the proposed next step could be significant. That was not as easy as the coach usually did not know the topic in detail. The coach would need to pay attention to hints indicating vagueness such as "I will measure again" or "I will have a look". Alternatively, the coach could listen for words that indicate more significant or multiple steps such as "I will do a series of…“ or "I will do several…“. As Joe had not been a coach for long, using that approach would not be a challenge for him.

Denise decided on a different focus for her feedback.

Denise: "Joe, I also realized that you weren’t satisfied with the length of time it will take for that step. I'll try to give you some feedback on how you could deal with that situation. I observed that at the end of your coaching cycle Ted mentioned several things he has to do to prepare and conduct the measurement series. I have the impression that before that when you first asked him about the due date, he went through them in his mind. To have enough time to conduct them, he consequently opted for a longer-term due date.“

While they were talking, they saw Ted standing at the press, checking various parameters on the controls.

Denise continued her feedback: "From my point of view the following is therefore helpful: If you notice in phase five that the due date for the next step is too far into the future, go back to phase 4 and try to break the step down into a first partial step. You can do this by asking the following deepening question: What would you, therefore, do first?Alternatively, you could ask: "What can you do today?"

At that point, Ted came back to them and said: "Joe, I just found out that I can change the pressing force in the controller independently of the product type. That means I don't have to change the pressing tools nor use different products for my series of measurements. This will make things much faster. I'll see how far I can get by tomorrow.“

When Ted had left them, Denise said to Joe: "That's how it often is. A step consists of many small sub-steps. We just think of it as one step. The coach can help to surface the sub-steps by asking deepening questions. That will allow us to have rapid coaching cycles every day or even several times per day. And above all, things often turn out to be different after taking the first sub-step; different from what we expected when we planned our big step and the Improver, therefore, has to adapt their approach. Just like it happened with Ted right now. Sometimes Improvers get stuck after the first sub-steps when things don't work as they expected. If we have the next coaching cycle scheduled a week later, we realize too late that they need help and the time is lost."

THOUGHTS: The tendency to think in big rather than small steps might be caused by our perception that our coach, i.e. our boss, wants to know when we will be finished.

As a coach, we should focus on assisting the Improver on the way rather than a status check on arrival. Helping a person work systematically (e.g. not to take shortcuts through assumptions), reflect and adequately adapt accordingly will lead to better results. Relying on status check only makes us feel that we are target and achievement-focused. However, that might be an illusion. Putting pressure on people by only checking on done induces shortcuts.

That is not a call for not striving for impact or being relaxed about reaching targets — quite the contrary. Good coaches will be persistent about the Improver reaching the Target Condition; on due date of course. Therefore they will diligently coach on the way.

A better attitude for a coach could be: I want you to be successful, i.e. to reach the Target Condition; therefore, I coach you often and challenge your approach.

Helping a person on the way through the unknown towards a Target Condition means making sure we don’t overlook indications that things are different from expected because our brain has fooled us. That we go in small steps and experiment rather than making big plans based on assumptions.

Experiment — Learn — Adapt.

A thought on question five of the Coaching Kata: When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

To some coaches, the question five wording feels bulky and strange, and they start making changes. Sometimes I observe coaches asking question five something like this: 'When will you be done with your step?‘ I worry that this might even amplify the mindset of 'I need to reach "done" quickly'.

The spirit of question five is more: ‚When will we have gained first learning or insight. Let's meet then to see what, probably unexpected, we have found out and if and how we need to adapt our approach. That can occur very quickly. In the above example with Joe and Ted, the first insight for Ted that changed his approach occurred only 3 minutes after their coaching cycle.

There might be nicer ways to formulate question five, but we should be aware of what mindset we induce with our words.

Success in the changing environment we live in might be more likely for those that know that they don’t know and therefore act accordingly. Progress quickly by experiment, learn, and adapt. Let's coach for that mindset.



For new readers: Every week, I share hands-on tips for coaching with the Coaching Kata. This episode is part of a series of articles about Denise, who has taken on her first management position as a department manager at PowerPump Inc. Denise intends to develop her team through coaching. Read Episode 1 to get into the story.

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