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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Tips from the Life and Work of a Kata Coach

(Episode 1) | by Tilo Schwarz

This is #1 of a series of articles in which I share hand-on tips for better coaching.

It is based on my "Handbook for the Kata Coach" about Denise, who has taken on her first management position as a department manager with a small assembly team at PowerPump Inc. Denise intends to develop her team through coaching. Every week I plan to share a new episode.

Denise returns to her office from her daily shop-floor walk. She is dissatisfied because she once again lost the thread while coaching her team leaders regarding their improvement targets. In her coaching cycle with Joe the information he provided on the actual condition was easy to understand. But when discussing the obstacles they got lost in the details and the next step he proposed did not make sense for her. In an attempt to find a different approach she directed the conversations back to the list of obstacles in the obstacle parking lot. But that created even more confusion. In her coaching cycle with Mark she faced a similar situation. In the end he was frustrated: "This questioning you call coaching is driving me crazy, can’t you just tell me what exactly you want me to do now?“

Sitting down at her desk now she has the feeling that her coaching attempts do not support her team leaders in reaching their targets. Not to mention the development of their scientific-thinking and -problem-solving abilities, which is what she really has in mind.

Three month ago she had taken over the small department with 20 employees and two team leaders from Bill who retired after being with the company for many years. At age 30 this was her first management position and she had been very excited. She really wanted to bring in the expertise she had gained during her time with a Lean consulting company.

The first thing she realized was how much her team had relied on Bills expertise. He had 30 years of experience in the business, knowing every process and product in the field. If there were technical problems, he had been the man to ask, always having a solution at hand. In addition her team leaders Mark and Joe both have been with the company for over 10 years. They know more about their processes than Denise ever will. Giving them technical advice or giving them orders how to solve their problems would be disastrous. When she realized that several weeks ago, she asked herself what her management approach should be and how she could contribute to the teams success.

After thinking about this for a while, Denise came up with two points she wanted to focus on:

  • Make sure the team has clear, strategic improvement targets for their processes.

  • Help her team reach these targets by growing their ability to problem solve and improve in a scientific way.

Denise had the habit of writing her thoughts into a small notebook she called My Management Handbook and wrote the 2 points above into it. She also wrote these two points on a post-it and put it on her laptop for a daily reminder.

For the first few weeks after that Denise worked in the processes and observed. Afterwards, together with the team, she developed a target value stream and formulated process goals for several key points they wanted to change within the next three months.

Denise was glad to have a clear strategy, but then came the first setbacks. Nobody seemed eager to work on the value stream targets. "We have no time, day-to-day business,“ was the common excuse. It took her quite a while to find out what the problem really was: her team was used to getting advice from their manager. Now, being left more on their own, they felt that most of the value stream targets are impossible to reach. In addition they struggled to make room in their daily schedule for working on the targets.

Last but not least Denise's team seemed to be afraid to take initiative when it came to changing things in their processes. This was what prompted her to start coaching her two team leaders Mark and Joe to increase their problem solving ability and thereby make them more confident in striving for challenging targets. She also decided to coach them on a daily 1-on-1 basis, instead of having weekly continuous improvement (CIP) meetings with them. She expected that this would establish a step-by-step approach with quick experiments rather than pushing her team leaders Mark and Joe into planning multiple steps in advance based on assumptions. In addition she hoped that meeting with them every day would increase the priority of working on improvements.

But what does effective coaching look like? What should she do? Denise had done some research about coaching techniques which had left her confused. Then she found a set of coaching questions that are part of something called the Coaching Kata. She felt that this could be a good starting point and decided to give it a try.

Source: The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, McGraw-Hill 2018, Mike Rother

The Coaching Kata contained a set of 5 question headings, or question categories, that she could ask as a coach to help her team leaders to focus on their improvement target and clarify for themselves what they needed to do next.

Sitting at her desk now Denise realized how hard it was to stick to the 5 questions. When they stared discussing the details she often forgot which question of the Coaching Kata she had actually asked. She decided to print out the card she had found on the internet and take it along to her coaching cycles tomorrow.

Suddenly Denise has an idea: If she follows the questions on the card with her thumb, always putting it on the last question she has asked, she will always know where they are in the coaching cycle even if she gets carried away in the discussion. This is great she thinks and pulls out My Management Handbook and writes down her new trick. She calls it: „Rule of thumb“.

On the next day Denise meets with Mark for their coaching cycle. He is quite surprised when Denise pulls out the card but she explains: „Yesterday you explained that my coaching attempt are not really helpful. I have reflected on your feedback and would like to improve the structure of my conversations with you. To do so I would like to use this little checklist of questions. Please be patient if a take a look on it to read. Would that be OK for you?“ Mark gives her another surprised look but agrees. Denise starts the coaching cycle with her first question: „Mark, what is your Target Condition?“

Next week: Read what Denise learns from her experiment.



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