Sunday, March 2, 2014

My 3 Best Coaching Kata Mistakes

Over the past few weeks I've started capturing my lessons learned from practicing the Toyota Kata approach.  First, I posted my top 10 lessons learned to my blog.  This led to some incredibly helpful feedback from the great Jeff Liker over at the Toyota Way group on LinkedIn.  It also led to the equally great lean thinker, Mike Rother, guiding me to the creation of a SlideShare version of my top 10 lessons.  The latest news is that I will have the opportunity to share what I've learned via a webinar later this month on Gemba Academy.

What's valuable to me about all this activity is that it supercharges my learning. Probably 95% of my Kata skill-building comes from real-world application (learning by doing).  But to capture that last 5% requires some reflection and external feedback, which is why it's great to have a coach or sensei as you move forward on your learning journey.  I ask you, how would Daniel-san have fared in that tournament without Mr. Miyagi?

The Challenge

Unfortunately, many of us will not have access to an experienced sensei that truly understands how to coach the Kata approach.  Most of our in-house PI folks like me (Black Belts, etc.) are great at solving problems, but aren't the ideal Kata coaches for myriad reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • They aren't trained on how to coach in general
  • They aren't familiar with the Kata approach at all
  • They're judged based on the ROI of their projects, not how well they spread kaizen habits

This is problematic because high-quality external senseis can be hard to find and fund.  Internal leaders outside of the PI department can be great coaches eventually, but during the early "incubation" period of the Kata approach they will need room to grow as Improvement Kata practitioners before they can be effective coaches.

In this common scenario, all you can do is move forward and treat your initial foray into coaching as a PDSA experiment.  You will have a hypothesis about what constitutes good Coaching Kata; you will be wrong.  And wrong again.  And again.

For me personally, it took performing about 100 coaching cycles with about 10 clinical leaders from across the hospital just to know what I didn't know about the Coaching Kata.  Now, after about 300 coaching cycles with about 20 people I'm finally just now starting to "get" it a little bit.  Yeah, it has been a humbling experience.

But let me share with you some of my most humbling coaching mistakes so that maybe you can move along that learning curve a bit quicker than me.  Here are my 3 best Coaching Kata mistakes ('best' because they have yielded the most insights for me):

Mistake #1:  Being Too Rigid

The Coaching Kata provides a wonderful framework for coaching.  Specifically, there are two routines we perform:
  1. Instruction/Coaching:  this is the general guidance, teaching, moral support, etc. that is provided while the Learner is performing the first three routines of the Improvement Kata that make up the planning phase.
  2. Daily Coaching Cycles:  this is the structured routine guided by the 5 Questions that is performed frequently while the Learner is performing the fourth routine of the IK that makes up the execution phase (we call it "being on the staircase").
My main mistake was in conflating and confusing these routines.  Because the 5 Questions Pocket Card was like a warm blanket during times of uncertainty, I would revert to it too early on in the IK process.  I was trying to do routine #2 (daily coaching cycle) while the Learner was still in the planning phase.

This made for awkward, rigid coaching.  This is because when the Learner is still trying to see the overall direction, grasp the current condition, and establish a target condition, the path forward is too cloudy to be able to concisely answer the pointed 5 Questions.  During the early planning phase, we should give the Learner a slightly wider birth.

Also, regardless of which of the two coaching routines we're performing, we should remember that these are person-to-person encounters.  Take the time to "break the ice" before jumping into the Kata.  Help the Learner get over the discomfort of a new, foreign management routine.  Acknowledge the inherent awkwardness of two novices trying to pretend like they know what to do next. It's okay!

Mistake #2:  Short-Changing True North 

The first step of the Improvement Kata is to understand the overall direction of the improvement effort.  The overall direction can be comprised of several elements, including but not limited to the following:
  • Ideal Condition (perfection)
  • Long-term strategy
  • 1-2 year challenges
  • Future-state value stream maps
  • Key performance indicators
Taken together, these elements provide a True North by which we can guide our improvement efforts.  Taking the time to properly understand how our individual PI initiatives fit into the the big picture is incredibly important.  Not performing this routine properly increases the risk of poor organizational alignment, ineffective strategy deployment, "scattershot management", etc.  Bad stuff.

Yet, I still find myself to this day doing an inadequate job of coaching Learners on this first step of the IK.  We typically end up spending about five minutes just verifying that "yes, this particular PI project will help improve patient safety, and therefore, it's well-aligned with the overall direction."  That's pretty much a waste of time; we need to do a better job of connecting individual PI projects to the big picture in a less platitudinous and more concrete way. 

On the surface, this appears to be an easy coaching mistake to fix.  It would seem straightforward enough to help the Learner put together an A3 that shows the Ideal Condition, long-term strategy, KPIs, etc. of their PI project.  But in many organizations, it's not so easy because strategy is not transparent or hasn't been cascaded down to the level of the Learner.  We can't expect the Learner to plug & play without a port, no matter how good their dongle is.

What I'm learning as of late is that even if we don't have a mature strategy deployment system yet, we can still harness the fractal nature of the Kata approach (see page 21 of this presentation).  The target condition of a big, strategic improvement initiative can provide the big, longer-term challenge for a smaller PI project.  A practical approach to making this happen could be to have the Learners for the big, strategic initiatives be the coaches for the small PI projects related to them.

In experimenting with this approach, I've seen my ability to recognize potential synergies and detect potential misalignments improve.  It's not a perfect solution (we ultimately need something like hoshin kanri to systematically drive alignment), but it's a start.

Mistake #3:  Not Utilizing Judo

In that Karate Kid clip above, Mr. Miyagi did a great job of using the testosterone-fueled aggressiveness of the Cobra Kai against them, judo style.  He had mastered the art of leveraging momentum in a productive manner.  The same approach should be taken when practicing the Coaching Kata.

One of the toughest things for me as a Coach has been to know when to hold the Learner back a little bit and when to encourage them to move forward with change.  Any good PI professional knows that blindly implementing countermeasures before properly understanding root causes is foolishness.  This is so much a part of the Lean canon that it's self-evident.

However, in practice, it's not always clear if we have properly understood the root causes of our problems.  At some point in our analysis, we hit the limits of our knowledge frontier.  At that point, we have a big batch of root cause analysis work that needs to be validated, and as with any form of batch production, there's always a risk of delayed detection of defects (in this case, the errors would be in the form of incorrect root causes being identified).  Therefore, as Coaches, we need to be adept at sensing when the RCA batch size is getting too big and needs to be validated through some PDSA hypothesis testing.

One way to look at this is as 'mini-cycles of PDSA embedded within the Plan phase of a bigger PDSA cycle.'  It's testing, as opposed to implementing, countermeasures.  Another way to look at this is that it's the recursive nature of the Improvement Kata, with the learnings of the execution phase informing and refining the work of the preceding phases.

However you choose to see it, just know that it's one of the hardest things to get a feel for as a Coach.  You'll need plenty of Coaching Kata repetition and hopefully some secondary coaching from a sensei.  You'll also need to know your audience.  In hospitals, we have some ER nurses that would put this guy to shame in terms of being "action-oriented"...

Courtesy of