The importance of coaching in lean transformation, rebecca snelling, lean ipd

The Importance of Coaching in Lean Transformation

Throughout my career, there have been many things that have happened in a somewhat serendipitous fashion. Things have happened without being planned for and without intention yet contributed in significant ways to the lean momentum. In this post, I want to share a few things we did in a construction organization’s nine-year lean journey that were not necessarily part of the “lean plan,” but were very important contributors to the lean journey. Now I am intentional about including these items when working with organizations.

We all know that lean is about continuous improvement and respect for people. What we don’t always recognize is that part of “respect for people” means taking our development of people very seriously. In a lean organization, we want:

  • all of our people to be problem solvers
  • people to develop themselves and to help develop others
  • supervisors to be facilitative leaders and coaches
  • to foster teamwork and collaboration

To do this well, some things need to shift from traditional approaches. A supervisor’s or a leader's job is as much about developing their direct reports as it is about simply managing people or accomplishing tasks. Performance reviews need to be about more than just accomplishing tasks and goals, but about accomplishing personal growth. “Learning and Development” initiatives need to help people grow, not just be a formal approach to training, which we so often see.


Managers need to be coaches

Traditionally in construction, many people who are in management roles actually got into their role because they were good at their previous job, not because they were a “good manager.” Stop and think about that for a minute. They got a new job that includes leading others because they were good at their old job.

Upon getting promoted, there was a good chance they got some training on the management or technical skills of their new job. There is less of a chance they received training on leadership skills and people development skills. If they were lucky, their manager made a point to coach and mentor them in the behaviors and human skills their new job required. Of course, the results of this can vary based on the leadership skills their manager has themselves. If they are less lucky but have some business acumen or emotional intelligence, they try to figure out through experimentation what behaviors and human skills they need. And if they have minimal business acumen or emotional intelligence, they might not even recognize there is a need for them to develop themselves and grow. I find it interesting that an industry that does so much to prevent itself from other risks seems to take this one on without pause.

What can we do to put more reliability into our development of people? One critical component is to expect and teach all of our people managers how to be coaches. Being a manager in a lean organization is much more about coaching people to become better problem-solvers and team players than about telling people what to do, as it has often been in our industry. Of course, this is easier said than done. Especially when there are various ways people interpret what “coaching” even means.

Being intentional about coaching in lean transformation, rebecca snelling, lean ipd

Image: Amy Hirschi via Unsplash


What does coaching mean?

“The most overused yet inappropriately applied term in an organization is ‘coaching’” (Dan Pontefract, Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization.) The word “coach” is often used interchangeably with words like: mentor, advisor, give feedback, train, teach. While a strong coach does these things from time to time, the act of coaching in our world is about unlocking a coachee’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them learn, rather than “teaching” them. This is often a result of the coachee forming new thoughts and solutions as a result of questions their coach asks.

The idea of having this skill widespread is relatively new in our industry. We need to take time to help people learn how to do it effectively. This can start with selecting a single resource to get the organization aligned around. In my experience, this was The Coaching Habit book and training across many levels. It gave supervisors and leaders a common language, practiced experience, and some great questions to begin using to develop their coaching skill.


Setting new expectations

Less than a decade ago, our industry relied heavily on paper performance reviews that were often visited just once a year. These were largely focused on specific goals or tasks related to a person’s role. Some organizations still handle performance reviews like that. I have been fortunate enough to see this model shift in a way that can easily support an organization as they begin to be more intentional with developing their people. I’ve seen organizations get clarity around the behaviors they are looking for within their employees and share with them specific outcomes of what successful behaviors look like. These behaviors become part of the performance review, which is also no longer just one time per year. Not only do employees get reviewed based on these behaviors, but they set SMART goals with actionable plans on how they can improve within these behaviors.

In my previous role our Human Resources process required people utilize the review system a minimum of two times a year, but encouraged more frequently than that. The leaders and managers that understood the value of coaching and developing their people utilized the development goals from the review system as part of their ongoing coaching with their employees.

However, this takes us back to the coaching piece we just talked about. If a manager doesn’t understand they should be coaching their employees or doesn’t know how to do it, the review system isn’t very helpful. Therefore, we have to make  sure people understand what coaching really means  and update role descriptions to include coaching as an expectation in various roles.


Being intentional helps everyone learn and grow

When these things happened at one organization in my previous role, it wasn’t because we thought to include it as part of our “lean plan.” I was fortunate to be in an organization where the Learning and Development director also recognized the need for supervisors and leaders to be coaches, so she brought the language and the training to the organization. At the same time, the Chief People Officer recognized our performance review system and process was antiquated and wasn’t delivering the results we were looking for in our people development, so she introduced the new process and expectations. These were critical activities to the momentum of our journey.

When organizations are serious about wanting a lean culture that will withstand the test of time, embedding coaching as part of a leader or manager’s role is important. Now that I’ve learned that lesson, I am not counting on good fortune or luck to make this happen, I’m intentional. Being intentional about leaders as coaches develops the people being coached as well as growing the people doing the coaching. It helps everyone learn and grow, which is at the heart of any lean organization.

Feature image: Andra C Taylor Jr via Unsplash


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Rebecca Snelling, owner of RS Consulting, coaches people, teams and organizations on leadership and Lean Transformation with an emphasis on advancing culture. She started in the construction industry in 1996 and began coaching companies and teams in 2006 with a focus on applying Lean principles in various organizations and project types. She works with owners, architects, contractors, engineers and trade partners, as well as full project delivery teams. She coaches leaders at all levels to integrate lean thinking into their organization and develops Lean Coaches to effectively facilitate, train and coach others implementing lean practices and behaviors.

She has been actively involved in the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) since 2008 and is a contributing author of both LCI books: Transforming Design and Construction, a Framework for Change, and Target Value Delivery: Practitioner Guidebook to Implementation. Rebecca is the Chair of the LCI Board of Directors and sits on the Board for the Center for Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry (CIDCI).

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