KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Leadership

Photo by Michele Bucher / Lean Frontiers

Continuing my breakdown of Billy Taylor’s opening keynote at KataCon…

Key Bullet Points

  • People follow what you do before they follow what you say.
  • If you (as a leader) think you are above the process…
  • Deliberate practice on your practice of leadership. Focus on one thing.
  • Break down your leadership style [into elements]. Practice deliberately on one thing you want to reinforce or improve.

That second bullet is a real challenge for those of us who are in leadership positions (or even positions of influence). “If you think you are above the process…” – do you follow the standards and expectations you ask of others?

I think a good test would be “If a production worker corrected you, how would you respond?” If your internal emotional response (that initial feeling you have, not how you show yourself) is anything other than “Thank you for reminding me” then you are exempting yourself from the rules.

The other take-away:

Throughout his presentation, Billy was tying together the idea of “deliberate practice” and “developing leadership skills.” Leadership is a process, and processes can be broken down into their constituent elements and practiced.

This ties back perfectly to a broad spectrum of leadership development models. In the end, what we can control are:

  • What we say.
  • How we say it.
  • Who we say it to.
  • The structure of the environment that either inhibits or encourages the behaviors we want.

All of these things can be developed through experimentation, and then practiced. This is what Toyota Kata is about.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

The first official day of KataCon kicked off with a keynote on deliberate practice by Billy Taylor. I first met Billy back in 2012 when I was doing some work with Goodyear. When I saw him at last year’s KataCon it was like running into an old friend, but that is who Billy Taylor is – even if you just met him.

Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

Pull quotes and thoughts

The Concept of Deliberate Practice
  • Toyota Kata has two sides, like a coin. On one side is scientific thinking. On the flip side is deliberate practice.
  • Traditional practice is often just mindless repetition. Deliberate practice has focused attention on perhaps one aspect of the routine.

A couple of things come to mind for me here. First is that too many coaches go through mindless repetition of the Coaching Kata. They just ask the next question on the card, and never practice using the questions to nudge the learner’s thinking to the next level.

This means they never practice in a way that pushes them as coaches. More about that below.

The other is that we, all too often, take a learner through the entire process much too fast. We do this in classes to give them a taste of the whole process. But in real life, perhaps it would be best to anchor each Starter Kata step and ensure there is at least understanding before moving to the next.

When 2nd coaching it is equally important to focus both the coach AND the learner on improving a single aspect of the board.

As I am writing this, I am reflecting more, and parsing more. This slide offers a ton of insight for me:

From Billy Taylor’s KataCon6 Presentation

There is so much here on a lot of levels.

This is how I interpret the graphs: On the left we have “Just Practice.” Maybe I am learning to play a song on the guitar. As I practice I learn to play it better and better. Then I hit a plateau because I am comfortably good and not challenging myself anymore. I am just playing. And that feels awesome, because I validate to myself that I am pretty good.

At a higher level, this is the “lean plateau” that so many companies hit. They get really good at running kaizen events, or black belt projects, or whatever they do. They hit a pretty good level of performance, but things erode. They reach a plateau when the implementers are spending all of their time re-implementing what has eroded. They shift into mindlessly repeating the familiar rather than challenge themselves. What are we missing? Why is the skill concentrated into the same half dozen individuals who have been doing this since 1999?

The graph on the right represents something that is the same, but different. Take a look – each little squiggle repeats the graph on the left, only smaller. Each time a plateau is hit, the learner challenges herself to practice a new aspect. Things get a little worse for a bit, then as the new aspect is mastered, the process is repeated.

I see the job of the coach as two fold:

  • To challenge the learner in small steps, always looking for the obstacle to the next level of performance.
  • To offer up specific things to practice.

Billy’s presentation covered a lot of overlapping territory – enough for at least two more posts – stay tuned.

Thoughts and Notes from KataCon 2020

This is the first in series of posts I am drafting about what I saw, heard, learned at KataCon6 in Austin.

I was originally writing this up in huge chunks, maybe two posts. But when I bounced the “Part 1” draft off Craig Stritar, I got some good advice – there are a lot of topics here, and it might be more useful to break these up into smaller pieces, so that is what I am doing.

My intent is to generate discussion – so I would like to explicitly invite comments, questions and especially take-aways from others. In other words – let’s continue the great conversations that were taking place in Austin.

Day -1 and Day 0

Lean Frontiers traditionally runs the TWI Summit and KataCon back-to-back in the same week, alternating which comes first. This year the TWI Summit was Monday and Tuesday, and KataCon was officially Thursday and Friday.

Both conferences, though, have semi-formal activities and get-togethers prior to the first official day. Since there are things going on Wednesday, some people begin to arrive Tuesday evening. And because I was already on site from the TWI Summit, Tuesday evening is really when things got started for me.

Something I have observed in the past is that each KataCon seems to take on an informal theme of its own – a common thread or feeling that is established more by the participants than the presenters. Where the first KataCon was the excited buzz of a community coming together for the first time, this one seemed to me to be like a reunion. To be clear – it was a welcoming reunion. Unlike other conferences I have attended, there is nothing “clique-ish” about this one.

With that reunion theme, I want to give a shout out to Beth Carrington. She is a vital member in the fabric of this community and this is the first KataCon she has missed. I think I can speak for all of the regulars when I say “we missed you.” Those who do not know you still felt your presence and influence through your impact on the rest of us.

The other thing (for me) that was cool was just how much of the conversation took place after hours in the hotel lobby bar. There were long-time regulars catching up, and there were first-timers and newbies getting rich tutorials and insights from the veterans. That is why I titled this section starting with day “-1.” Those conversations were happening on Tuesday afternoon and evening as people started to arrive.

This is a community of sharing. Many of us are consultants and nominally competitors in an increasingly crowded market. Yet nothing was held back. We build on each other’s stuff, and pretty much everyone shares what they are thinking with everyone else. That’s pretty cool in my estimation.

The Kata Geek Meetup

Kata Geek Button from KataCon 1

The Kata Geek Meetup started at the first KataCon. At the time it was an informal mailing list invitation to attend a get-together before the conference started. Everyone got a “Kata Geek” button to wear with the idea that the other conference participants could identify those with a bit more experience under their belt if they wanted to ask questions, etc. The event wasn’t publicized on the conference agenda.

Over the years this has morphed into a mini-preconference that is open to all who can attend. People share brief presentations – maybe something they want to try out for an audience, maybe a rhetorical question, maybe a “what we are learning.” The pacing is much more flexible than the actual conference, and there is time for lively discussion and Q&A. Sometimes tough, challenging questions get asked – though always in the spirit of curiosity rather than trying to one-up anyone.

As I get into the actual content, I want to clarify my purpose in writing what I do. When I listen to presentations, I am more likely to take down notes of what thoughts or insights I take away than the actual content. These things are often a fusion of key points the presenter is making, or the way they are saying something, and my own paradigms and listening framework. That is what I am writing about here. I am not making any attempt to “cover” the presentations as a reporter or reviewer would or be complete in mentioning everything that was said.

PLEASE contribute in comments if something I didn’t mention resonated with you, or something written here sparked another thought for you.

Dorsey Sherman made a simple point: All coaching is not the same. It depends on your intention (as a coach).

Thinking about it a bit, the classic TWI Job Relations is coaching – usually (in its original form) to fix or change behavior in some way. TWI Job Instruction is coaching – in this case to teach / coach for skill. At a deeper level, the classes themselves are designed to give novice coaches a structure they can practice.

The Improvement Kata framework itself is a pretty universal structure that I can pour a lot of different intentions into and test ideas that I think will move me in a particular direction. I think all coaching is a process of exploring and experimentation simply for the fact that we are dealing with other people. We may begin with assumptions about what they think, know, feel but if we don’t take deliberate steps to test those assumptions we are just guessing in the dark.

Hugh Alley

Hugh is a friend from neighboring beautiful British Columbia. I recall telling an audience in British Columbia that Canada represents that nice couple living quietly in an apartment over a rowdy biker bar. 😉

A couple of take-aways I noted down as Hugh was speaking:

  • The storyboard represents a picture of the learner’s mindset – it is like an MRI.
  • Correction: Hugh informs me (see his comment below) that the MRI analogy came from Panos Eftsa.

I loved that analogy. When I look at the storyboard I am really seeing how organized the learner’s thinking is, how detailed, and whether or not they are connecting the dots of cause and effect from the levels of their target conditions to their metrics down to their experiments and predictions.

I thought of an image like this:

Public Domain: From Wikimedia Commons

Hugh was asking the audience about his situation of a client company that started up 13 storyboards at once. Some of the thoughts that came out:

  • Um… OK, you have already done that. *smile*
  • Establish a specific area of work for each board, each coach. Don’t try to bring them along all at once.
  • Work through each phase of the Coaching Kata, anchor success and mastery one-by-one rather than trying to batch everything through at once.

What was good about his client’s approach, though, is they are establishing a routine of people talking about why the work is the way it is – and that is awesome.

Toyota Kata Level-Set

At this point I am letting go of trying to write in the sequence of the agenda. There are topics I want to go deeper into, others I may combine.

Oscar Roche

The Toyota Kata Summit attracts people across a wide spectrum of knowledge and experience with “Toyota Kata” itself. Balancing the conference can present a real challenge. There are people who have been practicing this in the trenches for a decade and are pushing the boundaries. There are people who might have read the book and are curious about learning more.

One of the countermeasures is a “level set” presentation at the beginning of the formal conference. This is a brief overview of the fundamental principles of Toyota Kata and I think it is a good grounding for the veterans as well – it is always good to pull us back to the basics now and again.

Traditionally Mike Rother has done the “level set” presentation. This year, though, was a change and Oscar Roche stepped up. Oscar’s title slide drove home a critical point that we often miss:

  • “Kata is the a thing that helps you develop the a way”

His next slide answers the implied question:

Scientific thinking is a mental framework of continuous comparison between what we predict will happen next, and what actually happens, then adjusting our understanding based on the difference.
My thoughts – and a digression

A lot of practitioners get hung up on the idea that the way they know best is the best way, sometimes to the point of believing it is the only way. This is true for Toyota Kata practitioners, general “lean” practitioners, Six Sigmites, Theory of Constraints, TQM, you name it.

Sometimes I hear people make sweeping statements that dismiss an entire community, perhaps focusing in on one thing they perceive as flawed. “Lean addresses waste but not quality (or not variation).” “TOC doesn’t address flow.” “Six Sigma is only about big projects.” “Toyota Kata is only about the storyboard.” All of these statements are demonstrably false, but it is hard to have an open minded discussion that begins with an absolute.

All (credible) continuous improvement has a foundation of scientific thinking. Any approach you take has some basic “first moves” to get you started thinking that way. Toyota Kata is more explicit about that than most, but the underlying principles are the same across the board.

Oscar’s opening slide emphasized this point: Toyota Kata is a way, not the way. We can all learn to adapt vs. continuing to hammer on a nail that has hit a knot and is bending over.

Steven Kane

  • A teacher provides insight.
  • A coach pulls insight from the learner.
  • You may go back and forth between these two roles. Be crystal clear which role you are in at the moment.

I’ll probably write more about this in the future in a separate post. What I liked about this thought is that it is appropriate for the coach to provide direction or insight at times. My own presentation at KataCon kind of hinted at this – someone has to bring in the paradigm of what “really good” looks like.

Nevertheless, it is critical for the coach to drop into the “teacher” role only when necessary (which I think is a lot less often than we like to think it is), and then get back into true “coach” mode as quickly as possible. Why? Because unless I am in “curious” mode with my learner, I really have no way to know if my brilliant insights got any traction. 😉

Paraphrasing from Steven’s presentation, the question “What did you learn?” is there to see if there has been a moment of discovery.

  • The Power of Nothing

The most powerful follow-on question to “What did you learn?” is silence. If initial response is fluffy or vague, or you think there is more, just wait. Don’t try to say anything. The learner will instinctively fill in the awkward silence.

  • Target Condition vs. a Result

This came up a lot during the conference. Billy Taylor talked about the difference between “Key Activities” (KA) vs. “Key Indicators” (KI or KPI). What are the things that people have to do that will give us the result we are striving for? Leaders, all too often, push only on the outcome, and don’t ask whether the key activities are actually being carried out – or worse, don’t think about what activities are required (or the time and resources that will be required). I’m going dedicate a post on that topic.

And finally (and I am making this one bold so I remember it!) –

  • Don’t rob the leaner of their opportunity to make discoveries.

How often do we do that?

Michael Lombard

Michael had a brief presentation on “What we are learning” focused specifically into the health care field. His thoughts on medical students actually apply universally with anyone who perceives themselves as successful.

  • We need to de-stigmatize struggle. Productive struggle is part of deep learning. Medical students should not feel shame when they struggle to learn a new skill.

Why do they? Michael pointed out that the people who manage to get admitted to medical school are high-achievers. Things may well have come easily for them in high school and their undergraduate studies. Now they are in a group with other high-achievers, they don’t stand out from the crowd, and the concepts can be difficult to master.

We see the same things in other environments – a lot of people in senior positions of authority got there the same way. Many are ultra-competitive. Now we are asking them to master a skill that runs entirely counter to their paradigm of intuitive decision making. Note that that intuitive decision making has worked well for them in the past. But maybe they are at the limit of what they can do themselves, and have to find ways to engage others. I don’t know… there could be lots of scenarios that put them into completely unfamiliar territory.

Our challenge is how we de-stigmatize struggle.

Michael’s other key point touched one of the Wicked Problems in health care. I’m going to go into some more depth when I get to Tyson Ortiz’s presentation, but want to acknowledge the Great Question posed here:

  • “99% of activity needed to maintain wellness never involves a health system. Can we increase the striving capabilities and mental resilience of our patients, families, & communities so they can own their health journey?”

Amy Mervack

Amy tied our practice to the concept of “mindfulness.” One of her key points was learning to see that the pattern we are trying to teach may well be there in some form other than the explicit Improvement Kata.

She wrapped up with some guided practice of “being mindful” for the audience – which she said stretched her a bit as she had never done it with a group that large.

As a change agent, a mindfulness approach is critical. We have to learn to find everything about the way things are being done that we can leverage and extend. This means paying attention vs. the mindless approach of dismissing them out of hand with a single statement. Making people feel wrong may get attention focused on you, but it rarely helps make progress.

Experientials

The afternoon was “Experientials” – four hour breakout sessions that went deep into a particular topic. As Craig Stritar and I were hosting one, I didn’t attend any of the others. Always a downside of being up-front – I see more of my own stuff than the awesome things others bring.

As I mentioned above, I am going to be digging into some of the topics in more depth, and I want to keep those individual posts focused vs. trying to cover a rich diversity of discussions all at once. Hmmm… one-by-one vs. batching. That might be a concept. 😉

Notes from the 2020 TWI Summit – Part 2

Tyson Ortiz

TWI Job Instruction Card

Tyson zeroed right in on one of the biggest problems with “training” – getting people to adopt the new process or method after we have taught it to them.

Compounding this was that, in his example, the training was TWI Job Instruction – how to train. Tyson took a quick show-of-hands poll and informally confirmed his hypothesis that most people who take the TWI Job Instruction 10 hour course are already engaged in training and teaching.

This means that they have to do more than learn a new habit – one which will feel awkward to them at first. They also have to unlearn their current way of doing things – a way that is likely comfortable and familiar to them. To paraphrase from a slide of mine that seems to keep coming up: This. Is. Hard.

Taking what he has learned from Toyota Kata, Tyson saw the 4 Step Method for what it is: A routine for practice, not the end-all. For that to work, there must be actual practice using the routine. The 10 hour class is telling them about it* – and telling alone is not enough!

What Tyson did was add structured follow-on practice with real work, but not real training where the participants can practice, make mistakes, and learn in a safe environment. Then they move to live environments, but are still being coached. Then they are graduated and put on their own.

Transition of a learner through Recruiting, the 10 hour JI Class, a "safe zone" practice, "real" practice, then graduation.
Clipped from Tyson’s presentation.

Another key is that passing each stage is based on performance, not a time line. It is up to the coach, since the coach is the teacher, and “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”


*Yes, the class includes demonstrating the four steps – but each participant typically only gets one repetition, hardly enough for us to know that they know.

Roger Bilas

Roger actually built on the theme that Tyson was developing – the process of getting Job Instruction incorporated into the daily routine of the organization.

We often call this “managing change” or more cynically “overcoming resistance” but I think both Roger and Tyson are operating at a much more fundamental and human level. It’s called paying attention to what is causing stress and fear and make sure you deal with it effectively and with empathy.

And it is empathy where Roger begins.

He used the Stanford design school model to experiment his way toward a solution that used the framework of Job Instruction in a way that worked for the particular situation. And isn’t that the whole idea?

The design thinking model steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test
Clipped from Roger’s presentation.

As I was listening, I scribbled a note in the margin: “this is Menlo’s model” – the design process that Menlo Innovations. It isn’t really – this model uses different words. But the structure, intent, purpose is the same and is followed by all robust design and product development processes.

Roger was operating in an environment that was unfriendly to paper, had lots of high-variety and low-volume tasks that people had to get right.

Once he understood that he had motivated people in a tough situation, they began working together to develop simple solutions that worked – starting with simple sketches and hand-written notes on laminated cards.

Iterating through, always asking “What small step can we take?” toward the goal, always asking “How can we test that assumption or idea?” they converged on a solution that worked really well.

Not surprisingly, it was very visual and simple, and captured “Key Points” from the Job Breakdown.

There was a lot more good stuff at the TWI Summit. I’ll cover my own keynote separately. And I missed the 3 hour “Experiential” sessions because I was presenting one. And for the afternoon of Day 2 I was attending Oscar Roche’s version of a Toyota Kata class that follows the 5 x 2 hour structure of the classic TWI JI, JR, JM classes.

Thus, the next big thing for me to report on will be KataCon – which will be my next post.

That Broken Bolt is Speaking to You

The factory is running complex automated equipment. At the morning meeting today we heard “machine x was down for broken bolts.” Actually “again.”

Background – the bolts in question resist pressure in molding equipment. The details of how the equipment works aren’t relevant here. This isn’t the first time I have heard of “broken bolts” being the source of downtime.

After the meeting, I saw the production manager on the shop floor. “So, tell me about the broken bolts.” We know each other, he is happy to.

We went to the machine in question. “How do bolts break?” (These days I ask “how?” rather than “why?” because I am interested in the mechanism of failure rather than whatever mistake is being made.

I am asking that question for a simple reason: Grade 8 bolts don’t “just break” in equipment that is properly engineered and assembled as designed. Something, somewhere, is stressing things beyond their limits.

Normalized Deviance

By accepting that “bolts break” and “shafts get stripped” and “hoses fail” we move into the realm of “normalized deviance” where we accept as OK something that actually is a sign of a serious problem.

image

This is no different than accepting that “o-rings burn through sometimes but it hasn’t caused a problem so it must be OK.”

How do Bolts Break?

A few possibilities came up.

  • The bolts might be just a bit too long allowing movement.
  • The might be loose.

“Why is a ‘too long’ bolt even needed in the plant?” – that is still an open question.

“What is the torque spec?”

“… I don’t know.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Once we hit the threshold of knowledge, we know the next step.

If the student hasn’t learned…

… the teacher hasn’t taught.

Do you regard the structure of problem solving as dogma, or as an experiment with a predicted outcome?

If the learner struggles to master the structure, sometimes it is more valuable to find a different structure than to double down on what clearly isn’t giving the predicted result.

The Problem

Early this year I started work with a new client. They were trying to “implement A3,” and as I began to work with them, especially the new-in-the-position C.I. manager, I found they were struggling with what to write in the blocks of the “form.”

Of course there isn’t an A3 “form.” The A3 takes many configurations as the problem solver sets out to share the narrative with her coach. Nevertheless, beginners tend to find a format online, and work to put the right information in the various blocks.

In this case, my impression was that the blocks were getting in the way. “What should go in here?”  “What goes in the next block?” I didn’t really make a deliberate decision here, but I’ll tell you what I ended up doing:

What I Tried

First I tried the Toyota Kata format. He really liked that approach, but ultimately in this case we ran into the same kind of struggle. “Getting the structure right” seemed to be obscuring the bigger picture of the underlying thinking.

So I tried something more drastic: I let go of the format and the structure. Instead, let’s work on solving problems.

Like all organizations, there was no shortage of problems to practice on. So we just picked one.

Without the form, I had him map out the basic process steps. Then what happens, then what happens. What, exactly, is happening here. “The part is dropping off the conveyor.”

“OK, that’s the outcome, but what, exactly, is the mechanism that causes it to drop?” Describe what is happening. Draw it. Write it down. Show me.

After working to see process steps, we took on some pervasive quality issues.

“How is it even possible to produce this defect?” What are the steps involved to make a defective product? Yes – making defective product is a process, just like making a good product is a process. It is just a different process. What is actually happening here?

There were trials, experiments, measurements all with the goal of learning more, digging deeper, until the mechanism of the failure could be described. “This is what is happening.”

OK – how could that happen? Always forcing the discussion toward what is actually happening vs. what is not happening. If there was more than one possible mechanism to cause the problem, then “Based on the evidence we have, which of those can we rule out, and why?” Look at what’s left as a possible cause.

Of those, what trial can we run to see if we can rule that one out, or keep it in play.

At the end of a few of these, his language started to shift. He started speaking to others differently. He was learning to coach in different ways. He started asking different questions, boring in on the details with the intent of inquiry and dialog vs. “showing what I know.”

Oh – and he cracked a couple of chronic problems.

Then when the Corporate C.I. guy started insisting on “using A3” it was a pretty simple transition – it is just a way to describe what you know, what you do not know, and what steps you are taking to deepen your understanding because…

“The root cause of all problems is ignorance.”

– Steven Spear

What I Learned:

A core prerequisite to continuous improvement is good daily management of problem solving that applies solid scientific thinking to find the answers.

Once that thinking structure is in place, it can be expressed many ways, and A3 is but one of them. It isn’t the only one. As the level of scientific thinking deepens, the more the various tools and structures simply become fluid extensions to make it easier to express.

Sometimes I have found that if I try to force a particular format into place, I can end up having a container without any content.

Now… to be clear, there are many instances where the structure facilitates learning. It is just that in this particular case, the structure got in the way.

Asking whether learning is actually taking place, rather than trying to force a specific structure into place, may well be the difference between trying to teach by rote vs. staying focused on what the student is actually learning.

A Period of Reflection and Learning

Some of you have commented in back-channels that I have been pretty quiet for a while – both here as well as in regular correspondence. I’ve been in pretty heavy reflective mode for quite a while. I described it to someone as “I am learning faster than I can write it down right now – by the time I write something, I understand it in a different way and start over.”

A lot of that reflection has been around consolidating what I learned at from Rich Sheridan, James Goebel and all of the other Menlonians that I have the privilege to know now.

That work was punctuated, though not completed, by my keynote at KataCon last February (2018) where I followed Rich Sheridan and described my interpretation of the underlying meta-patterns that exist in pretty much any organization that we would call exceptionally good at what they do.

At the same time, another client (Thank you, Tomas!) introduced me to Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s body of work under the umbrella of “Adaptive Leadership.” From their model I think I picked out a fundamental failure mode of what we like to call “change initiatives” regardless of what tool set of operational models we are trying to deploy.

To learn more about this, I read (Note – these are Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy the book, I get a (very) small kickback at no cost to you.)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Leadership on the Line

Leadership Can Be Taught

Teaching Leadership

Your Leadership Edge

and every paper and article I could find on the topic or about people’s experience. While doing this, I have tried out many of the teaching and coaching processes as well as applying the observation, interpretation and intervention skills in the course of my work. Those of you who participated in the Experiential Workshop that Craig Stritar and I put on at KataCon early this year were seeing the outcomes of this work up to that point.

My latest step was taking a three day seminar Your Leadership Edge from the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita the 2nd week of August. The KLC’s model and methods are built on the Adaptive Leadership model. My intended outcome was to consolidate some of my understanding by getting the external perspective and participating within their structure.

The number one frustration of “change agents” out there is some form of “How to I get buy-in?” I know I have experienced that myself. It is easy when all of the constituencies and factions within the organization are well aligned on purpose and values. Not so easy when there are conflicts. I think the Adaptive Leadership model gives us an approach we can learn by practicing. It also mirrors the steps of problem solving / continuous improvement that are outlined in Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata. The context for action is different, but the process is the same: Learning what works through experimentation. That is the “adaptive” part of Adaptive Leadership.

This post is just some background around why I am pursuing this line of thought. As always, I write about things like this to force myself to improve my own understanding by having to explain them in the simplest possible terms. I am happy to have any of you along the journey with me, so subscribe or check-in or whatever and let’s see what we can learn.

Mark

HBR: Managers Think They’re Good At Coaching. They’re Not.

“No… this is coaching. That means I talk, you listen.”

Many years ago, those words began a 20 minute session that I can best describe as an “a** chewing.” The boss systematically went through all of the little notes he had been saving for over a year – like the fact that someone had commented that I had a cow lick in my hair one day many months ago, which was framed as “lack of grooming.”  None of this, of course, had anything to do with what had triggered the tirade. As I recall I had scheduled a meeting with a supplier over something that he had thought was more important. Needless to say, the guy didn’t have a lot of credibility with the group, as this was pretty normal behavior.

What Is Coaching?

While my (real life!) example may have been a somewhat extreme case, a recent HBR article by Julia Milner and Trenton Milner titled Managers Think They’re Good at Coaching. They’re Not offers up some preliminary research that supports the hypothesis in their title.

What they found was that what most managers described as “coaching” was, in fact, offering direction couched in the form of advice.

As an alternative, they offer up a definition of coaching by Sir John Whitmore:

“unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

I can see where it would be easy to argue about whether or not “teaching them” is actually different from “helping them learn” but I tend (these days) to come down on the side of seeing a big difference.

To quote from David Marquet:

“… they have to discover the answers. Otherwise, you’re always the answer man. You can never go home and eat dinner.”

And, indeed, I see the effect of managers trying to always be “the answer man” every day – even this week as I am writing this.

Milner and Milner conclude with this take-away:

coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

This, of course, is consistent with the message that we Kata Geeks are sending with Mike Rother’s Coaching Kata.

The challenge for these managers is the same as that posed by Amy Edmonson in a previous post, It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know.

Learning to Coach

The HBR article lists nine skills that the authors associate with coaching:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

Unfortunately just memorizing this list really isn’t going to help much, because there are effective ways to do these things; and there are ways that seem effective but, in reality, are not.

The question I would like to examine here is how practicing the Coaching Kata might help build these skills in an effective way.

I’m going to start with the second from the last: Providing structure.

The very definition of kata implies a structure. Especially for that critical early practice, the Coaching Kata and Improvement Kata provide a mutually supporting structure for both the Coach and the Learner to practice building their skills. The Starter Kata that Mike Rother describes make up the most rigid form of that structure with very specific activities designed to push problem solving and coaching skills.

As the organization matures, of course, that structure can shift. But even very mature organizations tend to have “the way we do things” which provides a safe structure that people can practice and experiment in. Ironically, this is the very purpose of standardization in the Toyota sense.  (This is very different from what most organizations think of as “standards” – where experimentation is forbidden! )Without this baseline structure, sound experimentation is much more difficult.

Continuing to skip around on the list, let’s look at assisting with goal setting.

The very first step of the Improvement Kata is Understand the Challenge or Direction. Right at the start, the coach must assist the learner with developing this understanding. At the third step we have Establish the Next Target Condition. Here, again, the coach practices assisting the learner to develop a target condition that advances toward the challenge; is achievable; and is challenging.

While novice coaches can struggle with this, the structure of the Improvement Kata gives them a framework for comparison. In addition, the learner’s progress itself becomes data for the coach’s experiments of learning.

Of course questioning is the hallmark of the Coaching Kata. We have the “5 Questions” to start with, and they provide structure for not only questioning but listening as well.

There is a critical difference between giving feedback and giving advice, and beginning coaches – especially those who have formal authority – frequently fall into the trap of “leading the witness” – asking questions intended to lead the learner to their preferred answer. Giving feedback, on the other hand, might be more focused on pushing a bit on untested assumptions or gaps in the learner’s logic or understanding of the chain of cause-and-effect.

Thus, someone practicing the Coaching Kata is learning to let the learner arrive at their own solution vs. leading them to one that the coach has in mind. These are all instances where a seasoned 2nd Coach can help by giving feedback to the coach about her process – working hard to avoid “giving advice” in the form of exactly what follow-up questions to ask. (Believe me, this is more difficult than it sounds, and at least for me, doesn’t get any easier.)

I am going to make an interpretation of encouraging a solution based approach and assume this means exploring the space of possible solutions with experiments vs. “jumping to solution” and just implementing it. I could be wrong, but that is the only interpretation I can think of that fits with the context of the other items on the list.

And finally are the softer skills of showing empathy and recognizing and pointing out strengths. I think it is unfortunate that these skills are typically associated with exceptional leaders – meaning they are rare. These are things I have had to learn through experimentation and continue to work on. But I think I can say that my own practice of the Coaching Kata has given me a much better framework for doing this work.

The Coaching Kata framework is certainly not the only way to develop coaching skills. We have been training effective coaches long before 2009 when the original book was published. And there are very effective training and mentoring programs out there that do not explicitly follow the Coaching Kata / Improvement Kata framework.

BUT I will challenge you to take a look at those other frameworks and see if you don’t find that their underlying framework is so similar that the difference is more one of semantics than anything else.

In my next few posts, I am going to be parsing a course I recently took that is just that.

 

 

 

 

 

KataCon4–Notes along the way: Part 3

I’m going to break a rule of blogging and acknowledge I’ve been pretty much offline for quite a while since the last post. But I also want to push through what I started because this all leads to more.

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My next pages of notes I took at Menlo were about crafting a message for a Kata Geek audience – what is it about Menlo’s process and culture that is relevant to them (you?).

Again, I am going to pretty much transcribe my notes, though I am going to edit a bit as I wrote them in first person as though I was Rich, and I am not going to do that here. In the end, these became a foundation for the keynote I ended up giving following his.

Key Point: These words are mine, and no one else’s. I do not pretend to speak for Rich or anyone else, I was simply consolidating my own thoughts by using a possible talk as a vehicle for myself.

Theme: The Improvement Kata: Experimenting to create a deliberate culture.

(Scene 1: Exposition)

We are probably all after the same thing: To create a workplace where people are excited to come to work every day.

That experience has little to do with the work itself. It emerges when we can create a culture where:

  • Fear has been extracted.
  • Ambiguity (that causes fear) has been eliminated.
  • Relationships are strengthened every day.

I believe Menlo has created that culture. What I want to do today is discuss how you can use what you are learning with Toyota Kata to create these things in your own organization… Even (especially!) if you are not in charge

(Note – this part may be a little confrontational)

If you are in charge, there is nothing and no one stopping you. It is a matter of knowing what you really want, and being accountable to yourself and your team to create it.

Joy is very different from happiness. Joy is what we experience with the release of creative tension (figuring it out).

  • Success vs a challenge
  • Winning a game against a tough opponent.
  • That feeling we get when “it works!”

We can also experience joy with relief or resolution from psychological or physical danger – the same brain chemicals are at work – but this is DRAMA, not creative attention. We don’t want this, because it is relief from FEAR, not a sense of accomplishment.

(Scene II – “The Call”)

To create joy in others, you must fist look at yourself.

  • Cross the bridge
  • Be fearless
  • Take a step
  • Self-empowerment
  • Give yourself permission to NOT get everything right the first time – EXPERIMENT

“The most dangerous thing you can do is try to pretend you know when you don’t” – leads to paralysis by fear of discovery.

Until you can comfortably say “I don’t know” to yourself, you will be unable to learn.

“Find a a coach / be a coach” with whom you can create a bubble of safety to explore your own threshold of knowledge as a change agent. Arm yourself with allies.

(Scene III – “Walk into Mordor”)

In a large organization, middle management sets the tone.

This is the end of the notes I was taking, but these themes get explored more deeply as I continued this journey.

KataCon4–Notes along the way: Part 2

One of the things Menlo does (and I am sure they are not the only ones in their business who do) is create user personas – a biographical profile of a fictional person who represents a category of potential user for the software they are developing.

In Joy, Inc, Rich Sheridan describes the often contentious process of then forcing the customer to pick a single persona as the primary user – the persona whose needs will drive all decisions about optimization. That person goes in the center of their three rings.

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They allow two personas in the 2nd ring, and three in the 3rd ring.

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As they make design decisions about their code and user interface, they always defer to the innermost rings. That doesn’t mean that someone in a ring further out won’t have their needs met, but they will meet those needs in ways that don’t compromise the process for personas closer to the center.

Persona Mapping for KataCon

In the spirit of being a temporary Menlonian, I worked paired with Craig (over the phone, and in a shared Google Doc) and we developed a persona map for KataCon. Of course, had we done this correctly we would have gone back in time to the previous KataCon, gotten the profiles from the attendees lists, interviewed people, and put together profiles for “typical” people who attend.

Since we couldn’t do that, we pushed past our threshold of knowledge and combined experience with a bit of speculation. I did confirm some of our assumptions via a phone call to Dwayne at Lean Frontiers who graciously answered my questions as he was driving across Indiana.

This process forced us to actually think about who was in the audience, and why they were there – what they were seeking from their participation in the conference. As Rich and I talked about his message, and later on as Craig and I worked on our “Experiential Workshop” we used the names of these “people” rather than generic terms like “participant” or “audience.” I found that really focused our conversations.

Who Do You Optimize Your Process For?

This really begs the general question: Who is your process optimized for?

Is it optimized for the person doing the work?

For the customer’s specific experience? And if so, who is the “customer persona” you are optimizing THAT for? For example, for an ideal retail experience, a mom with two kids in tow would be a different customer than a single guy. You likely get both, but if you have do something that slightly compromises one in order to optimize the other… who is in the center ring?

Next up: Target Conditions as User Stories