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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Lean Farmer: Desirable Attributes of a Lean Coach

Leadership is regularly discussed whenever the subject is organizational change.  Lean conversions and leading the ongoing lean operation require determined leaders and effective leadership. Successful leaders behave in a particular way with certain desirable attributes.

This leadership role has many names.  Whether you call them a sensei, champion, coach, or leader; the role is no less critical for the organization to be successful.  I am not one that pays much attention to titles but for this post I chose Coach because it is so fitting.  A Coach is an individual involved in the direction, instruction and training of the operations of a team or of individual.

The following characteristics are desirable for a good Lean Coach: 

  1. Active-learner open to new ideas
  2. Natural problem-solving skills
  3. Basics technical skills (comfortable with spreadsheets, graphs, data, etc.)
  4. Keen Observer
  5. Hands-on
  6. Passionate about improving processes
  7. Leadership skills
  8. Strong interpersonal skills
  9. Excellent communicator (writing & speaking)
  10. Systems thinkers (able to understand process flows, etc.)
These characteristics alone don't make a Lean Coach.  The Lean Coach must have technical knowledge in the lean tools and tacit knowledge from experience.  Nobody is born knowing these principles and how to implement them.  Everyone has to learn them through practice, trial and error, and coaching.  Success is not based on who you are but rather on what you do. Behaviors can be learned and unlearned. 

Being a teacher is the most important aspect for a Lean Coach.  They are not the ones to come in and do it for you.  They are the ones to show you how to do it with confidence so that you will be able to do it for yourself.  A Lean Coach must be relentless in teaching and expecting learning through actual practice.

The best analogy of a Lean Coach that I have heard is related to agriculture. The Lean Coach is a farmer not a hunter.  Farmers take the long view, and win in the long term.  Hunters take the short view, get early gains but ultimately die out.  Farmers are shepherds.

What characteristics of a Lean Coach do you find desirable in your experience?

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  1. I think an important distinction is between coaching towards the solution versus coaching the method. In my surveys of managers, including one I did yesterday, just about EVERYONE thinks they are coaching. But when you dig down, they are coaching towards the solution. Some people can learn this way, but only because they took their own responsibility to do so. To truly develop people, you must coach the method. This takes more time, patience, and skill, but ultimately adds more value to the organization.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. Tim, I love the analogy to the farmer. It is amzing how many clients just want you to bring the hunted animal for them to eat. Showing up with soil and seeds helps them in the long run but Toyta Way princple # 1 of the long-term view is tough for some people. Great article!

  3. Hi, Tim!

    An excellent, thought-provoking analogy you've made here. There is so much written on being a leader vs. being a manager, however, I say, "Neither!" Coaching, or teaching, is what's required. Successful teachers are both leaders and managers.

    For more on this, feel free to check out this post on my blog:


  4. Tim,

    Once again you have hit the mark. Lean is not done "to you" or "for you" but "by you", and a good coach recognizes this is the outcome they must help others to move toward.