Why Coaching is Important to Continuous Improvement

It’s 2017, Happy New Year!

If you are like me, you spend the later part of the year setting goals for the coming year and planning how to accomplish them. For those who work for me, I always set goals, metrics, and participate in a conference on how we are going to achieve what we want together. Over the last few months, I also had the privilege, along with the consulting work I do, to speak with several groups (a Chamber of Commerce group in Massachusetts, an industry group in Ohio, and a Christian Advocates group here in Washington) about Coaching and Mentoring and the importance it takes with leaders. Coaching requires a leader (our managers and supervisors) to have a servant leadership attitude.

We must serve the people, invest in the people. If we Coach, the company will grow as the minds grow.

True continuous improvement requires a servant leader attitude and outlook to be successful within an organization. Continuous improvement (in its purest sense) actually demands that leadership support others in their development. Hence, rather than exercising power over the people, the power should be shared with the people by putting their development needs first. This is where coaching comes into play for our managers and supervisors. Many of the operations I have worked with have lost sight of the importance of coaching and focused on immediate satisfaction through saving money quickly at the expense of the people and the culture. I hope to share with you some key thoughts on coaching and why it is important to your Continuous Improvement journey.

Impact of a Coach

Think back to one of the coaches you had in the past: who really stood out for you? I can name a few from both High School and College. I had a superstar coach in Trent Richards who consistently produced winning cross country and track & field teams every year in St. Charles, IL. But my absolute favorite coach was Jeff Leavey who coached basketball and was an assistant coach for cross country and track & field in high school and head coach in junior high. Coach Leavey lead by example, he communicated what was expected and then taught the skills over and over to make sure you knew what or how a specific skill was to be performed. It is Coach Leavey who I remember teaching those basis skills that led to many of the successes many St. Charles runners experienced for decades and who coached me to personal bests and a few records.

Our managers and supervisors are the same – because they have tremendous impact on our businesses, we depend on them to continually train the other employees on best practices throughout the organization. Good managers and supervisors are often people who:

  • Make the difference between meeting production/delivery targets and metrics
  • Have the most impact on workplace culture
  • Influence the retention of our associates
  • Provide an incentive for people to join a company

Because of these impacts, we need our supervisors and managers to be better coaches, to be more present on the floor, out in the yard, talking with our associates about our expectations and constantly reinforcing the best practices that we teach. I often say, if you look at a sports team, “you do not see the head coach in the office when the team is out on the field; you always see them there on the field coaching from the side lines, and you have your leaders (front line supervisors) on the field coaching the players.” One of my favorite football players, Mike Singletary with the Chicago Bears, was constantly talking/coaching the defensive players; we need the same in our operations.

Coaching is Helping

Coaching is also about the action of helping, and making it easier for someone to do something. It is essentially to provide one’s services or resources to someone in need. In a continuous improvement sense, it is to provide a person with not only the materials but also the time necessary to operate effectively. The act of helping someone is not just sending an expert or a manager/supervisor to improve a process or removing an ergonomic risk from an operation via kaizen. All of those elements are good for the employee, yes.  But it is just as important, just as vital, to train, influence, and engage the individual. Coaching most certainly means to improve the process, but equally it communicates the need to invest in the knowledge and experience level of the employee.

In the continuous improvement realm, it means to help every individual “see.” We help each individual understand, appreciate, and value continuous improvement. This means to share knowledge, information, and methods. Show them how to identify the issues and develop ideas to improve. It means allowing time for individuals to train and then to put that training into action through small groups and kaizen events. Employees need recurrent teaching. It’s essential for them to hear the continuous improvement message frequently. That said, they do not just need to “hear” it, they need to see it as well; a good coach will demonstrate by action.

What Makes a Good Coach

Many times we select a manager or supervisor based on experience or tenure, but is that the right decision for the organization? Most organizations may answer that people skills are also an important aspect of being a good manager. The right “package” can contain any number of the following attributes as part of being a coach in addition to experience and knowledge of the metrics we seek:

  • Good communication skills—Supervisors need to be able to present complex ideas in simple terms and convince others why tasks should to be done a certain way. They also need to be able to communicate upward to higher management about issues and concerns on the floor—and, importantly, good Supervisors have good listening skills which they use with both upper management and their work teams.
  • Resourcefulness—A good Supervisor needs to be able to “make things happen” when confronted by obstacles. Some people refer to this as having “problem-solving skills,” but it’s also about being innovative and thinking “outside the box”—being creative and seeing solutions others just don’t see. When those they lead see this resourcefulness, they in turn will be just as creative.
  • Flexibility—The needs of the business will change throughout the year, throughout the week, maybe even throughout the day. As these needs change, a good coach will communicate with their work team/cell members and accommodate these requirements for flexibility and adapt readily to “change.”
  • Respect—Being respectful is more than just being courteous and polite. Good Supervisors treat people as individuals, acknowledging their individual needs and aspirations.
  • Enthusiasm—People who are enthusiastic can generally motivate and energize others to behave the same way and reach their full potential.
  • Ability to delegate and influence—Being able to effectively delegate tasks and influence others to perform the work in an appropriate way can be difficult to master, but there should be early signs that the trait exists and can be developed through mentoring and experience.
  • Being open to new ideas—This is related to flexibility, but it’s also about being open to looking at things from different perspectives and trying new approaches. A Supervisor with this trait is particularly valuable in a multigenerational or multicultural workplace. A good coach will listen to their team and elicit ideas from them, getting them to contribute to the continuous improvement of the operation.

There are certainly additional attributes we could explore, but this is a good starting point.

If you want to make a difference this year, have your managers and supervisors make a priority of coaching daily. If you start each day with this mantra as part of your Continuous Improvement journey, your organization will see significant improvements. Even if you do not have a CI program in place, begin coaching – you will see improvements in best practices throughout. Remember, if we can assist you, give us a call; we would be honored to work with you!

Ben Hershey is the CEO of 4Ward Consulting Group, LLC, the leading provider of Lean Management and Manufacturing Consulting to the Structural Component and Lumber Industry. A Past President of SBCA, he has owned and managed several manufacturing and distribution companies and is Six Sigma Black Belt Certified. Ben has provided consulting to hundreds of Component Manufacturers, and is highly recommended throughout the industry.

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