Teaching Lean: Tools and Tricks for Coaching and Facilitation

We have all been tasked at some point in our life to teach someone else about something we know, and there are certainly some subjects that are more exciting to students than others. When a subject, like implementation of lean tools, is not easily understood because it is new or different from what is already known, it requires the teacher to use different approaches. The first step for the teacher is understanding his or her audience, and deciding which approach will work best: coach, facilitator or trainer.

As a coach, you make the learning process more personal through one on one or small group education. There must be equal trust between coach and student, and a strong desire by the student to make a commitment to learn and make meaningful change. As a facilitator, you help groups work together to achieve desired outcomes. You may lead a team through problem solving or conflict resolution, but ultimately your goal is to prepare the group with a set of tools to operate on their own. As a trainer, your primary goal is to transfer knowledge to a larger group. It is the best way to disseminate information about tools that will be used on a project. That said, this can be the hardest approach to use. You are combining a lot of learning styles in one room, and you will need to find a technique for teaching and materials that appeals to most (or hopefully all)1.

I am part of a team within HKS that provides support for people and projects that are utilizing lean tools and methodologies. On a daily basis our role can change from educator to support group leader to counselor to cheerleader, and at times we even feel a bit like game show hosts. We are outsiders to the core design and construction team offering guidance and a bit of comic relief to get the team through life’s awkward moments. If you break the process into four steps: The Newlywed Phase (Newlywed Game), Overcoming Obstacles (Family Feud), Meeting in the Middle (Let’s Make a Deal), and Meeting Your Goals (The Price is Right), it’s easier to stop and make adjustments if something isn’t working for the team.

Step One: The Newlywed Phase. Our role at this phase is to help the team get to know each other. The goal of an ice-breaker is not to make people uncomfortable, it is to find out who people really are outside of their project role and create common ground. You might have different jobs, but you both have children or eat the same flavor of ice cream. Finding out what connects you will strengthen your team, and save you in the future if there is conflict. Creating a set of Big Room rules together sets the tone for team behavior. Make enforcing the rules fun, toss a stuffed rabbit at someone if their conversation is leading you down a rabbit hole, and reward good behavior. Friendly competition to earn an award at the end of a team week can be a good thing.

Step Two: Overcoming Obstacles. Every team will hit a bump in the road at some point in the project, our role is to steer the team in a positive direction. A good facilitator should: listen to and respect all participants, observe how people are feeling, be assertive but not overbearing, be energetic and engaged, understand the different viewpoints and goals for the group/meeting, be confident a solution can be found, and have a neutral position and perspective. The last point can be the hardest, and may require changing facilitators. It is important to moderate discussion flow to draw out the quiet ones and limit those who talk a lot. Doing Plus/Deltas religiously will help a team stay on track. Keep doing what you’re doing well, and make adjustments next time to improve what you’re not doing well.

Step Three: Meeting in the Middle. Everyone on the team knows how to do their job, their company would not employ them if that wasn’t the case. The team should recognize these individuals as thought leaders for their discipline, even if they are not the most senior person from their company. When utilizing Target Value Design, these thought leaders can lead an innovation team or cluster group, working with other team/groups for the betterment of the project. Our role here is to recognize the breakdowns and adjust before we hit an obstacle. Is there a team struggling to hit their target? Is there a lack of attendance or engagement in the meetings? Try changing who leads the pull planning discussion, stand up, and set appropriate times in the agenda to check your phone or email. Consider a “speed dating” format for pull planning and brainstorming sessions. Set 15 – 30 minute “dates” for team/group interaction ensuring that all teams interact.

Step Four: Meeting Your Goals. Our role is to make sure the goals are clear and top of mind for everyone on the team. This can be done through a variety of visual management strategies. An example would be posting a tracking board on the wall with estimated cost, target cost, allowable cost, and our gap to target. This method isn’t meant to degrade a team that’s struggling to meet their target, but help them track their goal and encourage others to help. Adopt a motto of “We’re all in this together”. At times project constraints can leave us feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to remember our greater purpose and the people who make it happen. Celebrate the wins, big or small, by posting it to a memo board, calling special attention to it in a meeting, or taking the team out for dinner.

Throughout the entire process it is imperative you remember and believe that people support what they help create. Creating the rules for engagement in a silo, putting up barriers and generally showing a lack of respect for others will lead to failure every time. Creating a safe environment for learning, collaboration, experimentation, and growth will give you a better outcome than you ever imagined.


1. Wild, J.L., R.L. Shambaugh, J. Isberg, P. Kaul (1999, January 14). Facilitation, Coaching, Mentoring and Training: Understanding the Differences

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