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How to Coach Problem Solving

The key to training employees to be better problem solvers is to transform managers into coaches. The transformation is difficult but will revolutionize your organization.


A group of people in an office looking at a computer.


Coaching problem solving is the greatest leverage point you have to drive effective problem solving. If you want to coach problem solving, then you need to build coaches. Far too few lean transformation road maps involve an explicit plan for doing so. They focus on training and try to train up a critical mass of their organization on problem solving. But what happens when someone finishes their training? They try to apply what they learned, they struggle, they may fail, and finally, they give up. Why? Because, especially in the early stages of our individual learning, we need coaches who help us close the gap between knowledge and capability, between understanding something and being able to use it. I have advised several companies to pump the brakes, slow down their training and focus more on building coaching capacity, because otherwise, people would have become frustrated.

What is the target condition for an organization with coaches? Every employee should be no more than one degree removed from a coach. In other words, every employee should be able to access a coach where and when they need it. That means coaches must be plentiful, available and connected. If an employee on the evening shift of a multishift operation has a problem they are engaged in solving, then what happens if all the coaches are on the day shift? Most likely, they never get the coaching they need because neither the problem nor the learning can wait.

Evaluate your coaching capacity by observing, or even surveying, with this question: Do you have access to a problem-solving coach where and when you need it? I do not recommend putting a lot of energy into trying to calculate a number, because it is often a moving target. As the learning increases, so does the demand for coaches, but then as the capability grows in the critical mass of the organization, the demand will drop, at least until you raise expectations again or the conditions get more complex for other reasons (a merger, a strategic pivot or an economic crisis, as examples).

The Manager as Coach

There is one guaranteed way to ensure every employee is no more than one degree removed from a coach: make coaching the priority for every manager. One-on-one meetings become coaching sessions. Staff meetings can become shared-learning coaching sessions. The strongest lean organizations I have observed make this one of the core elements of their infrastructure.

Several supporting factors must also change to enable this goal.

1. Managers must make choices situation by situation about when they are a manager first and when they are a coach first. This is a trade-off between short-term performance and long-term capability for future performance. If the incentive system, both formal and cultural, is more focused on short-term performance than building long-term capability, then the manager-as-coach scheme will fail. As one former Toyota manager told me, "I cannot get promoted until my employees are capable of doing my job. My number-one priority is developing my team." The best signal you can send is in promotions, as this manager indicated. Not only will it be clear who "gets ahead" in the organization, but those managers, once promoted, will place value on this for their decisions.

2. You need to build mechanisms and processes that enable this relationship. For example, look at your employee evaluation system. Is coaching built in or is its primary purpose to document and reward outcome-based performance? It can do both, but you can build the backbone of your system primarily for only one or the other.

3. You need to think about how many team members a manager can coach without diluting and sacrificing quality. Organizations that are focused on coaching often have a smaller span of control for each manager, but because they gain more from those employees as a result of the coaching, the payout is still positive. However, do not put the extra managers in place before you've built the capability.

Otherwise, you will have more managers committed to the old expectations and who build up greater resistance to becoming coaches. Instead, start shifting managers into being capable coaches, and they will gradually force the right ratio because they start to shape their environment to be optimal for coaching. I know one executive who makes an effort to keep their calendar very clear and open so they are available to their team for coaching or other needs. This is the kind of ownership of their coaching that managers should aspire to.

Here is the hard part: building that capability and culture, with that many managers, is difficult and takes time. It is a long-term decision to pursue this route. Not only do you face a real risk of managers diminishing what was working in order to shift to coaching, but they may not be good at it. They must learn, through practice, on their way to success. This means failures along the way. You must be accepting of those failures and perhaps supplement the organization with other crutches to prop it up during the transition.

I cannot think of many investments with a higher and more sustainable long-term payout than building an organization where every manager is a coach. However, I also cannot think of many investments that require more effort, persistence and patience.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is an entrepreneur, senior executive, consultant and board member. He is the author of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem and The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.


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