Green Belt and Black Belt coaching has for many organizations become an integral part of Lean Six Sigma implementation and critical to the success of improvement projects. However, standards and best practices of effective coaching are only rarely established.
Some may ask, “Why coaching for someone who has gone through training?” While training is essential for the obtaining skills and knowledge, coaching makes sure that learning is applied in the real world. Training is usually done in groups using a variety of styles (e.g., lectures, classroom exercises, discussions, drills) and usually allows “students” to learn from each other during the process. Coaching, on the other hand, focuses on the individual. The overall training/coaching sequence is: 1) need for skill or knowledge is realized, 2) training takes place, 3) coaching is provided and 4) ability to do the job is perfected.
An assumption, especially for Six Sigma training, is that each of the weeks of Green Belt and Black Belt training is stuffed with content that is intellectually challenging. Therefore, participants usually understand the concepts taught in the course and have a “feeling” for the tools that can be used in process improvement, but they rarely are able to master the tools in real life. Particularly, questions like why and when to use what tools and how to interpret the tool’s results in detail in a project environment are often beyond the scope of training. Additionally, coaching topics usually cover the review of the overall project progress, the definition of next steps, and how to best manage interpersonal relationships between Belts, the team, the Sponsor and other stakeholders. Other coaching issues include how to solve organizational issues like lack of resources or conflicting priorities.
Research of coaching effectiveness shows that a structured, proactive coaching approach where a schedule is followed leads to more successful project completion in comparison to an ad-hoc coaching approach (“Call me if you need me.”). The table below offers some comparisons of coaching with and without proactive support:
|Project and Belt Comparisons With and Without Proactive Coaching|
|Meeting initially defined project duration targets||
|Test results on tool interpretation six months after training ended||
|Project sponsor evaluating project as “very successful” or better||
Given the variety of typical coaching topics, coaches need to be agile in guiding Belts on these issues. One of the key principles a coach should follow is: Do not tell Belts what to do, instead enable learning by helping Belts to find the best way to solve problems themselves.
This sounds easier than it is since many coaches would define their role more as a solution provider than a solution enabler. However, the coach should always remember that, while in the short term it might be helpful for Belts to get solutions immediately, in the long term Belts will not become self-sufficient in solving future problems.
A key prerequisite of an effective coach is his or her understanding of the job. Coaching can be understood as the process of helping people enhance or improve their performance through reflection on how they apply a specific skill and/or knowledge, if the coach holds these beliefs:
Additionally, good coaches are excellent listener, patient, supportive, interested, and able to challenge assumptions and actions as well as to give and receive feedback.
It is imperative that realistic expectations with the Belt are set at the beginning of each coaching process. This agreement, often called contracting, ensures that both parties know what is specifically happening between them. Contracting is important for building trust between the Belt and that coach. Contracting defines a number of important issues:
In order to help a Belt be successful throughout the duration of a Six Sigma DMAIC project, these are examples of questions the coach should ask to challenge the Belt. The list is broken down in the five DMAIC steps:
The Define Phase
The Measure Phase
The Analyze Phase
The Improve Phase
The Control Phase
Here are some of the common mistakes in Six Sigma project coaching:
Overloading belts with recommendations: Everybody wants to hear what should be done differently – and how they can improve. But the energy and attention Belts can give to recommendations about their performance is limited. Therefore, be selective with recommendations and make sure to also give positive feedback.
Getting stuck in the details: An easy trap is to get hung up in the details, e.g., of a statistical explanation, and loosing the overview of the project. A good way to manage this is to initially go through all project accomplishments to date before going into the details of a tool.
Assuming that there is no need for coaching: Sometimes a Belt appears to signal that there is no need for coaching. It could be that the Belt simply does not want to bother the coach thinking that the project is more or less on track. But this also can present a learning opportunity about having done the right things right.
Being too formal: Having scheduled a coaching meeting for two hours does not mean it always has to take the full 120 minutes. Also asking the same questions exactly the same way every time will give the impression that the coach is not interested in the person and project of the Belt but more in a formal procedure.
Trying to be all-knowing: A Master Black Belt masters most of the tools and has the main responsibility to make sure projects utilize tools appropriately. But, it is not necessary to be the master of all details of all tools. If a Belt’s questions tests a coach’s expertise, it can actually be better to respond, “I don’t know off the top of my head;” and then look up the correct answer later on.
The GROW model can be used to structure a coaching session. This model was developed not only for Lean Six Sigma project coaching but for coaching in general. It ensures that the important aspects of a one-on-one learning situation are met.
Goal: Here the coach helps the Belt to define what is to be achieved next. The realism in terms of both the Belt’s capabilities and the context of the goal should be validated. Make sure that objectives are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound).
Reality: Next, the coach tries to understand where the Belt is at present in relation to their goals or objectives. Be prepared to challenge and give feedback where necessary. The trick is not to tell them outright where specifically they are but to enable them to realize that for themselves.
Options: Do not settle for the first option that comes into the Belt’s head. Explore, explore, explore. Encourage the Belt to come up with a few options and then test each option by taking time to investigate the pros and cons of each. Then get the Belt to make a decision – their decision – as to which is best for them. Coaches have to take risks here and let the person try the option out that they believe is the best way forward.
Will: The discussions and findings are now summarized while the goal, the steps necessary to achieve that goal and the timelines needed to achieve each step are reinforced. This phase is called Will because it is necessary that the Belt has fully bought into what they they are going away to do. The coach can ask, for example, on a scale of 1-to-10, how motivated the Belt is to carry out the necessary steps.
There are some tools commonly used to accompany the coaching process throughout a project to help facilitate the conversation between Belt and coach. They are:
1. Checklist for phase completion: The use of a checklist similar to the key questions lists above can help make sure that the Belt and the coach both use the same process. The checklist can be used as a guideline for the coaching process utilizing the questions as a base for discussion during the coaching sessions.
2. Summary sheet of project progress: Typically a one-page description is used to summarize the current status of the project. This can be an update of the project charter using the same format as was initially used for describing the project.
3. Self-assessment of current status: A self-assessment of the current project status including a traffic light (red, yellow, green) at the end of every coaching session is a good way to communicate and summarize projects in the organization and towards sponsors. A “red” here does not mean that the Belt did a poor job but rather that some interventions are necessary for the project to get back on track.
Summarized, these are the key success factors for an effective coaching process: