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More Words Matter in Continuous Improvement (CI)

During various on-site deliveries of our 'Lean Leadership' module, as well as presentations on this subject at conferences, I learned an important point about the term 'teaching'.  We often say that leaders need to 'teach'.  More specifically leaders should teach their direct reports and others with whom they come in contact about the direction of the business, and process improvement and problem solving methods, among other things.  However the term 'teacher' stirs up apprehension in some people.  Some people see a 'teacher' as a person standing in front of a group of people, a 'class', and speaking with great authority on a particular subject.  This picture is understandable given the life experiences of most people.  However, apprehension arises with such a view of this role.

Some people are uncomfortable speaking in front of groups.  "You want me to be a 'teacher'?  I can't do what you do, standing up and speaking to groups."  Others are uncomfortable speaking on a subject that they don't feel they are 'expert' in.  "I can't teach problem solving.  I'm still learning myself. I'm not an 'expert' like you." However, most teaching in a business environment doesn't take place in a classroom environment, and most often it is on a near one-on-one basis. Most leaders communicate in small group forums such as meetings.  And the fact is nobody is really an 'expert' (I always cringe at the use of the term when people introduce me as being an 'expert' in some subject or another).  We are all still learning, and we will always be 'students' our entire lives.  I was taught many years ago that leaders didn't need to know all the answers, but rather the questions to ask at the proper time. 

Rather than 'teacher', perhaps a term to better convey the true intent is 'coach'.  Many of my colleagues are using this term.  Most people think of a coach as a person on the sideline, providing guidance throughout the 'game', and providing direction on an as needed basis as the coach learns what is working or not working at that moment. Coaches teach in thoughtful and orchestrated ways during 'practice' leading up to the game. Repetition is used during practice as a means to teach so that the techniques are 'carried over' to game day.  Certainly sounds more like what we are intending to convey with the term 'teacher', and perhaps the term 'coach' won't give rise to the aforementioned apprehension.

We often use the term 'huddle' to describe very brief and effective communication between a leader and his or her team members. We encourage leaders to establish huddles at the beginning of a shift or day to convey goals and objectives along with other information. Huddles at the end of the shift or day can reflect on recent performance as well as to prepare for the next shift or day. Huddles during the day can allow for effective communication of needed 'course corrections'.  The objective for a huddle as well as the appropriate frequency is defined in a leader's 'standard work'. 

A problem became apparent during observations of leaders engaged in such interactions.  Too often the communication process was 'one-way' with the leader doing all of the talking.  When asked about this, several people responded by saying "that's what a huddle is, the quarterback calling the play."  This interpretation is quite understandable given the picture most people have when thinking about the term 'huddle'.  However, our intent is for some 'two way' communication to take place between the leader and his or her team members.  I have seen organizations use terms such as 'toolbox time', 'sunrise meetings', and others.  Perhaps these terms better convey the true intent. 

Look at the terms you and your organization use.  Do people understand their intended meaning?  Are they creating some confusion or apprehension?  After all words do matter in Continuous Improvement.

  Drew Locher – Change Management Associates

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