Improvement Kata Part 5 – Guidelines for Coaches


The Improvement Kata Handbook describes the role of the coach being to “accompany the Learner and give procedural guidance as needed to ensure that although the Learner struggles, s/he is successful in using the Improvement Kata pattern to achieve a challenging target condition”.  It’s important to both follow the coaching steps outlined but to also pay attention to the emotions of the learner as they work through the process.  Encourage them when they are frustrated and celebrate successes.  It’s not enough for the learner to know how to use the Improvement Kata.  She should also want to use the Improvement Kata.  Coaches are responsible for the learner’s success.

Stages of the Coaching Kata Practice:

  1. Practice the Coaching Kata exactly. As a beginner you need to follow the step-by-step instructions.  The repetition will help to build the new skill.
  2. Personalize your Coaching Kata practice. Once you understand the patterns and methodology, you can adapt the practice to fit your particular situation and personal style.
  3. Intuitive Operating. At this point you have internalized the techniques to such a point that you can be more spontaneous and creative.  You no longer have to devote so much conscious thought to your practice.

The way you coach will also depend on the level of experience that the Learner has with the Improvement Kata.  With a beginner, the coach will focus on instructing.  The coaches role at this point is to teach the basic techniques.  As the learner becomes more experienced, the coach’s focus should shift toward coaching.  At this point the coach and the learner partner to address the learner’s areas for improvement.  Once the learner begins to demonstrate mastery the coach should focus on counseling.  At this stage the coach is providing advice and support as needed.

Coaching should always be done one on one – one coach to one learner rather than a group of learners.  This is done to personalize the approach.  Different learners have different levels of understanding or mastery.  Different people learn at different rates.  You will have to adjust your style to meet the learner’s specific needs.

The coaching cycle is built around the 5 questions.

The 5 Coaching Kata Questions:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
    1. What was your last step?
    2. What did you expect?
    3. What actually happened?
    4. What did you learn?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition? Which *one* are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step (next PDCA/experiment)? What do you expect?
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Use the See-Compare-Instruct coaching model:

  • SEE – Try to understand how the learner is thinking. (Coach is in an observing / questioning / listening mode.)
  • COMPARE – Compare this to the desired pattern specified by the Improvement Kata (Coach is in a judging mode.)
  • INSTRUCT – Introduce a course adjustment if necessary (Coach is in an instructing or guiding mode.) At this point the coach can either correct the learner or let her fail and then instruct. The coach will need to apply judgment here.

The purpose of asking the 5 Coaching Kata questions is to listen to the responses to get a better feeling for how the learner is thinking and approaching the problem.  However, beginning coaches can get so caught up in the questions, that they don’t pay close attention to the answers.  As a coach you really need to focus on your listening skills.  “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

In helping the learner to plan their PDCA cycle, it’s important to know where the knowledge threshold is.  If the coach is not knowledgeable about the process this could be difficult.  Some people may be reluctant to admit that they don’t know an answer.  One hint to listen for is when the learner moves from facts to guesses. Words or phrases to listen for include “I think”, “probably”, “maybe”, “likely”, or “on average”.

As a coach, it’s important to remember that a knowledge threshold is not a problem.  It’s the starting point for the next PDCA cycle.  When you identify uncertainty, that’s your cue to coach the learner on defining her next experiment.  Ask questions to help her figure out how to find an answer to bring more clarity and increase her understanding.

When a learner proposes a solution don’t say “let’s try it and see if it works”.  This implies success or failure.  Instead say “let’s try it and see what we learn”.  Here the focus is on learning.  Even if the proposed approach doesn’t give the expected result, you can still learn something from that experiment.

Tips on giving feedback as a coach:

  1. Look for the learner’s current area of weakness and think of ways to have her work on addressing this.
  2. To give constructive feedback, you should have a genuine interest in helping the learner apply the Improvement Kata.
  3. Your feedback should be specific and focus on one or two areas where the learner is doing well, and one or two areas where he needs improvement.
  4. The learner should be deriving her motivation from feeling like she is improving over time. If the learner does not feel this way, then something in your coaching technique should be adjusted.
  5. You can ask clarifying questions beyond the 5 questions.
  6. At this stage of the kata it is best to give feedback immediately. A misstep should be seen as an opportunity for a teachable moment.
  7. Another strategy is to allow the learner to fail and learn from the experience. This strategy works best if the step the learner is taking is short, and simple.
  8. You should be coaching frequently, so don’t load up the learner with too much at once. Take it one step at a time.

It helps to keep a coaching notebook to track your observations.  This way you can review where the learner may have struggled, as well as progress made.  It helps to review what was discussed in the previous coaching sessions prior to each new session.

It helps to have a second coach.  The role of the second coach is to give feedback to help the coach improve her coaching technique.  It takes practice to become a good coach.  Like any skill, it helps to have someone who can provide objective feedback and help you identify areas where you can improve.


Author: Joyce A Gustafson

Compliance professional and 6 Sigma black belt. Passionate about continuous improvement, "working out loud", and constantly learning. Originally trained as a cellular biologist, I have spent the bulk of my career working in the pharmaceutical industry. Previous experience includes Operations Management, Outsourcing, Recruiting, High Throughput Screening and Cell Based Assay Development, and Biology Research. NOTE: This is my personal blog and the thoughts and opinions are my own. This blog does NOT represent the view and opinions of my employer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s