Coach organizational fitness? 

By Christina Villefrance Moeller, TalesOfLeading

“Couldn’t you follow up on my leaders?” The director of a dealership asked me. At first I was stunned and thought I might have heard wrong. But he repeated himself. We were sitting in a meeting room at a car dealership. It was one of these large glass houses build shortly before the financial crisis pulled the rug away under car sales. The meeting room was at the end of a hall with several empty offices. They called the hall the death row, as the administrative people who should have been sitting there was laid off. I had invited representatives from a few dealerships and manufacturing companies to a planning meeting. The companies had all taken the first steps toward Lean.

  • How would you respond?

As I hesitated for another second pulling myself together, a Lean director from a manufacturing company turned towards him and said: “That is your own job.” I regained my voice and followed up: “My role in this project is to assist you with your Lean implementation. You are responsible for your own team and their activities. It is your business and your people.” The rest of the meeting we talked about the resources in each company and planned the next step in the project.

Doctor, expert or resource

Since then the directors question has been laser cut into my memory as a reminder of being conscious about my role as a consultant. What am I? A doctor diagnosing an organization approaching me with symptoms? Then I can use my experience to guide interviews for relevant informants, make observations listening to what they talk about or drill down collections of data to come up with a cause to the symptoms. Will I then arrive at the expected diagnosis? Or was the intention rather to deliver arguments for a remedy already decided? Or will the diagnosis reveal an unpleasant truth management could have heard if they had bothered to ask (and listen) to their subordinates? By taking the role as doctor I position myself in a situation, where I risk arriving at premature conclusions and being used as an instrument in a game plan I don’t know.

I can also chose to be an expert delivering a conceptual remedy convincing my customer that it is exactly what she needs (almost) no matter what problem she present for me. Then my job turns into a sales representative eager to prove results others will have to deliver. If they don’t I can just a few words about resistance to change, lack of top management support or blame company culture which we all know has nothing to do with the consultant (or his concept). Another option for me is to be a resource a project manager leading an implementation or just delivering hands to a defined task. Then my role is to do as told and not reinvent anything.

  • What kind of responsibility can you delegate to a consultant?

The organization as a muscle

The relationship between the manager and a hired consultant can differ according to the way you perceive an organization. If you perceive an organization as an organism with muscles1 and you want your organization to be fit, perform, and achieve results in a competition with other muscles (organizations), then it’s obvious that you would have to do the exercises yourself. You cannot delegate training exercises to someone else. Your will also need a balanced diet. Too much food will slow you down and too little will drain out resources you need to perform. To guide you with training programs, exercises, and diet you might need a coach. A coach can observe your moves to point out possible improvements. I doubt the coach is helpful if she tell you about the results and brag about what she did to gain better results when she was in a similar situation. The consultant can also be a scout reporting back on new inventions, however, transforming these inventions to practice implies experiments within the organization.

  • Have you ever tried to have an excellent coach?

Consulting as a coach

A consultant working as a coach could follow Edgar Schein’s principles from his book Process Consultation Revisited. Schein recommend consultants not to take the problems out of the hand of the managers, they are trying to help. Actually, in a Lean context people like John Shook say something similar in Managing to learn. The manager must be part of the diagnosing process. A consultant can help the manager with exercises and tools that confronts her with perspectives of the problem she wants to solve. The consultant can direct the managers attention to other methods, tools, options, or countermeasures. However, the manager will make the decision whether to take risk in using something new.

  • A question to you could then be: What do you ask for when you hire a consultant?

1Gareth Morgan used different metaphors for organizations in his book Images of organization.

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