When to coach the process, and when to coach the solution

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on September 9, 2010 · 7 comments

Do you think of yourself as a coach?

When I ask this question, almost every single hand goes up. But what does that really mean? Do we have a process? Or do we confuse sharing our little bits of wisdom with coaching?

To be an effective coach, you must combine process with intention. Today I will focus on intention. You must first decide that coaching is what you truly intend to do. And you must also decide whether you intend to coach someone on the process or method, or coach them on the solution.

So that we can be more specific, imagine a situation where you spot a trip hazard in a work area. It not only shouldn’t be there, it should have been caught by someone in the area.

Coaching the solution

Starting with coaching the solution, it is when you care specifically about what final conclusion they arrive at. Take the example of the trip hazard; if you were focused on coaching the solution, as the other person is proposing a solution you would inquire into the robustness and quality of that solution.

For example, if they said they would just remind people to be careful, you would probably start to question how robust they feel that is, what happens when new people are introduced to the area, or how people might remember that when they are focused on other things. You would be coaching them towards a better outcome than telling people to be careful.

Coaching the process
If you are coaching on the process, then you are only focused on the trip hazard as the symptom of how the leader of the area is perhaps doing their safety observations. You aren’t as worried about the trip hazard itself as you are that the leaders aren’t seeing the trip hazard in their own evaluation of the area. This would indicate that there might be other issues in the future that they might be missing. In this case, your inquiry might be focused on:
  • “what are you looking for when you do a safety walk?”
  • “what questions do you ask yourself when you see a potential problem?”
  • “are you identifying things that are not getting resolved?”
Your focus is not on the solution or the problem itself, but on the process that either created or missed the problem that would end up enabling future problems. Obviously you might end up doing both, but that is a larger investment of your time. You must often make a choice, which I’m proposing be a more conscious choice, between where your coaching focus is placed.
On another dimension, sometimes you aren’t trying to develop the person, you just care about the answer. Coaching is for developing the person. Challenging / testing / proposing / advocating is for when you aren’t trying to develop the persons thinking or capabilities, you only want the right answer. This results in “why don’t we remove the trip hazard” or “let’s put a eye-level sign that people can’t miss.” This isn’t coaching; this is just problem solving. We of course can’t coach all the time, can’t coach very well over email, can’t coach much in the middle of tac ops meeting, so we must decide when we’re coaching and when we’re not.
Coaching should be a conscious choice, and be entered into with full intention of what you’re truly trying to accomplish.
1 Jim Fernandez September 9, 2010 at 10:42 am

Great post Jamie. Spot on.!!!
I was just thinking that it would be a good idea for me to wear a whistle and a stop watch around my neck all day at work. This will help remind me that I am a coach. (sometimes I forget that) The whistle will remind me to sometimes coach the solution. The stop watch will remind me to sometimes coach process.

Thank you for your insight.

2 Matt Wrye September 9, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Great post. One question that helps me determine if I am coaching to a solution or to a process is, “What is my stake in this?”

If I am accountable for the results and I am being held to that, I will coach to a solution more than the process.

If I am not accountable and there is time, I will coach to the process.

This isn’t a hard fast rule, but a guidance to get me to start thinking about my approach.

3 Jamie Flinchbaugh September 10, 2010 at 9:06 am

I like the idea of a whistle, but I imagine people might get annoyed if you blew it too often.

4 J Dahlstrom September 21, 2010 at 11:31 am

When approaching any coaching situation I think it’s important to also go into it realizing that the communication can be a two way street. I know within our organization one thing we are trying to do is train our supervisors and managers to truly assess whether an incident is the result of operator controllable factors or system controllable factors. Oftentimes they can potentially go into a coaching situation with a pre-existing notion of what the problem is, and if that initial idea is wrong, it can effectively negate any coaching that is done since it doesn’t effectively address the root cause issue.

During the coaching process we want sups/managers to ask 1.) Is process/program documentation truly reflect what is expected of the operator?, 2.) Does the operator understand what those expectation are (were they trained properly?), and 3.) if documentation is accurate and operator understands, then why are they not following?

Ultimately, we are trying to be more effective in our employee coaching, but also want to take advantage of an opportunity to identify any gaps in our system and address them if the company owns any of it.

5 Lorenzo November 9, 2015 at 5:24 am

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for your post. I do agree with the fact that we should learn people where and how to fish and not to give them.

Kind regards,

Lorenzo del Marmol

6 Ben Grumbles December 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm

I feel like these are quite related. Coaching a proposed solution is in effect coaching an individual or team to identify areas of a process to improve upon. The result, whether a solution or miss, should be the end state/result of a process. If the process isn’t addressed, then any proposed solution isn’t sustainable. A sound process should require a conscious decision to deviate from. In other words, both methods of coaching typically contribute to the end goal of a sustainable problem solve. If you only coach the solution with the person present at the moment, it’s a band-aid approach to a potentially much larger problem with the larger team. I understand the intent of the article with respect to timing, but believe if one is done in absence of the other, there should be effort in revisiting as time permits to close the gap and address the issue holistically. Having participated in two of your sessions to date, I see this as a small aspect of the larger journey – and one whose dialogue could contribute insight into many other “parking lot” areas of opportunity. Great article!

7 Bruce Vilches December 3, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Jamie, thank you for the reminder and clarity between coaching for the solution or the process. It is critical when growing the desired culture and organizational capability to coach the process and sustain the learning organization. When reflecting on why coaching the solution is more prevalent, the obvious points to quick fix and possibly interpreting as a “small and rapid improvement”. Certainly in a safety example, the risk of injury may call for coaching the solution, however both the solution and the process are important (it’s an “and”… Not an “or”). We need to recognize and reward the coaching the process more- it can be thankless and not obvious 🙂

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