By Mike Loughrin, CEO of Transformance Advisors

One Hot Topic

When it comes to process improvement, the concept of coaching is one hot topic.

The natural evolution of an improvement program eventually leads to the need for coaching, as the organization finishes picking the low hanging fruit, and moves to the more difficult challenges.

Those programs with well-defined educational standards for levels of knowledge and associated responsibilities find coaching to be great fit with the more advanced roles. For example:

  • Six Sigma Black Belts and Lean Experts will typically begin developing their skills in coaching others
  • Six Sigma Master Black Belts and Lean Masters will be skilled at coaching and begin developing the coaching skills in others
  • Project Champions for both Six Sigma and Lean will be accomplished experts at coaching

On the other hand, chaotic improvement programs or poorly managed organizations will launch into coaching as the latest gimmick which they dream will deliver “fast and painless” results.

As with so many things, coaching offers great promise for those willing to invest in gaining the knowledge and developing the expertise. So let’s take a closer look at what this coaching thing is all about. This course will focus on coaching a problem-solver as part of an improvement program such as lean or six sigma.

What is Coaching

Key Aspects

There are no known examples of someone just waking up one morning and deciding they will be an immediate success at coaching others to be effective problem solvers. And, contrary to the reports from some charlatans, there are no known examples of someone sitting in a 30-minute presentation and picking up all the knowledge and skills required to be a great coach.

So, let’s put the nonsense in our wake and look at the key aspects of being an effective coach.

There are three pillars for successfully coaching problem-solvers:

  • Developing strong asking skills and a collection of great questions
  • Guiding the person in developing their skills as a problem solver, without any thought of personal glory
  • Ability to lead structured conversations without the feeling of rigid scripting – free flowing and controlled at the same time

Let’s look closer at each pillar.

Coaching Fundamentals

Asking Skills

The coach asks questions which help the problem solver dig deeper, think outside the box, develop countermeasures, and implement a sustainable solution.

The best questions encourage deep thinking and discovery of relevant information. These are not yes or no questions. You need to promote a conversation. Getting someone to shrug and grunt is not an effective question.

Of course, it would be nice to simply download 1,001 great questions and check this item off your list. But building asking skills takes more time, and then becomes second nature.

The coaching tips that follow will introduce you to several categories of questions and provide samples to help you build a collection of questions.

By the end of this class, you’ll have a basic mastery of which situations invite which type of question.

Great Coaching Questions

Coaching a Problem-Solver

Coaching a problem-solver requires a focus on two big goals:

  • Helping a person developing the skills of the problem solver – they need to learn work the systematic process
  • Engaging in conversation and inquiry in a manner which encourages and allows a person to work through the problem solving process by themselves

Now, if the coach feels solving the problem is more important, then the coach should take the role of problem-solver and focus upon finding and implementing a solution.

Teaching Problem Solving

“The best coaches are more concerned with developing the skills of the problem solver and less concerned with the actual problem which needs to be solved.” – Jodi Walsh

Structured Conversations

Coaching requires the ability to manage the conversation by bringing structure to the process of thinking, planning, committing, and doing.

This involves being systematic and walking through a structure which brings clarity on accomplishments, addresses challenges, faces reality, and leads to achievable goals.

An example is to structure a coaching session with an agenda including:

  • Accomplishments – what has the problem-solver accomplished since the last session
  • Challenges – what is slowing progress working through the problem-solving methodology
  • Momentum – reality check and progress on working the problem to a solution – assign a green – yellow – red status
  • Goals – explore options, decide on next steps, and commit to an achievable plan

A word of caution for the coach – having a structure is a means to free your energy for listening and determining the appropriate questions and responses. Do not be rigid with a programed list of questions and never just wait for a pause, so you can jump in and seem like a genius with all the answers.

Coaching Conversations

Sample Questions for a Structured Conversation


What have you discovered since our last conversation?

Where are you with step one – defining the problem?

What are your wins since we last met?


What challenges have you encountered?

What’s proving to be more difficult than you expected?

What’s holding you back?


Where are you on your project plan?

How would you classify your progress in terms of green-yellow-red?

What needs to happen for you to get back to green?


What do you need to focus on now?

What items do you need to complete before our next meeting?

Can you commit to getting back to green?

“A key challenge for beginning coaches is learning to be mindful of broader issues while remaining fully engaged in listening.” – Tony Stoltzfus in Coaching Questions


The concept of coaching is very hot in the work of organizational improvement.

This is just the beginning! Becoming a great coach takes time, dedication, and experience.

The journey includes:

  • Developing asking skills, as well as a collection of questions
  • Engaging in conversation and inquiry in a way which allows a problem solver to work through the process by themselves
  • Leading structured conversations with ease and flow
Coaching Tip 1

Call To Action

Becoming a great coach is a marathon. You will need to practice.

You are not going to succeed by reading one article or attending one presentation.

Take some of the coaching ideas presented in this module and give them a try. If you’re feeling enthusiastic, give them a try outside of class.

Remember the words from one coach who observed how “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Call To Action

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Coaching Questions by Tony Stoltzfus

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