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“Lean conversational skills”: have you ever heard the expression? What might it mean?

What it means, for me, is a form of dialogue characterized by:

• discovery of the facts in a problem situation,
• consideration of several countermeasures,
• convergence on a plan of action, and, crucially, an
• attitude of people development.

Why a lean conversational ‘skill’? Because I don’t think it comes naturally to any of us, especially ‘professors’! Telling comes more naturally (mea culpa). The type of dialogue described above is more likely peppered with questions, not quotations of pre-cooked, experience-based solutions. So, like the skill of riding a bicycle, we will need to practice to acquire lean conversational skills.

Centre for Coaching logo high res LANDSCAPEWhere have these thoughts come from? At the end of June I spent 3 days hunkered down with the two directors of the Centre for Coaching at the Graduate School of Business. We briefed each other on what we do, respectively, in the Centre for Coaching and the Lean Institute Africa. Then, from 8-14 August I was at the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value in Wisconsin, USA. I was privileged to be exposed to the ThedaCare lean journey and management system as a member of a group of South Africans striving to improve healthcare in Gauteng public hospitals.
From the Centre for Coaching I heard two important things:

1. That their generic coaching conversation has three stages:

• The conversation for understanding
• The conversation for possibility, and
• The conversation for action.

2. That the findings from their research into what characterizes effective conversations can be summarized in two words: ‘no surprises’.

It was an easy delight for us to connect the generic coaching conversation with the stages of A3 Thinking, itself mapped to ‘Grasp the situation & Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)’. And from the ‘no surprises’, we connected to the simple pattern of Improvement Kata coaching – ‘What is your target condition?; What is your current condition?; What obstacles are you aware of?; etc.’ designed to develop scientific thinking (i.e. PDCA thinking).

At ThedaCare we heard about and saw the practice of how you develop people, not by telling them things, but by asking questions, and, particularly, how you ask your questions. We saw the A3 Thinking space as one where conversations take place with the ‘coach’ (anyone approached by the ‘problem-owner’ for help) mandated and trained to further the thinking of the problem-owner; and definitely not giving or even suggesting solutions!

At a deeper level, ‘no surprises’ means that the conversations are ‘psychologically safe.’ How can we get workplace discussions about problems we are grappling with to become psychologically safe? For a mighty interesting take on this, have a look at what Google did and is doing.

Here is an excerpt that might encourage you to read the longer piece:

“First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”

So in my here and now, I am consciously aiming for more situations characterized by what I am calling ‘lean conversational skills’ where the aims are the

• discovery of the facts of a problem situation,
• consideration of several countermeasures,
• convergence on a plan of action, and, crucially, an
• attitude of people development (myself included).

So, what do you think? Is there a place for ‘lean conversational skills’ in your organisation? Are you already working at this? What have you learnt? I would love to hear about it!

Norman Faull picWarm regards,


P.S. We’re looking forward to our Lean Summit Africa 2016, and the fantastic line up of local and international lean practitioners who will be there to share their experiences with you, and help you with your lean implementation. Please register for the Summit to join us for 3 days of lean learning.

P.P.S. We still have iterations of all 3 of our public workshops left to run in 2016. If you haven’t participated in them yet, you can read more about them and register for them here.