Kaizen Coaching – The First Rule: Keep Ideas with the Creator


Mark's Note: Today's guest post is by Joe Swartz, my co-author for the books  Healthcare Kaizen  and  The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Joe will be a regular contributor in the future and I also did a  podcast  with him about his experiences at the Franciscan St. Francis Health System. Also, check out  this video about their Kaizen approach. You can also read  a journal article we co-authored.


A few months ago one of our new managers asked me, “Should Kaizen take four to eight hours of my time each week?”

That startled me, because I knew she managed one of our smaller departments.

So I said, “Tell me about your Kaizen coaching sessions.”   She said, “My employees come to me with an idea and I add it to my ‘To Do' list.”

“Ooooh!” I said, in my outside voice, wishing I had kept that inside.

She looked at my eyes and lowered her eyebrows.   I thought, this is proof we need to do a better job orienting our new managers to Kaizen.

I said, “Who has more energy, excitement, and ownership around each idea – you or the creator of the idea?” She looked at the ceiling for a moment and said, “The creator.”

“Yes,” I said, “So, if keeping an organization energized is important, who should implement that idea?”   “The creator,” she said.   “You've got it,” I said,

“Instead of taking on their ideas, we want you to keep each idea with the person who created the idea. Then, you can coach them on how they can implement their own idea.”

She accepted my coaching and a few weeks later she said, “Kaizen is taking much less of my time now. Also, my staff used to come to me with problems without ideas to solve them, and counted on me to solve them and implement the solutions.   Now, they are coming to me with problems coupled with ideas that they can implement with the help of others.   Now I am their coach.”

Managers tend to be action oriented and tend to want to eagerly take on all the improvement work, which leads to them getting overloaded.

One way to avoid taking on too much is to keep ideas in the hands of the creator of the idea. It also promotes ownership of each idea. It also forces employees to search for and identify solutions to problems, which causes them to learn and become better at solving problems and improving. Managers and supervisors should lead the Kaizens that they come up with, so they learn to do Kaizen themselves.   However, they should resist the temptation to take on implementing other's ideas. Instead they should coach and support.

The views expressed are those of Joseph E. Swartz and  do not represent the views of Franciscan Alliance or the Franciscan St. Francis Health System.  

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Joseph E. Swartz
Joseph E. Swartz is the Administrative Director of Business Transformation for Franciscan St. Francis Health of Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been leading continuous improvement efforts for over 20 years, including seven years in healthcare, and has led more than 200 Lean and Six Sigma improvement projects. Joseph is the co-author of Seeing David in the Stone and was previously an instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Joseph earned an MS in Management from Purdue University as a Krannert Scholar for academic excellence. Joseph is co-author of the Shingo Award-winning book Healthcare Kaizen and The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen.


  1. I could not agree more. When our people identify opportunities for improvement, it’s the perfect time to develop their problem-solving skills by having them lead the improvement effort with coaching provided. However, we so often fail to take advantage of this situation.


    I’m sure in healthcare one reason is that clinical managers tend to be hands-on “fix it now” folks, which is a wonderful trait for an ER clinician to have when stabilizing a patient, but not so great when coaching is the prescribed medicine.

    But that’s only a partial explanation. Even clinical managers that struggle with being too hands-on can become excellent coaches…if they get enough focused practice. The challenge with this is that we often don’t give our would-be coaches a focused practice technique to perform. Maybe we put them through some “how to be an effective leader” training or whatever, which can be a useful step, but we don’t give them a practice routine to perform over and over again to master the fundamentals of coaching. Big difference.

    We don’t have focused practice routines, therefore we don’t practice coaching in focused manner, therefore we don’t develop as coaches, therefore we are hesitant to behave as coaches when our people identify opportunities for improvement, therefore we end up either ignoring it, pushing it back to the employee without coaching, or just doing it ourselves.

  2. As I’m coaching hospitals and managers who are new to the Kaizen process, it’s a very common notion that the manager has to be the one making improvements happen. Employees are really used to the premise that they get to just dump their ideas on the manager and wash their hands of any responsibility… it’s a double-edged sword.

    But, it’s a cycle that can be broken when managers:

    1) Leave ideas in the hands of front-line staff
    2) Then also give them time to work on the improvement
    3) Give them support as needed

    Managers can’t just delegate things (dumping ideas on the staff) anymore than employees can just throw ideas upward.

    Effective Kaizen requires effective two-way collaboration and communication. But to Joe’s main point, managers have to learn to give up control and/or learn that they don’t have to do it all themselves.


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