11 Amazing Lessons My Personal Trainer Taught Me About My Work


First, here's a look back at my post from 2012 commemorating the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let's all be respectful, fair, and just in the work that we do. And see this image and quote from 2013. And my friend Jon Miller has a better collection of MLK quotes here.

Today's post is hosted over at LinkedIn.com as part of their Influencers series and the full text is below.

11 Things My Personal Trainer is Teaching Me About My Own Work

Working with a personal fitness trainer, Lenny Walls, has helped me see parallels to what I do with Lean… how my clients maybe see the world and things that I can do better as a coach, trainer, mentor, and consultant.

I don't often get to be on the “coachee” side of the coaching equation. When I work with other consultants, like Karen Martin, that gives me a chance to get coached — receiving positive feedback and being challenged to improve. When I've used a speaking coach, Kathryn Partan, it's very helpful because I try to improve and I see how somebody else approaches coaching and client work.

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It's a fairly common, if not clichéd, New Year's resolution to lose weight and get healthier, but I've taken on that challenge. I've been working with a personal trainer for two weeks, completing five hour-long sessions. As I type this, my arms hurt from a workout three days ago. But, I can already feel my flexibility improving (“You have the tightest hamstrings I've ever seen with a client,” said my trainer) and I've lost three or four pounds so far. It's a start. It's a journey.

I'm focused on my exercise, but I'm also thinking about how my trainer, Lenny, is coaching me. It's made me reflect a bit on my role as a coach, trainer, and mentor for hospitals and health systems. Here, I'm the coachee and Lenny's the expert. What are the parallels to my own work and my role as a Lean management consultant? Ironically, “Lean management” has nothing to do with fitness! Even if you're not a Lean consultant, maybe there are some ideas here that can help in your own work?

1) You probably can't just read a book

There are tons of books about exercise and nutrition, just as there are hundreds of books written about Lean in manufacturing, healthcare, software, and other settings. Reading a book might bring awareness or knowledge, but that's different than learning through actual practice. A book doesn't force us to take action. I wonder how many people have read my books or others on Lean, then choosing to basically do nothing? Knowledge has to be combined with drive and determination. A trainer can't create motivation where it doesn't exist, but can build upon what is there.

2) You can TRY to do it on your own, but…

Getting a little bit of book knowledge, for exercise or Lean, sometimes allows people to take action. Trying something new on your own could lead to using bad form or failure. You might not understand the nuances of what you're trying to do and you don't have somebody coaching you, to correct your form and help ensure success. How many have said, “I tried Lean and it didn't work,” giving up as easily as somebody who spent 20 minutes on a treadmill for three weeks without seeing immediate results? Or how many have alienated employees with misguided Lean initiatives?

3) Certification matters, but that's not the only thing

Having a personal trainer is a luxury, but I've found it to be very helpful. In a gym, there's always that guy who wants to be able to help you out without being a certified trainer. I chose to work with a Certified Personal Trainer because that signifies a certain level of education and experience. I feel comfortable that a CPT is more likely to be effective and less likely to get myself hurt through bad form or overtraining. Finding a coach in Lean or business requires more than some sort of credential. Lenny came highly recommended by two neighbors and there's been a good fit in terms of his personality and mine. Somebody might be technically qualified, but maybe just isn't the right fit for an organization in terms of personality or approach. This happens with Lean consultants, as well.

4) Start with goals

Just as I would ask a client what their goals are for the adoption of Lean business practices, Lenny and I discussed my goals. My goal is to lose about 10 or 15 pounds and to improve my health, seeking better control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and ultimately hoping to avoid any Type 2 diabetes in my future. Lenny incorporated my goals into the workouts he's taking me through and he also used his expertise to suggest that I needed an additional goal – working on flexibility and core strength. A good trainer doesn't just do what the client asks for… they make suggestions and recommendations, as well. I do similar things with my clients, saying “Here's what I think would help you…”

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5) It's awkward the first time we do something, then we get better through practice (with coaching)

As I learn new exercises, Lenny always demonstrates and talks through the technique first. Then, he has me try and he gives feedback in the form of positive encouragement or correction. There's somewhat of a parallel to the classic nursing education approach of “see one, do one, teach one.” There are also parallels to the “Training Within Industry” approach to training, that emphasizes hands-on action and coaching with feedback.

Lenny is experienced and he's in far better shape than me, so he makes things look easy and fluid. I am clumsy and new to this. As with learning a new skill or technique in Lean, such as doing A3 problem solving, our first time through is going to be awkward. We're going to make some mistakes and a good trainer helps you through that, either preventing major errors that might cause harm or correcting you as you make minor mistakes.

As we learn something new, with Lean or exercise, it's not just important to be doing new things… we should be working to do them well. An effective coach can correct you and guide you without making you feel inept or stupid. “Let me show you that one more time… like this… keep your knees behind your feet,” Lenny might say. I do my best to demonstrate proper form in my work with clients. I can show somebody pictures of what good 5S looks like or work them through an A3 to show proper form as we go. I don't expect to be good at all exercises at the start, and I shouldn't expect my clients to gain mastery overnight either. There are times I need to be more patient.

6) Don't counteract your progress with other bad habits

Lenny has reminded me that exercise helps, but I also need to eat better and drink less. I've been more careful about what I'm consuming and I'm trying to build new habits rather than doing any sort of unsustainable crash diet. Working out hard three times a week and eating burgers and fries every day won't get me results. And, if that happened, I wouldn't be able to blame my trainer. Likewise, in the adoption of Lean practices, using some new Lean tools might be counteracted by other bad habits, such as jumping to solutions and blaming others. How many organizations blame the consultant when they didn't have the discipline to change their own behaviors?

7) A little encouragement helps a lot

A trainer is there to teach and correct your form, but a little encouragement really helps. This is one thing that I can do better in my own consulting. I'm often pointing out the problems, the bad form, and the gaps that need to be closed. I need to do a better job of being like Lenny and saying, “Good job” after I've seen a client improve their technique and reinforcing when they're doing things well and making progress. I think people likely tune out a coach who does nothing but point out problems. Lenny isn't there to make me feel good, so he doesn't overdo it with praise. But, the right praise at the right time provides a boost.

8) A trainer pushes you harder than you would on your own

Another key thing I've realized is that when I lifted weights before, I was stopping each set too quickly. I might do eight bicep curls and then stop when it got hard. Lenny has helped me realize that it's reps nine through twelve that really make the biggest difference. When things get difficult, I've had to learn how to find a next gear to push myself to completion. My arms never hurt before after my own workouts, so I probably wasn't building much muscle. It's easy and tempting to “give up” or back off when change efforts get challenging. Through their words and demeanor, a good coach can help you fight through challenges, to not give up when it gets difficult, in the gym or the workplace. I've learned that I am able to push myself more than I thought.

9) Failing once a session is OK, more might be demoralizing

About once a session, Lenny shows me an exercise that I'm just too uncoordinated to do well. I can't keep my feet or arms in the right position and I feel like I'm completely failing (and flailing about). It looked easy when he did it. But, a good trainer shows patience instead of frustration. I can do a better job of that. Trying it a second time usually goes more smoothly, and by the third time I'm “getting it” and doing things well – even if not as smoothly as Lenny does. That's OK – he's the pro, I'm the beginner. If I was failing miserably on half the exercises we try, or even just more than once per session, I might want to just give up.

10) A trainer can show you what's possible

I struggled to do pull ups, due to a lack of strength, not bad form. OK, we'll keep working and try some other time. At the end of the workout session, Lenny showed me an Instagram video of him doing these crazy double pull-ups. He did so in a way that wasn't showing off and making me feel lame. It was more a matter of showing me what's possible even if I don't get to that point myself. I showed my wife the video later and she laughed and agreed that she doesn't expect me to be able to do those. But, it's great to see what's possible, much as when we look at what great hospitals like ThedaCare or Virginia Mason are doing. Seeing what's possible doesn't mean we can copy them immediately, but it can still be an inspiration.

11) It's a journey, not an overnight success

I don't expect any overnight success. I need to work out more than two weeks, that's for sure. I'll get stronger and more flexible over time. I'll maintain better eating habits to make that a new lifestyle instead of a quick fix. People sometimes wrongly say, “We implemented Lean last year in our hospital,” as if they're done and it was easy. I couldn't say, “I implemented workouts this month” either. It's something you have to keep doing.

A great trainer pushes you, helps you, cajoles you, encourages you, and challenges you. Fitness and Lean management… neither is an overnight transition nor a quick fix solution. But, they're worth doing and it's often worth paying a coach to help teach, correct, and push you. I expect I'm more likely to hit my goals as a result. I'm also working hard to be a better student AND a better teacher, coach, and trainer.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Lean coaches provide workshops, seminars, and courses along with coaching on practices and principles of lean thinking. Employees on the manufacturing and service industries are benefiting largely with lean coaches. I have a personal experience, and I recommend. If you have a lean manufacturing process, you must give a lean coach a try.

  2. Lean coaching is a must initially till the time they get conversent with lean tools and lean philosophy and lean leadership.
    The coach must know when to start reducing his intervension and make them to work on their own with little guidence only when required before he finally retracts himself.

    External coach or consultant’s capabilities lies in how fast he withdraws himself after devloping internal mentars and coaches and providing capabilities to carryout on thir own.
    His reappearance would be to evaluate the present situation and to take them to the next higher level in their Lean Journey.


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