top of page


Updated: Jun 13, 2023

by Bella Englebach

So, what actually happened?” the coach asked Jill, as she shared the results of her latest experiment. “It was awful,” she replied. “I tried my new approach in a team meeting, and everybody immediately shut down. Afterward, my boss called me and asked what on earth I was doing. I was mortified and I am afraid the team won’t trust me anymore.

Jill is struggling with reading all of the information she has to absorb daily,” Jill’s boss said. “Her next goal should be focused on that.”

I need you to tell me how Jill is progressing in her coaching,” said Jill’s boss. “After all, I am paying for it.

You are doing a great job with Jill,” said the HR Lead. “I would like you to coach Jill’s manager as well. They are clearly struggling in their relationship.

We have a new coaching framework,” said the Head of HR. “Now that you are working with so many of our employees, we want you to switch to that framework.”

What would you do as the coach in these situations? How would you make decisions on how to move forward?

Coaching in lean environments or using lean frameworks such as A3 problem solving, or the Toyota Kata has rapidly expanded beyond coaching by managers to solve physical engineering or production line problems. Lean coaches can be external or internal, and while they are often (and should be) line managers, they may also be coaches hired to support employee development. More and more, coaches using lean approaches are hired by individuals who want to identify and achieve personal goals, including career, financial, and health goals. For supervisors and leaders, coaching is used to support the improvement of leadership skills and leader standard work – and when leaders practice these new skills they impact those they lead, and not always in a good way. With every expansion of how lean coaching is used, there are more opportunities for ethical dilemmas, and more need for coaches to develop frameworks and skills for ethical decision-making.

“But I am an ethical person!” we exclaim, when confronted with these questions. “I wouldn’t knowingly do something that is unethical or would harm others.” Yet, if we haven’t considered what our ethics are as coaches, we may not recognize ethical dilemmas when they occur. And as a lean community, with a burgeoning number of “lean coaches,” we haven’t spent much time considering a specific ethical framework for lean coaches.

What might be in such an ethical framework for lean coaches? Here are some questions we could consider:

Safety: In lean, safety should always be the first thing we think about, and all the other ethical considerations reflect different aspects of safety. What is your commitment to safety for the coachee? How do you protect physical, psychological, and professional safety? For example, are there situations when a coach should advise against a planned experiment to protect the safety of the coachee and others? How do you separate advice-giving from coaching?

Confidentiality: When coaching is done in front of others (for example, in a daily huddle) confidentiality seems like a moot point. Organizational confidentiality standards usually apply. But as soon as coaching is done in a one-on-one situation, confidentiality becomes paramount. Are you clear on what in coaching is confidential? What are the situations when confidentiality might be broken and why? And what happens when the coaching involves a second coach? Are they bound by the same agreements for confidentiality?

Record keeping: Who owns records from coaching? The coachee? The company? You? If you keep coaching notes, how are they protected? With whom might they be shared? How long do you keep them? Do managers who are paying for coaching for their employees have a right to see records or get updates on progress?

Training and Expertise: How well-prepared are you to do the kind of coaching you are being asked to do? How do you continue to build coaching skills? Is it clear that the coach is not a therapist (or a nutritionist or a physician?) Can and do you recognize situations that require additional or different expertise, and do you refer the coachee to that expertise?

Conflicts of interest: Does the coach have conflicting professional relationships? Does the coach work with competitors to the client? Do they earn money for referrals to others? Are these conflicts identified and disclosed? If the coach is the coachee’s manager, how does the coach separate these two roles when needed? Is it clear to all parties when that separation is necessary?

Diversity and Inclusion. How is the uniqueness of each coachee welcomed and included in the coaching relationship? Is the coach educated on diversity and inclusion and how do they put that education into practice in their coaching?

Sexual Harassment While we like to think that our coaching relationships are equal, there can be a power differential between the coach and coachee. Whenever there is a power differential (for example if the coach has been hired by the manager), we need to think about and guard against sexual harassment. How do lean coaches put this into practice?

Professionalism: For external coaches, is there a contract? Are financial agreements clearly spelled out? Is it clear to the coachee how to end the coaching relationship? Are rates fair to all parties? Are commitments kept for availability and good use of time?

Our commitment as lean professionals to Respect for People and to safety means that we have a duty to our coachees to adopt an ethical framework and to use it when we face ethical dilemmas so we can make decisions that “do no harm.”

I wrote this not as a prescription but as an opening question in a lean community conversation.

What do you think?

What should be in a specifically lean ethical framework for those of us who coach using lean approaches?


Bella Englebach, Lead Consultant at Lean for Humans, Inc, loves to organizations and individuals achieve innovative results in science-based environments. Before opening her own company in 2018, Bella was a process excellence leader at J&J, focusing on bringing continuous improvement and lean thinking to the pharmaceutical and medical device R&D sectors. A Creative Problem Solving (CPS) Facilitator, she was a member of the Board of Directors of the Lean Product and Process Development Exchange for six years. She is a Certified Professional Coach. The author of “Creatively Lean: How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Drive Innovation throughout Your Organization, Bella also hosts the podcast “The Edges of Lean.”

51 views0 comments


bottom of page