Teaching, Training, Coaching: Is There a Difference?

Teaching, training and coaching are overlapping activities. Usually, not much harm is done by using these terms interchangeably, and the distinction made in a number of publications is without much of a difference. You use a personal trainer to sculpt your abs and a voice coach to hone your public speaking. Perhaps these expressions roll of the tongue  better than “personal coach” and “voice trainer,” but these alternatives would be equally descriptive.

The distinction between trainer and coach is so subtle that it doesn’t exist in German, French, Spanish, or Russian, in which “trainer” and “coach” translate to the same word, respectively “Trainer,” “entraîneur,” ” entrenador,” and “trener” (тренер). The distinction exists in Japanese, where they use the English words, and in Mandarin, where trainer translates to “one who drills” (Xùnliàn zhě, 訓練者) and coach to “drill instructor” (Jiàoliàn, 教練).

The agenda of the Lean Coaching Summit 2015 is comprised of presentations about developing people and solving problems that would fit just as well in an event about teaching or training. The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential,” which gives you some idea of what they mean by coaching, but none on how if differs from similar terms, like teaching and training. Further on, they explain that training programs have objectives set  by trainers and an established curriculum, while, in coaching,  the objectives are set by the individual or team being coached and there is no set curriculum.

The Lean Lexicon defines coaching as “helping others develop the problem-solving capability required for implementing lean tools and principles and building a company culture of continuous performance improvement.” In that sense, coaching is not applicable to, say, new plant design, because it’s not solving a problem like an outbreak of leaky castings, and it isn’t continuous improvement. The rest of the definition describes coaching as a socratic process with the coach asking questions but to prompt the recipient to find his or her own answers.

This is not exactly Coach Norman Dale from Hoosiers, and it’s not either what I have seen successful in helping teams with Lean projects. Asking questions is fine, but you often have to go farther. In cells,  SMED, or Kanban, there is 60+ years of implementation experience providing answers that you can’t wait for teams to rediscover.

In everyday American life, teaching, training, and coaching have different connotations. Teaching is imparting knowledge and understanding; Training, transferring skills; Coaching, helping a team win. You teach students about emulsions, you train a cook to make mayonnaise, and you coach a contestant to win the Best Mayonnaise prize. You teach biochemistry, you train a technician to test DNA samples, and you coach a candidate for DNA testing certification…

The overlap is clear. In business, teaching that doesn’t involve the development of skills isn’t much use. Training without some knowledge and understanding, on the other hand, is of limited value, because it fails to enable trainees to respond to anomalies. And you can’t win a contest or a certification without demonstrating some skills and some understanding, and therefore coaching implies both training and teaching. Judges in Karate tournaments, for example, rate contestants on “understanding of the self-defense principles in a Kata,” as demonstrated by their execution of it.

There are differences. You can teach a group of strangers with nothing in common except for having signed up for a course; coaching, on the other, applies only to individuals or teams pursuing a common goal. While coaching is provided in the context of a project, you also teach and train in other situations, for example on the use of personal protection equipment or the company’s rules for management communication. As the ICF says, coaching is more custom, with content specifically targeted at a situation.

I suppose that, if you want to make a distinction, you can, but the one being made in Lean isn’t the one we make in everyday life, and it is not about meaning but about which label the business community is most comfortable with when buying consulting services. Consultants who call themselves “coaches” are betting that it is good for marketing.