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business, leadership, lean

Lean Leadership: Shifting from Doing to Teaching

One of the most difficult aspects of transforming an organization toward a lean mindset is getting leaders to understand the importance of using questioning to develop team members.  It is difficult for someone who has been rewarded many years for being a problem-solver to suddenly shift behavior from solving problems to teaching others how to solve problems.  It can be a difficult habit to break that requires patience, perseverance, and a method to help leaders do it.

The Method

The best method I’ve found to teach leaders how to question is to begin with providing a clear and consistent process for problem-solving to be used throughout the organization.  When the steps for problem-solving are clear, leaders can question people about the process to understand how they are thinking and if they are approaching the problem in a way that will lead to improvement.

If, for example, the organization employs the Toyota 8-Step Business Practice for addressing problems, it is important for leaders to clearly understand the process, and commit to following the steps one-by-one to address problems.

Once the process is clearly understood, the leader can help team members approach problems by questioning them through the steps.  The leader should not do any of the problem-solving him- or herself, but learn to use open ended questions to guide the person’s thinking about the issue to be addressed.

Examples of some of the types of questions to use include the following:

  • Why did you define the problem in this way?
  • What data did you use to break down the problem in this way?
  • What is the data telling you?
  • Have you gone to where the problem occurs to see it for yourself?
  • Have you talked to the people who are affected by the problem?
  • Why do you think the countermeasure will actually solve the problem?
  • How will you make sure that the improvement will be sustained?

Questioning a team member through the process will take longer than the leader solving the problem but in the long-run, the benefits to the organization of improving team problem-solving abilities is exponential.  In addition to improving the problem-solving skills of team members, the process also improves technical knowledge of the company’s processes, the value of which is immeasurable.

It should be noted that effectively coaching someone through a problem sometimes requires that you let the person pursue a countermeasure that you feel is incorrect.  Besides improving process knowledge, failed countermeasures can do more to teach effective problem-solving than always being right.

Leaders Need Coaching, Too

Improving the ability to question rather than tell often requires coaching of leaders to help them understand how to do it and to break old habits.  This requires spending a significant amount of time with the leader to help them see when they could have used questioning rather than telling.  Breaking a habit that has been gone on for decades can take a long time, but with consistent coaching can be done.

It is difficult for some leaders to grasp the concept that they need to become teachers rather than doers.  In many instances, they will know what needs to be done to address a problem, and convincing them to do something that will take days or weeks rather than minutes to complete can be difficult.  When done well, though, the benefits to the organization of unleashing the problem-solving abilities of team members can be immense.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


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