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Why Questioning is Critical to Lean Leadership

One of the most critical but underappreciated skills required to successfully transform an organization toward lean thinking is the ability of leaders to use questioning to coach and develop team members. As important as coaching is to leadership, however, it is also one of the most challenging for people to understand and apply in their daily interactions with others. Like much of lean thinking, using questions to develop people is simple and logical but difficult to put into practice.

Learning to use questioning usually requires understanding why it works and how it helps the leader and the person being coached. It is not an attempt to portray the leader as a wise or deep-thinking philosopher who has all the answers. It is a way to help understand what a person is thinking and how to tailor the conversation toward helping them see a situation in a different way. When a leader begins to understand why questioning is important, he or she starts to see how to apply it to a variety of interactions throughout the day.

Why We Question 

There are some basic reasons why questioning is an effective way to teach and learn. Understanding and applying questioning effectively requires considering these reasons during conversations with team members and reflecting afterwards to continually improve your ability to coach and develop others.

The most basic reasons to question rather than tell in conversations with people includes the following:

  1. To know what the person is thinking.  You can’t help correct incorrect assumptions if you don’t know what those assumptions are and why the person is making them. Use questions to better understand the assumptions behind actions and where they are coming from.
  2. To help the person see things the way you do.  When you see a situation differently than the person you are coaching, you want to help the person to see the situation from your perspective. He or she is likely missing something, so you need to question to find out what it is and to help them understand.
  3. To help you understand the facts.  It is possible that the person you are coaching knows more about what’s going on at gemba than you do. If you believe in lean thinking, you must respect this and be open to the idea that you could be wrong and can learn something from the person you are coaching. Questioning is the only way to help you understand what you may be missing.
  4. To help the person understand the value of thinking slowly and deeply.  I have found that one of the most beneficial ways to help someone develop is to get them to slow down and deeply think through a situation before acting. Most people feel overloaded, and when faced with a problem, just want to get it off their desks as quickly as possible and move on. Especially for the big problems, though, jumping to countermeasures without thinking deeply about the situation rarely eliminates the cause of the problem and, even when it does, does not tend to make life easier. It often ends up creating extra work or just buries the problem until the next time it comes around. Using creativity and innovation to address root causes and truly make things easier generally requires reflection and deep thinking to understand which pieces of information are fact and which are assumptions. 
  5. To get the person actively involved in the learning process.  Studies show that passive listening – sitting and listening to someone lecture – is a far less effective way to learn than active participation. Active participation involves engaging the mind when attempting to learn, and answering questions about a situation provides a good way to engage a person’s mind. On the other hand, listening to someone lecture does not require engagement and allows the listener’s mind to wander to other things going on at the time.

Although it depends on the circumstances and the person being coached, some questions that can help provide clarity about the process and help develop the ability to coach include:  What do/did you expect to happen? What do you think is causing the problem? Did you learn anything that you didn’t know when you started investigating the problem? I have also found that asking why is the most effective way to get someone to clarify their thinking and start to see what they may be missing.

Mixed Messages 

One of the reasons that people have difficulty with coaching is that those of us who teach and write about lean are likely sending mixed messages regarding the why and how of the process. On the one hand, we tell leaders that they don’t need to be experts in everything and that it is okay to admit that they don’t have all the answers. On the other hand, we talk about people like Taiichi Ohno and Hajime Oba and the ability these people had to see problems quickly and clearly, and coach others to the answers.  I believe that this turns people off of the process because most will never measure up to these legendary leaders. In actuality, these two and other legendary lean figures didn’t know the answers but they did know how to use questioning to gather facts (or identify when the facts are not yet gathered) and help the person being coached to arrive at an answer.

Start Small

When I work with leaders to develop coaching skills, I recommend starting small with a few key conversations each day or week.  Teaching the ability to question – which, by the way, also requires questioning – is easier when connected to the overall philosophy of lean thinking. Decisions should never be made without understanding the facts, and understanding the facts often requires going to gemba and asking questions to those who are closer than you are to the processes involved. When people understand and believe this, questioning starts to become a normal part of leading teams.

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.


2 thoughts on “Why Questioning is Critical to Lean Leadership

  1. This is the hardest ‘element’ of a lean transformation in my experience.

    There is a cultural element here also. Questioning is often viewed as some combination of micro-managing, witch-hunting, scape-goating, annoying, and obnoxious. This is typical in a Western culture. It takes a lot of explaining and follow through for the workforce to feel comfortable with questioning.

    You can have an engaged and empowered workforce that is beset by leaders who turn questioning into a painfully awkward experience. The result is information that stops flowing and leaders who return to old and bad habits of picking favorite countermeasures to deploy.

    You can also have a workforce that is deeply skeptical of leaders and management such that even the best, like Ohno, would be challenged. The result is this atmosphere too encourages similar bad habits. This atmosphere also is rope for each worker throwing each other under the proverbial bus. Better yet–whole departments are thrown under the bus.

    You can also have leaders that ‘check the box’ when attempting to engage the workforce all the while polishing their favorite countermeasure for the given situation.

    I agree with starting small. 100% agree. Not just small like, “we’ll start with maintenance”. I’m thinking instead of maintenance, you start with one crew of mechanics in one asset. Why does this happen? How do you know this is the right way to repair this issue? If you could change this, what would you do?

    Take the information and most importantly–follow through!

    Leaders also need to be humble or perhaps even humbled. How do you as a leader know anything about your operation (like am I on target or not?) if you don’t ask questions that allow the truth to come out? If the same problems keep happening and you are getting the same old story, change is needed including how you are approaching the problem and the people involved in it. Here I suggest getting a coach and getting some good feedback on how problems are solved and how others are interacting with each other and with the leader. You have to create an atmosphere where people feel good about offering information about problems.

    Rambling a bit but the culture and the leader have to enable information to flow that is useful to solving problems.


    Posted by Kyle | October 23, 2017, 5:12 pm
    • Hey Kyle – good to hear from you again. I agree with your comments. There is no simple and easy way to transform a boss into a lean leader. Expectations much be clear, the manager must have a desire to transform, and a significant amount of time and effort must be invested to drive the change in behavior. In the end, though, if the manager does not have respect for the people on the team as one of his or her personal values to begin with, it won’t happen. Thanks again for the comments.


      Posted by Gregg Stocker | October 25, 2017, 4:14 am

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