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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.