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Why We Believe Questions Accelerate Learning

by Lean Sensei Women
March 8, 2021

Why We Believe Questions Accelerate Learning

by Lean Sensei Women
March 8, 2021 | Comments (2)

Why are thoughtful questions essential to learning? How can a manager or coach focus on the best types of questions? What types of habits help one develop better questions? The Lean Sensei Women shared their thoughts on the value of questions in the following reflections:

Catherine Chabiron: Questioning is Needed Everywhere

The art of asking questions to trigger thinking and action is the essence of lean. Adults do not learn by being told to do something, or by being "taught" how something must be done. The art of asking questions to trigger thinking and action is the essence of lean.You learn by experimenting with a new way of doing things. Such explorations always start with an open question fueling them.

Questioning is needed everywhere to trigger reflection, develop observation, support problem-solving, engage investigation, foster collaboration, and boost learning.

If you are not sure how to start, you could hone your questioning around three typical lean themes:

  1. How do we check the pain points encountered by our customers when buying or using our products/services? Lean is essentially customer-centric. Sustainability can only be achieved by gaining the loyalty of customers because only completely satisfied customers are loyal. We therefore need to be very good at understanding where it hurts, all the time, in each customer segment.
  2. Is there another way to work so as to improve daily operations? This second question is a puzzler for most. Daily delivery is already such a pain, and adding kaizen is perceived as an extra load. Go and see, ask why, show respect. When time for exploration is found and the kaizen wheel starts rolling, what fun!
  3. What did you learn? And with whom should we share it? The doing is not as important as the learning. It’s good to solve problems, but it is far better to learn from them. And if we do change our mind about something, or grasp a complex point better, how do we retain that information and share it with others?

Questioning is not innate, nor are we educated to constantly inquire about what we do. While we like to provide answers and solutions, learning is the key to performance and sustainability. So why not have a go at it?

Cécile Roche: Asking a Good Question Does More than Giving an Answer

I still remember my first A3. I was working with a group and lucky enough to be coached by a specialist.

The problem I had to solve involved a Printed Circuit Board Assembly (PCBA) production team. I had to help the expert in charge of dealing with technical issues. He was too busy with other activities and didn't have time to take care of this challenge. The backlog of technical issues was constantly growing, and he wanted to refocus his activities.

I came out of the first coaching session quite disturbed. While I had analyzed the subject in every direction, counted the hours spent on each activity, and made precise pie charts, I was unable to answer simple questions such as "what is the impact of this problem on the client?”

I had prepared well for the second session. Yet while I had all the data, the question of "why are there so many PCBAs arriving from the subcontractor that are out of order?” was unsettling to me. When I explained that things were complicated and very different in my company, this failed to convince them.

At the third session, after taking a serious look at all these technical problems, I realized that I was not working on the right problem at all. I discovered that the design was unstable and that the subcontractor didn't have the right testing tools. The problem was not “why doesn't the expert have enough time?” but “why do so many problems come to him?”

My final A3 focused on this key question and looked nothing like the first version.

I have retained from this experience the conviction that asking a good question does much more than giving an answer.

Critical thinking can help us ask the right questions. In each situation, it is best to look for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness; and we will be surprised to challenge our misconceptions.

Rose Heathcote: Learn and Improve Through Humble Inquiry

In what I suspect is common for my generation, I dodged the "children should be seen and not heard" period and landed where I was semi-listened to, by loving folks who told me what to think and do. As one of the factory workers in our family business, I was shielded from failing, with no safety net to experiment with radical ideas. Because I was directed and protected, it took longer to learn my lessons. This is not a dig at my parents. I am very grateful for the opportunities I was exposed to. But, over time, I had to rewire my thinking in order to avoid command-and-control behaviors later in life. Studying this, listening to my teachers, I knew I needed to:

  • Pause. Don’t rush in and control the narrative. 
  • Show yourself to be willing, keep an open mind, be curious, consider your questions. 
  • Understand each situation more clearly before making any significant decisions.

Harder than it looks!

Asking a good question is the opposite of imposing your ideas.We live in a complex world. To solve problems both known and unknown, we have to collaborate across organizational borders and work closely with each other to build a shared understanding of the issues and the countermeasures. Asking thoughtful questions complements collaboration and helps defeat the bias toward telling, allowing the right questions to take the lead. I’ve had to learn that good questions don’t steer the learner, or disguise my statements with a question mark dangling at the end. Asking a good question is the opposite of imposing your ideas--which implies the other person does not know any answers themselves. This makes the conversation more balanced and fair, building relationships.

Edgar Schein describes humble inquiry as the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. If you want your teams to do things they’ve never done before, create a climate that puts relationships first, holds better conversations and allows for safe learning. Make a significant change this year:

  • Go where the frontline-action is. 
  • Empower your curiosity. Ask sincere questions. Listen. 
  • Be vulnerable. Learn something new. 
  • Offer support armed with a genuine understanding of the conditions. 
  • Watch how trust gathers momentum over time.

Katie Anderson: Not All Questions Are Considered Equal!

As humans, we have an innate desire to help others, which more often than not shows up with us acting as an “expert” who tells othersThe most effective questions are those asked with the intention to help the other person think more deeply about their problem.  our ideas and offering advice. Yet research shows that asking questions is a more effective way to help someone without taking problem-solving ownership away from them. If we want organizations filled with capable and confident problem-solvers, then each of us needs to show up with less “telling” and more “asking.”

Leadership and developing other people require skill in navigating the continuums between seemingly polar concepts. These behaviors call for knowing how to embrace the journey between endpoints on multiple leadership continuums. They require you to know what would be most helpful to the other person in that moment.

  • It’s not about asking or telling. It’s knowing when to ask and when to tell. 
  • It’s not about being a content expert or a coach to help someone move forward. It’s about knowing when someone needs your knowledge and when they are better served by creating their own.
  • It’s not about just providing a challenge or supporting their journey towards success. It’s about understanding when and how to provide both challenge and support to help someone move forward towards the goal.

We are more effective in developing people’s capabilities for problem-solving when we support them in thinking through the challenge at hand by asking effective questions, rather than showing up making suggestions, being the “expert,” or telling them what we think is the right answer. While there are times when directive instruction is important and appropriate, too often our habit is to show up in telling mode.

Beware though: not all questions are created equal! The most effective questions are those asked with the intention to help the other person think more deeply about their problem. “What” and “how” questions tend to be more genuine inquiry questions -- they are questions for which you honestly do not have the answer.

We sometimes think we are asking genuine inquiry questions when in fact we are actually “telling.” Prompting or leading questions are just like a wolf dressed up in sheep's clothing. They are not really questions; they are your ideas with a question mark at the end. Pay attention to how often you ask closed ended or leading questions. You might be shocked (I know I was!) To become a more intentional question asker, try this: when you find yourself starting off with a prompting question, reframe it as a question that starts with what or how

I share my personal journey of moving towards more intentional leadership and learning to navigate these continuums of leadership in my 10-minute talk from the 2017 Lean Summit: “Getting Out of the Habit of Telling.” You can learn more by reading article about “How to Ask Effective Questions” and reviewing other resources. 

Anne-Lise Seltzer: Help Your Brain Switch to Learning Mode

Our brain is a reaction machine: each time it is confronted with a situation, it immediately proposes an answer that it considers the most appropriate. This response has invariably been used already, in a familiar situation, yet does not always help us to provide an appropriate response. Why does it do this?

First of all, to save energy: thinking about a subject requires glucose.

And second, for "mundane" situations. Responding automatically to a situation that has been learned and integrated is absolutely appropriate. We don't need to relearn how to walk, write, or swim every day. Our brain responds with its automatisms and that's fine!

In these cases, our brain exploits the knowledge it has acquired without learning anything new. The problem arises when we are faced with a situation that our brain thinks it recognizes but which may not be exactly what we have already encountered. This situation puts us at risk of providing an inappropriate response to the situation.

Such automatic responses happen to all of us, every day -- especially when we are under time pressure and (once again!) someone comes to talk to us about the same subject. We respond in "automatic mode" without really trying to understand what is going on.

The only way to avoid "automatic mode" is to force our brain to go into deliberative mode, i.e., to ask questions. And that's precisely what the lean The only way to avoid "automatic mode" is to force our brain to go into deliberative mode, to ask questions.approach is all about: asking questions to understand what's really going on. Am I sure this is the situation I imagine? How can I verify it? Who can tell me about it? How can I distinguish a normal situation from an abnormal one? These essential questions allow us to apprehend the situation deeply, to understand fully its distinctive elements in order to help us to make the best decision.

Getting out of the usual answers by asking better questions about a situation allows us to identify our misconceptions and clarify the learning to be done, deepen our knowledge, and thus multiply our options in terms of answers to provide.

To make our brain switch to learning mode through questioning is to give ourselves the means to gain subtlety in our answers and become truly more agile.


Coming from different continents, horizons, and professions, the individuals who form Lean Sensei Women are all recognized lean sensei, who help companies and organizations build sustainable growth through lean management. They believe in the development of people, respectful of both teams and environment, with a view to produce more value for customers and to society.

Catherine Chabiron: board member, Institut Lean France. Author of "Notes from the Gemba" in Planet Lean and executive lean coach.

Rose HeathcoteA learner, writer and teacher, Rose is personally dedicated to developing the capacity in people to solve problems that matter. Head of lean, University of Buckingham.

Lucy Liu: Lean leadership and organizational transformation coach with 28 years of working experience with Toyota Australia, starting at the shopfloor and including leading TPS office and manufacturing capability development. Author of Building An Organizational Lean Architecture for Strategic Renewal.

Sandrine Olivencia: Lean sensei and member of Institut Lean France. Specialist in Obeya and product development expert for the digital world.

Cécile Roche: Lean sensei, member of the Institut Lean France, lean director of the Thales Group, and author of several books, in particular on lean in engineering.

Anne-Lise Seltzer: Member of Institut Lean France. Lean coach in Services and Support functions. Trainer for Lean & Learn at SOL France (learning organization).

Katie Anderson: Leadership coach, speaker, and author of Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, Katie is passionate about helping others learn to live and lead with intention to achieve their purpose, be their best selves, and develop others to support learning in their organizations. 

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2 Comments | Post a Comment
Simon Gary March 08, 2021

Thank-you all - this really is a fantastic article. I love how lean is becoming more and more people centric each day - not that it ever wasn't, but the misunderstanding of a tool-based, rather than people-based approach is becoming increasingly rare.

My feeling is that lean methods and psychology will become much closer aligned - starting with that really tough skill of asking great questions!

Reply »

Jessica Hain May 08, 2021

I read your article and also believe that questions accelerate learning!

Have you come across imperical data, published research findings (peer-reviewed journals, etc) that support this claim?

I'm looking to read further into the "science" behind this truth that seems to be so evident!

Thanks, in advance, for your time!

Reply »

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