Home > The Lean Post> How To Get Out of the Habit of Telling
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

How To Get Out of the Habit of Telling

by Katie Anderson
October 24, 2014

How To Get Out of the Habit of Telling

by Katie Anderson
October 24, 2014 | Comments (12)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the fundamental tenet of lean leadership – the concept of leader as coach – and how to develop problem solving skills in others.

A key theme I’ve seen emerge in my interactions with healthcare leaders this past month, including 1-1 coaching sessions and workshops focused on the topic of coaching, is the challenge of figuring out how to get out of the personal habit of “fixing” the immediate problem at hand, telling someone what we think they should do, and replacing it with the habit of developing others to solve the problem.

Margie Hagene, a great lean thinker and coach, made a comment at a recent coaching class hosted by the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value summing up this problem: “With the habit of telling rather than asking, you miss the ability to grow a culture of problem solving.”

In healthcare, so often it feels like every issue is a crisis that must be solved NOW. This crisis mindset seems to have wired people to “just get it fixed” and move on to the next “crisis” of the day. Indeed, there are true crises or critical issues that must be addressed immediately, such as safety and quality issues that require us to “stop the line”. These things do happen and need immediate intervention. But, if as leaders we treat every issue as something needing an immediate “solution” provided by us (the leader), we will only continue to exacerbate the complexity of healthcare by layering on more band-aid fixes or workarounds. Sometimes we even end up causing more harm, particularly if we operate under assumptions, don’t understand the root cause of the problem, or miss the opportunity to develop problem-solving skills in others.

For example, does the linen shortage on the nursing units or long queue at the pharmacy require our immediate intervention? If yes and we need to put in a “quick fix”, are we taking the time to go back to understand the root cause and respond more thoughtfully? If two problems of the same relative level of importance or very different levels of importance are happening at the same time, how do we decide which to address first? How are we using the human capital in our organizations to help understand and solve these problems? How do we decide when to trade-off a people development opportunity for the seemingly easier path of providing the answer?

In the moment, it can feel easier and quicker to “fix and move on,” but what these leaders are beginning to realize for themselves (through reflection via a personal A3) is that unless they intentionally reset their mindset and actively practice asking questions to support problem solving in others – they will continue repeating habits that aren’t helpful. They’ll continue on in their current state of working on everyone’s problems, firefighting, and feeling like there is no time. No time in general, let alone time to be in the gemba, to coach, or work on the most pressing problems they own.

This thinking doesn’t just apply to operational leaders, but also to those of us with the role of “coach” or “consultant”. As I reflect on my own experiences as an internal lean consultant and now as an external coach to healthcare organizations, the same mentality holds true. There is a role for me as a resource in lean thinking, giving guidance on technical aspects of lean processes and mindset (the directive instruction zone), but the most effective help I can offer is showing up as coach (open coaching zone) to develop others’ thinking. The goal is to let others keep their ownership of their work challenges and learning journey. 

I’m continually trying to develop as a coach - to be better at asking my clients questions to develop their thinking and capability, not just telling them what I (in the role of “expert”) think might be useful. I try to lead with open-ended questions of pure, humble inquiry (as defined by Edgar Schein) – questions to which I don’t have the answer. For example, “How are you thinking about this issue today?” or another “How/Why/What?” question that is relevant to the discussion at hand. I encourage them to be just as intentional about developing their own team members through coaching.

As leader or coach, how are you intentionally practicing to improve yourself? How do you actually practice asking rather than telling? What practices and questions do you use and how are you developing yourself in service to develop others?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  A3,  coaching,  mindfulness
Was this post... Click all that apply
71 people say YES
59 people say YES
57 people say YES
45 people say YES
Related Posts
12 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban October 24, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment
I recently wrote a blog post on this very same topic:


I try to practice what I preach... and that's doubly difficult when coaching others on Kaizen and encouraging them not to give answers. Asking the people you're coaching to think is a good habit.

The image at the top of the post, probably chosen by the editors, doesn't really reflect the notion of testing "solutions" in the PDSA/PDCA approach. 

"Ah ha! I have the solution" is just the next step... not the last step. We have to test and honestly evaluate how the solution or countermeasure actually works.

Reply »

Lory Moniz October 27, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
Hi Mark,
Thanks for your comment, you bring up a valid point. With the image we were just  focusing on the idea of "thinking for yourself".
- Lory

Reply »

Lex Schroeder October 27, 2014
4 People AGREE with this reply
Hi Mark,

Lory chose this image and as she said, was aiming to depict this idea of letting a person think for him or herself in a sense (with input from team members and a coach, but still thinking for one's self) versus the model where someone steps in and gives you the answer or gives you what they think is the answer.

Interestingly, for me, the image worked for a different reason. Reading Katie's piece, what resonated for me was the emphasis on PDCA, yes. And the image worked because it showed what so many of us often do or try to do, which is figure something out alone WITHOUT any PDCA structure or analysis or feedback from a coach.

It's a simple, incomplete image that can be viewed different ways it seems and gets picked up different ways by different folks. Just using this group here as an example. For this reason we decided to keep it, but thanks for this feedback.

Reply »

Katie Anderson October 27, 2014
4 People AGREE with this reply
Hi Mark - 

Thanks for your feedback - and great to see good minds thinking alike!

I agree with your comments about the image and had a discussion with the editors to understand their choice (see Lex's response regarding their thinking). 

I would also add that leaders delegating problem solving without making a commitment to coach or support the problem solver is another failure point I frequently see. Problem solving should not be done in isolation.  It's the process of catchball and coaching through asking questions that I have found to be the most valuable in developing capability in others.


Reply »

Keith Lodahl October 27, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
One of the first lessons I learned when moving from Manufacturing to health care is that nurses are top notch first order problem solvers.  They know where pillows and blankets are to be taken to solve a sortage in their area, but are more likley to steal them again and again instead of solving the root cause of the shortage.  Until we get our clients in the habbit of solving problems, then developing problem solvers, we aren't doing our job very well.  Thanks for the article.

Reply »

Tim Dixson October 27, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

In HMLV manufacturing environs, we have an epidemic of what I like to term "the Tyranny of the Urgent", which it's not hard to get leadership to recognize.  What IS hard, however, is getting leadership to act on it as an issue after it's been recognized.

How does a Lean advocate such as myself, with no authority, convince leadership that their time is actually better spent developing people than dictating solutions?  How do you demonstrate the payback?

Reply »

Hollie Jensen October 28, 2014
4 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you for writing on this topic Katie.  It is current and relevant for the work many of us are doing. 

One thing I recommend to anyone working on asking ‘thinking’ humble inquiry types of questions is to ask yourself, “do I know the answer to the question I am about to ask?”.  If you answer that question with a yes – then you should teach or provide advice, not in the form of a question. If the answer is no, then you are likely asking a humble inquiry type of a question (coaching).  For example, I could ask “have you talked to Jim, he is an expert?” OR “what else have you tried?”.  One approach provokes thinking while the other provides advice or direction in the form of a question. 

Thanks again!

Reply »

Katie Anderson October 30, 2014
5 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks Hollie! I appreciate your contributions and feedback. 

I agree that as the coach, one should evaluate where the learner is at to know what approach to take or question to ask (humble inquiry, diagnostic, prompting, or process - per Edgar Schein). However, before I put forward my thinking (or suggestion in the form of a question), I want to see some evidence of the learner's thinking. Margie shared a great quote from John Shook at the ThedaCare Coaching class: "Until I saw where your thinking was at, I didn't know what question I needed to ask." If the learner is stuck or I have information that might assist the learner, I might offer some of my thinking for their consideration - but only after hearing some evidence of the learner's thinking first. 


Reply »

Tarang May 21, 2015

I think Hollie may have been pointing out that it may be disingenuious to pose a question as if you don't know the answer to. As in this case the humble enquiry being contrived. 

Having said this I do like the John Shook quote and the need to know where the thinking was at so I know what question to ask. So what would be an example of this?

Reply »

Katie Anderson May 25, 2015

Hi Tarang - Thanks for your question.

I agree with you and Hollie that if you know the answer, it can be disingenuous to ask a question. However, it is also important to reflect on what the purpose of the coaching session is – is it coaching for development or coaching for correction (as David Verble has described: http://www.lean.org/downloads/coachingwebinar_LEI_final.pdf)

Taking Hollie’s example, if the purpose of the coaching is to develop the problem solving thinking skills in the other person, I would first lead by asking the question “who have you considered talking with?”.

Even if I know that Jim is an expert and likely has information that would help the problem solver, I might be missing a development opportunity if I lead by offering my advice or opinion. Only after hearing the person’s thinking about who he or she should talk with (they might have even come up with Jim on their own or they might be stumped about who to talk with), might I suggest some of my own advice.


Katie Anderson May 25, 2015

Tarang - I also wrote more about the topic of listening and the John Shook's quote in another Lean Post article. You can check it out here: http://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=388

Katie Anderson June 01, 2015

This post was recently translated into Portuguese and published in the Brazilian Healthcare journal Revista Hospitais Brasil. 

You can find the article on page 154: http://www.revistahospitaisbrasil.com.br/revista-digital/edicao-73-revista-hospitais-brasil/

Or you can see it here: http://kbjanderson.com/how-to-get-out-of-the-habit-of-telling-in-brazil/


The habit of telling isn't limited by geography! What questions have you asked today?

Reply »

PDCA is the Breath of Lean
Please include links as plain text URLs only. Do not copy and paste directly from a web page or other document. Doing so may pick up additional HTML that will not function here.
URLs will be converted to functioning links when your comment is displayed on the site.
Here's an example:
See this article for more details: https://www.lean.org/whatslean