Home > The Lean Post> Back to Basics: John Shook on the Role of Questions in Coaching
The Lean Post
Sharing how the world is making things better through lean.

Back to Basics: John Shook on the Role of Questions in Coaching

by John Shook
August 29, 2017

Back to Basics: John Shook on the Role of Questions in Coaching

by John Shook
August 29, 2017 | Comments (3)

Editor's note: This is the first in a series revisting classic eletters by John Shook and Jim Womack to help hone your coaching and managerial skills in this final week of summer. Today our featured piece is John Shook's "Coaching and Questions; Questions and Coaching." A must-read for any coach or manager with coaching responsibilities.

Originally published February 17, 2009

Many lean consultants or "sensei" are known to ask questions more than provide answers. A couple of weeks ago I received a question that I’ve heard many times before: "If you know the right solution for a client or student, do you tell them directly?" The question is deeply relevant to the discussion we’ve been having in this column about gemba-based leadership.

My answer to the questioner in this case was, of course, “What do you think?”

I could leave this column right there. But, I won’t.

JP Sartre: "The only way to learn is to question."

Seriously, what are the impacts of "giving a solution" versus giving a question? The short and direct answer to my questioner above is that I might tell, but would rather not and rarely do. I may or may not know what their solution should be. However, I will always have suggestions for them about what they should do or could try to assist them in finding their solution. So, I may indeed tell them things to do. That is an important distinction: telling someone things to do is not the same as telling them the solution to their problem.

But, you know, I often don't know the best solution for them anyway. For almost any situation, there are devils in details, things that we outside advisors don’t know. I think you will agree with me that organizations can make better decisions when they base them on facts, not guesses, opinions, loudness of voice, debate prowess, etc. That’s one of the most important lessons I learned at Toyota and one of the biggest differences I observe at Toyota versus other companies. In my experience at Toyota, admitting when you don’t know was considered strength, not a weakness. At most companies I know, you’re supposed to know The Answer. At Toyota when I was there, if you didn’t know the facts, you didn’t try to offer a solution.

Moreover, as an outside advisor, if I give a client My Answer, it easily becomes just another one of the opinions running around – feeding their "Who has the best opinion?" way of deciding. Sure, they may follow my advice – after all, I’m the outside "expert." If it works, what did they learn – the wisdom of following my advice?

Think of any everyday situation when you may ask a friend for advice. Your friend, through no fault of his or her own, probably will not have all or even very many of the facts. You may deeply value your friend's advice, but you will have to take his advice with a few grains of salt courtesy of the many additional facts that you know that your friend doesn’t.

Similarly, when advising clients or learners, if I think I see their solution but that they can't see it, my first question needs to be to myself (not to them), asking why it is that I see the answer yet they don't. You know, it just could be that I happen to be wrong about the specific issue and that they are right (imagine that). Or, let’s say that I am indeed right, still my first task is to figure out why it is that I can see the answer but they can’t – that's the real problem I need to help them solve. Even if I DO give them the "right answer" in a given instance, I need to give it to them in a way that they will help them to really learn the lesson. If they just do what I tell them this time, how will that help when they get themselves into a mess again? (And we know ABSOLUTELY that they will.)

You know, the old "give them a fish or teach them how to fish" thing.

But, all of this does NOT mean I won’t tell people things to do in order for them to learn to figure out their own solution. I share with George Koenigsaecker a fondness for a saying – neither of us can remember where it can from (let me know if you know it) – "It's easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting". I tell people things to do – for example to try various lean production tools – but the point is that from giving those tactics a try they can learn how to make better decisions. That’s the real genius inside the TPS tools, you know, not just the "solution" they provide but the way they are designed to serve as on-going improvement and learning structures. More on that another day.

The basic thinking is that you avoid telling people what to do for three narrow reasons and one deeper one: 1) it robs people of the opportunity to think the problem through for themselves, 2) it deprives them of ownership of it, and 3) you might be wrong (imagine that). And, finally, it feeds into the belief that the solution should be the focus, rather than the facts and the process of understanding where we want to go and what is happening now to keep us from getting there.

Regarding the first reason, I like to quote my friend David Verble: "What keeps people from thinking for themselves? Someone jumps in with the answer."

Apply the same thinking to the second: What keeps people from accepting responsibility and taking initiative? Someone tells them what to do.

And the third: What keeps people from feeling free to try and fail and learn? Someone says we need to get it right the first time. Better be right. Better have the answer.

An alternative thought to the deeper thinking problem of focusing on the Solution or "better have the answer," is "better have the facts".

So, as an outside advisor, I may tell clients things to try so they can figure out their answer. For people inside companies, too, if they just ease up and admit they don’t actually have the answers, then they can work through things to come up with much better answers. Everyone is always trying to come up with the Big Solution. Try this, try that – when they’re lucky they get it right. And when they miss, they often miss big.

Better to focus on understanding the situation, clarifying the real problem.

Learning to sensei

A prerequisite for the apprentice sensei who is learning to not give solutions is to grasp for himself the fact that he doesn’t actually know the solution. Once you grasped that, then it's very easy to not give "the answer" – you simply don’t really have an answer to give. But, while it is not necessary for you to give or even possess "the solution", you do have an important obligation, which is to give the question or learning assignment in a way that will lead to the learning, with learning as the goal. Once that is accomplished, all sorts of "solutions" will fall out. Then you can experience the joy, liberation, and humility that come with admitting you don’t know.

May the facts be with you,

John Shook
Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute


What to do next:

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  fundamentals,  management
Search Posts:
Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
David Verble, Eric Ethington, Ernie Richardson, John Shook, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet, Mark Reich & Tracey Richardson
The Work of Management
By Jim Lancaster
Was this post... Click all that apply
19 people say YES
16 people say YES
17 people say YES
12 people say YES
Related Posts
3 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban August 29, 2017
6 People AGREE with this comment

My suggestion is that LEI revisit their use of the word "sensei."

Yes, it means teacher, but my understanding is that it's not a term that one gives to oneself... and it's not a blanket term. I might choose to call John Shook my sensei, but that's my choice. 

Somebody might call me a "sensei" (through their choice) but that doesn't mean I'm a sensei to all. I'm rightfully not likely to be considered a sensei to John.

Unfortunately, I see the phrase "certified Lean sensei" out there. Thankfully, LEI doesn't certify people as such. 

I'd suggest that the LEI lexicon for "sensei" is not accurate, because it implies it's an absolute term for somebody who has reached some certain level. What does "master" mean? What does "years of experience" mean?

What does "easily understood and inspiring" mean and who is to judge? Each individual judges, which is why "sensei" is a term an individual chooses to give to another. It's not a blanket label.


Reply »

jim September 03, 2017

My learning experience (only what I can verify for myself over time, just 2 cents) is that understanding the three narrow questions deeply takes learning cycles and it is in the best interest of the learners and the teacher to record the lead time of "getting it" or the habit development by task or grouping of tasks.

This grasp of the three points seems to vary on the complexity of the transformation-- based upon the lead time of physical stuff needing to be built, tried, and given reflection--lead time of internal and external resources. So a valid experiment(s) with the three questions pervading the experience. Lead time of a series of tasks effects learning cycle.

Really enjoyed your though provoking article, obviously from your own experience.




Reply »

John Conway January 07, 2021

Hi John, i am interested in your opinion about the impact knowledge management (KM) has on the lean community. There are many similarities to KM objectives and problem solving.

1) Knowledge starts with a question and results in learning. Knowledge is an invisibale resource, but is the source of value of all other resources.

2) The goal of  KM is to get the right information, to the right person. at the right time, in the right way to inform their decison then do the right thing.

3) KM focuses on people and processes.

My understanding is that KM drives performance by first asking the right questions. The same could be said of problem solving. Is it too much of a stretch to say Lean manages knowledge by problem solving?


Thanks   JC


Reply »

Search Posts:
Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
David Verble, Eric Ethington, Ernie Richardson, John Shook, Josh Howell, Karen Gaudet, Mark Reich & Tracey Richardson
The Work of Management
By Jim Lancaster
A Sensei in One's Own Land
Confessions of an Aspiring Coach
Effective Supervision 101
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