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How Wrong Assumptions about PDCA Problem Solving Destroy the Effectiveness of Lean Coaches

David Verble and Lea Tonkin

There’s growing interest by companies in developing lean coaches who can be the “driving force” for building and sustaining a problem-solving culture. That’s where you come in as lean/continuous improvement (CI) professionals – in most companies you are responsible for cultivating a generation of lean/CI problem solvers throughout your organizations.

But it may be worth asking yourself, regardless of your experience and expertise in this worthy venture: How well do I really understand the kind of problem-solving capability I need to help others develop? Your success, as you do your best to develop others as problem solvers for lean and continuous improvement, may hinge on the confidence with which you can answer that question. Often, we assume from our experience and practice of the basics that we know what we need to know.

Problem solving based on the PDCA cycle is very different from what we typically call Problem solving. Making the assumption that Problem solving is Problem solving can undermine your effectiveness as a lean/CI coach.


As a lean/CI coordinator and coach, you’re familiar with the plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) cycle and its critical role in lean and continuous improvement. But are you aware that the Problem solving that makes lean and continuous improvement successful and sustainable is based on the PDCA cycle? And are you aware that Problem solving based on the PDCA cycle is very different from what we typically call Problem solving? Making the assumption that Problem solving is Problem solving can undermine your effectiveness as a lean/CI coach.

You’re accustomed to the approach of stating a problem that’s been recognized, followed by a root cause problem-solving process, often using a fishbone diagram. But pressured by an intense organizational focus on creating quick results, you or the team may have moved too quickly and skipped over a key point: Successful and sustainable Problem solving depends on determining and describing the actual conditions of the problem situation as clearly and precisely (not in general terms) as possible before moving to the next problem-solving step.

You need to have the ability to recognize what questions to ask, and when to ask them.


Ask yourself the question: To help those you lead or coach show results as problem solvers, have you let them seek solutions before the actual conditions and factors of the problem situations have been clearly and accurately identified?  For example, have you allowed them to start cause investigation from a problem statement such as: “Customer satisfaction with response time from the call center has fallen. The problem is new operators aren’t getting enough training.”

It’s easy to confuse knowing about something with knowing what is actually happening. Before we strive to help others advance their skills as problem solvers, we need to ground ourselves as coaches and leaders in a firm grasp of the activities and flow of PDCA Problem solving.

One of our challenges is that we all have an instinctive tendency to jump to the pursuit of solutions. We may assume that we know more than we actually do, prematurely zeroing in on a pre-conceived “solution” based on assuming we “know” what the problem is, and in that rush to solution, fail to identify, confirm and eliminate the real culprit – the underlying cause of the problem.

Ask the Right Questions at the Right Time

How can you coach in a way that helps the problem solvers you are coaching avoid this rush to find a solution? One key is to become more effective at asking the right question at the right time to influence the coachee to slow down and examine what he or she is assuming or claiming and why he she or he is thinking it. Through this kind of coaching, coachees grow in the ability to question their own thinking and realize when they need to slow down.

Many lean/CI coaches have learned the importance of asking open rather than closed or leading questions when coaching someone else on their problem-solving thinking. But many are not confident they know what question or the next question to ask, at the right time. They are struggling with understanding what’s going on with another person’s problem-solving process and thinking.

Effective lean coaches suggest doing rapid learning experiments on the effectiveness of a solution … This process is the essence of PDCA Problem solving.


If you can recognize when others are jumping to conclusions or making assumptions and failing to look at what is actually happening in a problem, you can use the Socratic questioning approach more effectively. But to do this, you need a sound understanding of PDCA Problem solving and the ability to recognize whether coachees’ thinking is consistent with good Problem solving that follows the PDCA process. This skill can be difficult to develop because it doesn’t come naturally. Our innate tendency as coaches is to hear about a problem situation and make assumptions about what we know and what or how the others “should’ be thinking about the situation. This generally leads us to tell them where their thinking is wrong or redirect them to what we think they “should” be thinking.

Instead, by asking open questions, you can influence others to focus on discovering the actual problem conditions rather making the case for a preferred solution. Avoiding assumptions and getting to actual abnormal occurrences and conditions in the problem are essentials in any sustainable performance improvement. Otherwise, your coachees may end up trying to “fix” the problem itself or working to make their “assumed” solution come true. But first, you need to have the ability to recognize what questions to ask, and when to ask them.

Develop Your “Questioning Mind”

How can you engage other problem solvers in grasping the problem situation and determining actual conditions before looking for a cause or solution? First, help them by serving as a model, and then through your coaching, develop the habit for something called “questioning mind.” In essence, it is stopping before going any further in your problem-solving thinking and asking yourself, “What do I really know about this situation, and how do I know it?” This habit triggers a reminder that we need to see first-hand what is happening at the site of the problem and listen to what others know about what is going on in order to grasp the actual conditions.

When you’ve prompted others to practice first observing what can be observed, followed by identification of the actual conditions, there’s still a ways to go. Instead of letting others jump into the deciding the “solution” to a problem, effective lean coaches suggest doing rapid learning experiments on the effectiveness of a solution. It may take a number of iterations, making needed adjustments based on new learnings, to get to the best actions to address the cause of the problem and eliminate it for good. This process is the essence of PDCA Problem solving and the reason continuous improvement is necessary.

Encourage these cycles of learning, even when they may seem to take too long and to be unnecessary at first. Analysis and testing to learn how to solve problems will not bring dramatic initial results. But what will happen as leaders and teams grasp actual problem conditions and find and test underlying causes is that unwanted conditions and occurrences start to go away – and not return. Those troublesome late deliveries caused by delays, missed handoffs, slow setups and rework, for example, begin to decline. In other words, the problem solvers you are coaching, and their management, start to see real improvements in work flow performance that can be sustained.

Creating a culture in which problems are tackled and eliminated using PDCA Problem solving based on a grasp of actual conditions depends on your ability to demonstrate, lead and teach an effective PDCA problem-solving process. It is also the key to your effectiveness as a coach in developing others capable of sound PDCA Problem solving.

What to Do Next …

If you are ready to strengthen your knowledge and skills at PDCA Problem solving and your effectiveness as a lean coach, learn more about the revised and updated workshop, “Skills to Coach for Development, Step 1: Recognizing Effective PDCA Problem Solving” with LEI author and coaching facilitator David Verble.

David is a coaching expert who honed his coaching and organizational development skills at Toyota, including the startup of the automaker’s Georgetown, KY, plant, where he was manager of human resource development. He later was manager of human resource development for Toyota North American Manufacturing.

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