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Practical Guidance for Using Humble Inquiry in PDCA Problem Solving and Coaching


By David Verble

After 50 to 60 years as a process consultant, OD practitioner, professor and coach, Ed Schein wrote a book in 2009 entitled Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help.  In it he draws on his years of experience as a helping professional and offers this bit of common sense wisdom: if you want to be truly helpful to another person you have to listen to and learn what help she or he wants. He goes on to describe a new concept (for most of us) that he calls Humble Inquiry, as the way to do that.  Humble Inquiry is basically asking questions you don’t already have an answer to (as opposed to leading questions to get the other person to confirm what you are thinking or assume) and listening instead to what the other person has to say. 

Coming from a Toyota background and being thoroughly schooled in the Toyota way even before Toyota called it the Toyota way, I think of everything in terms of problem solving.  So I wondered how does this apply to problem solving.  The connection I saw was that the problem solving I learned in Toyota (PDCA problem solving, their spin on W. Edwards Deming) is based on a sound and precise grasp of the actual conditions of a problem situation.  Humble Inquiry sounded like an effective way to learn what others (especially those at the site or those involved in the problem situation) know about the actual conditions of a problem.  As Schein describes it, it is open-minded inquiry that assumes nothing and truly seeks to learn what the other person knows and thinks and why.

I believe Humble Inquiry is a core Lean/CI/PDCA problem-solving skill.  If you are going to be an effective PDCA problem solver what better skill to have than the ability to get the facts of what is actually happening in a problem situation and learn the exact characteristics of the event or condition or issue that you are calling a problem.  I feel Schein does not, however, provide enough how-to guidance for doing Humble Inquiry in his book. So I set out to find my own.

Ask, Listen, Focus

There are three basic techniques for practicing Humble Inquiry that I have identified, so far:

  1. Ask Respectful Questions: These allow open-ended answers rather than closed response questions (yes or no) or leading ones that basically ask if you agree with what the questioner knows or thinks.
  2. Listen Attentively:  Don’t just hear the sound of the speaker’s voice and his or her words (while you are busy thinking your own thoughts in your head). Rather, hear what the other person is really saying and by pay attention to the message and its meaning.
  3. Focus: Concentrate on the person you are questioning not the problem you are hearing about.  That will allow you to attend to two very helpful pieces of information about what you are hearing –
  • The source of the words and message – the person, her or his manner of speaking and tone of voice, his or her expressions and body language and  the context in which he or she is speaking.  We take in these things unconsciously already but this is a matter of letting go of your own thinking enough to be consciously aware of these things.
  • Your awareness of yourself as you listen. You not only hear the words and the message, you are experiencing things and having feelings in response. You’re curious about things you are hearing and you are wondering about the person and what he or she is telling you and why, and what he or she wants you to understand.  This information helps you grasp the problem situation also.

You may find these techniques interesting and they may even seem worthwhile (after all, who’s opposed to good communication), but for those trying to build problem-solving cultures in their organization, Humble Inquiry has two very practical and valuable applications that need to be explored.

First Application: Investigative Inquiry in problem solving

If you are trying to solve a problem and need to do Investigative Inquiry, the technique of Humble Inquiry is very helpful for learning from others what they know about the problem that you may not know and what they have thought about the situation that you likely haven’t because you lacked the information others had. If those you are questioning in your investigation work at the site of the problem and you don’t work there, they have had numerous experiences and observations that you could not have had in the gemba where you live and work.  Your experience is different and your knowledge of the problem from your “outside” perspective is different. 

To solve a problem outside your gemba (work setting) you have to realize you are dependent on what those in the location of a problem have seen and heard and know about the problem situation and have thought about the causes and possible solutions.  Of course, you have information and insight from your perspective but it is seldom sufficient.  Neither of you has the full picture. Only by showing respect for what others know and think through asking open questions and listening to their responses with attention and curiosity can you create a dialogue in which you each share your knowledge and learn from one another. Schein’s suggestion of Humble Inquiry as the best way to learn what help others want also works well in Investigate Inquiry where you need to learn what others know and think to gain an adequate grasp of the nature and needs of a problem situation.

The ability to use Humble Inquiry in investigating a problem is important in another way. Your first responsibility as a lean/CI leader, facilitator, or coach is to be a model of PDCA problem-solving thinking. You can do this through your use of Humble Inquiry to learn the actual conditions of problem situations without making assumptions or jumping to solutions.  You will have your greatest influence on the kind of problem solving expected and practiced in your culture by your own persistence in trying to learn what is actually happening, what the real problem is and what’s causing it, and by your insistence that others not stop with making assumptions and jumping to solutions.  This will go a long way toward your credibility as lean/CI coach and leader.

Second Application: Pure Humble Inquiry Questioning as a Coach

Humble Inquiry questioning is not just a useful skill; it is essential when you are not the problem solver and want to be helpful to someone else who is the problem owner and is trying to figure out how to address it.  This is certainly the case if you are the person’s coach and trying to help him or her develop capability for effective PDCA problem solving.  Two simple facts define the limits for what we are able to do as coaches.  We cannot develop another person; we can only support his or her self-development.  And we cannot help someone develop her or his problem thinking by telling him or her what to think.  When trying to support someone in their self-development, your questions must not only be Humble; they must be what Schein calls “Pure Inquiry.”

The difference between Investigative Inquiry and Pure Inquiry is critical.  Investigative Inquiry can be Humble but it cannot be “Pure” because when you are the problem solver asking questions to learn the actual conditions of a problem situation your purpose is to gain and use the other person’s knowledge and thinking, not develop it.  When you are asking about a problem you want to solve, it is almost impossible for your intention and thinking not to come through in your questions, influence the other person’s thinking, and leave them out of the problem solving thinking. 

In Pure Inquiry, the focus is the other person’s thinking and the purpose of your humble questions is to reveal the other person’s thinking and knowledge to him or her as though in a mirror.  Hearing our ideas, observations, and claims explored with Pure Inquiry questioning or restated for confirmation by another person has the impact of forcing us to examine those ideas and what they are based on. That is the power of Pure Inquiry in coaching and it can help a coachee develop his or her problem-solving thinking. It makes the person being coached more aware of his or her assumptions, questionable claims, and hasty conclusions.

It’s the Person Not the Problem

A couple of practical but seldom recognized principles are at work when a coach is trying to help another person develop his or her ability to do effective problem solving

  • First, to help someone else improve their problem-solving thinking, you have to let them think, not tell them what or how they should think.
  • And second, to support someone else in his or her thinking processes (it’s their work, not yours), you have to focus your Humble Inquiry questioning on the other person’s thinking,  not yours. 

If you are focused on the problem not the person, your thinking will influence your coaching questions and the other person will sense your intent behind them.  The value of inquiry that is both humble and pure (with no intent other than to inquire with interest and curiosity) is that it leaves the other person with no alternative than to listen , examine, and reflect on his or her own assumptions, assertions, claims and conclusions, and question the thinking and information they are based on.

Lean/CI practitioners and coaches tend to have a strong drive to make things better.  When they see or hear of a problem, like most people, they want to help solve it.  As Ed Schein points out, however, even the best intentioned help is not always well received.  People have pride in their capability and help that makes them feel less self-sufficient generally doesn’t feel good.  Schein’s recommendation is that we meet others on an equal level when we want to be helpful. 

For lean/CI coaches and leaders that means having respect for what those at the site of a problem know when you show up to solve a problem in their territory.  And it means asking the person you are coaching what kind of support they want in their effort to develop their capabilities.  Humble Inquiry helps keep relationships equal.  When used in Investigative Inquiry it helps avoid assumptions and presumptions that feel like disrespect.  And using Pure Humble Inquiry as a coach says you recognize the coachee is the owner of her or his own development.  

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