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Coaching and Questions; Questions and Coaching

John Shook
2/17/2009
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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

John Shook
Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute
12 Comments | Post a Comment
Anonymous February 20, 2009
A very interestng article. I find myself continually being asked to provide the solution and I am expected to be able to provide the answer.
The world wants "quick fixes" but the world needs deeper understanding.
I now know why my sensei never told me a straight answer, but talked around the issue, tacitly inviting me to think deeper.
I now need to learn how not to give answwers.
Thanks for sharing a very inciteful view on coaching. A great article.
Anonymous February 23, 2009
I have worked with Eastern Consultants for over 15 years. In the beginning one of the most frustrating aspects was the fact that they would not provide a "quick and easy" answer. In my mind I would think "what are we paying you for?" They would then ask me to recite the 7 wastes or make some comparison like "how is a shear press like a crab". In hindsight I now understand the logic behind this method.

Since then I have trained many Lean engineers and technicians and the scenario has been reversed. The main flaw I see in giving an answer is one there is no ownership and two the questioner does not learn anything.

The interesting point that I have found is how different groups of people attack the problem differently. An engineer opposed to and operator or an operator opposed to a manager – many times they will attack the problem from different directions.

I remember an Eastern Consultant telling me a story about an engineer asking him what level of education was required to be at kaizen. The answer given was “5th grade” because there are very few preconceived notions but rather many more questions. It is amazing how the simple tools such as 5 Why and the Fishbone Diagram can bring you to the root cause of a problem quicker than all of the Data Analysis in the world.
Anonymous February 23, 2009
Not sure if he is the originator, since he refers to it as "the saying", but I first saw the "It's easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting" in David Mann's excellent book "Creating a Lean Culture" (bottom of page 99 in the summary of Chapter 6).
Anonymous February 24, 2009
Great article! Only sad thing is that applying this thinking to one`s own corporate environment might cost you your job if the surroundings are not that "into" continuous learning. Most seem to be fixated on so called "quick wins" and once people take risks and fail, the colleagues are often less than supportive out of fear, jealousy or simply mean character.
Dike Drummond February 26, 2009
I find it is actually easier to coach someone if I know nothing about what they do. Leaves me in the realm of pure questions and focused totally on their experience rather than what I am thinking about what they are saying.

Quick Sensei tip:
Open Ended Questions are the key and you will always ask an open ended question if you start with the words:
"What ..."
"How ..."

I recommend you get in the habit of thinking in "What" and "How" terms with your clients/mentees and then close your lips and hear what THEY have to say.

My two cents,
Ralf Lippold March 12, 2009
John,

I am so greatful you have written about "not giving answers".

As a process consultant I often meet people who say, "I really have no clue how to solve this problem! Please give me advice!".

Advice I give, in form of a (or more) question that will lead to the solution rather in the client's thinking. It is still his problem and he also owns the solution - I can't take it from him.

This would be no-good consulting and not congruent with the lean thinking and pratice I am so passionate of for almost 35 years.

Cheers,

Ralf

PS.: Sometimes the client really angry as we give them no clear answer to his problems, we have to learn to cope with this uneasiness as consultants. Out clients will THANK us for that:-)
Ralf Lippold April 11, 2009
John,

Thanks a lot for that great and insightful post.

I reminded me on a Skype chat a few weeks ago on the question whether "Can organizational culture help to grow the lean change?".

One of the participants after a few minutes snapped the following question on me, "Ralf, why are you always asking questions? We want answers!".

This has been a manager of a large German OEM in the electronic market.

For a spark of a second I felt uneasy, and then I regained my inner strength resisting to give any solution as long, as are not even sure we are talking about the same issue, not to say knowing where the problem we are facing stems from.

In today's business world however the "quick fix" is asked for by top and middle managers, as they fear the future and want to become "better" on the spot - without any learning!

Stick to your values as a valuable sensei and facilitator, your clients will thank you for that in not long time from now:-)

Cheers,

Ralf
Anonymous May 1, 2009
As for the quote, I have seen it credited as such...

"It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting." Millard Fuller founder of Habitat for Humanity International
Chak July 8, 2009
With all due respect, a few questions. I am a software developer in India. Sometimes i am asked to review a problem or participate in a brain storming or problem solving meeting.

There are the occasions, when i may just jump in with my 'answer':-

1) An outsider can sometimes see things more clearly since he has a better perspective.

2) It sometimes becomes a matter of judgment, like when i say 'this is over architected - this is not be what the customer expected'.This maybe gut feeling, which i cannot reason out of a person.

3) At other times, a customer may be difficult and not be open to reason since he wants me to bear the cost of an activity which he wants to argue out of me.

SO there are times, when it may just be better to give our answers first and then back them up as best as we can.

Don't you think so ?

Regards,
Chakravarthy
Bethany July 30, 2009
This is a fantastic article. I constantly find myself wondering why more people won't take initiative - little did I know that the problem was me always giving them the "solution"!
Richard January 10, 2012

Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd. design company which produces design fashion products and distribute to all branches of Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. The company’s currently functional layout in the shop floor has some operational problems which forced production to use large batch quantities due to the high set up times resulting in high build up in-process stock.

The company is looking to improve their competitiveness through the implementation of lean concepts to improve the manufacture of well designed men’s and women’s wears as well as children’s wear for an overseas market.

Customer Report:

Customer requirement: One daily shipment of 600 units to Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. The buyer, Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd places weekly orders to Gennie Fabrics Ltd., the supplier by fax for 1,200units inventory to be supplied direct to production site.

 

Production Control Department:

    I.        Receives Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. 800 daily forecast and enter them into the MRP system

  II.        Issue weekly orders to supplier, Kay Fabrics

III.        Secure 1,500 unit raw materials delivery by weekly fax order release

IV.        Generate weekly department MRP requirement based upon customer order, WIP, F/G inventory levels and anticipate scrap and down time.

   V.        WIP between cutting and screen print = 600units

VI.        WIP between screen print and sewing = 1,600units

VII.        Finished Goods Inventory                   = 2,500units

VIII.        Manual daily directives from Production Supervisor

 

Based on the week forecasts, production department releases daily manual information through the Factory Supervisor to the shop floor.

Additional Information:

·         Movement of production materials through the process is by push system

·         Supplier delivery takes 3 days and hold ups between cutting and screen print takes 2 days.

·         Queuing between screen print and sewing takes 2 days whilst finish goods remain at the warehouse five days before shipment to Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd.

 

Process Information

A.      Cuttings

         i.            5 operators

       ii.            Cycle time = 4mins

     iii.            Changeover time = 65mins

     iv.            Uptime = 85%

       v.            2 Shifts

 

 

B.      Screen Print

i.             3 operators

ii.            Cycle time = 14mins

iii.          Changeover = 65mins

iv.          Uptime= 80%

v.           3 Shifts

 

C.      Sewing

i.             15 operators

ii.            Cycle time= 18mins

iii.          Changeover = 35mins

iv.          Uptime = 95%

v.           1 shift

 

D.      Shipping Department

Remove sewed dresses from finished goods warehouse and stages them for truck shipment to customer.

 

Requirement:

 

Question 1

From the above information create and comment on the current   state map of Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd.                                            

Question 2

From Q1 design to improve the manufacturing systems at a cell level using lean techniques to create a future state map and comment with justification any actions taken in arriving at your decision
Richard January 10, 2012

Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd. design company which produces design fashion products and distribute to all branches of Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. The company’s currently functional layout in the shop floor has some operational problems which forced production to use large batch quantities due to the high set up times resulting in high build up in-process stock.

The company is looking to improve their competitiveness through the implementation of lean concepts to improve the manufacture of well designed men’s and women’s wears as well as children’s wear for an overseas market.

Customer Report:

Customer requirement: One daily shipment of 600 units to Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. The buyer, Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd places weekly orders to Gennie Fabrics Ltd., the supplier by fax for 1,200units inventory to be supplied direct to production site.

 

Production Control Department:

    I.        Receives Stockwell Supermarket Chain Stores Ltd. 800 daily forecast and enter them into the MRP system

  II.        Issue weekly orders to supplier, Kay Fabrics

III.        Secure 1,500 unit raw materials delivery by weekly fax order release

IV.        Generate weekly department MRP requirement based upon customer order, WIP, F/G inventory levels and anticipate scrap and down time.

   V.        WIP between cutting and screen print = 600units

VI.        WIP between screen print and sewing = 1,600units

VII.        Finished Goods Inventory                   = 2,500units

VIII.        Manual daily directives from Production Supervisor

 

Based on the week forecasts, production department releases daily manual information through the Factory Supervisor to the shop floor.

Additional Information:

·         Movement of production materials through the process is by push system

·         Supplier delivery takes 3 days and hold ups between cutting and screen print takes 2 days.

·         Queuing between screen print and sewing takes 2 days whilst finish goods remain at the warehouse five days before shipment to Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd.

 

Process Information

A.      Cuttings

         i.            5 operators

       ii.            Cycle time = 4mins

     iii.            Changeover time = 65mins

     iv.            Uptime = 85%

       v.            2 Shifts

 

 

B.      Screen Print

i.             3 operators

ii.            Cycle time = 14mins

iii.          Changeover = 65mins

iv.          Uptime= 80%

v.           3 Shifts

 

C.      Sewing

i.             15 operators

ii.            Cycle time= 18mins

iii.          Changeover = 35mins

iv.          Uptime = 95%

v.           1 shift

 

D.      Shipping Department

Remove sewed dresses from finished goods warehouse and stages them for truck shipment to customer.

 

Requirement:

 

Question 1

From the above information create and comment on the current   state map of Kateville Textile Printing Company Ltd.                                            

Question 2

From Q1 design to improve the manufacturing systems at a cell level using lean techniques to create a future state map and comment with justification any actions taken in arriving at your decision