By October 30, 2014 17 Comments Read More →

Questions That Aren’t Really Questions

My Lean mentors often talk about “leading with questions.” Kim Barnas and ThedaCare use this approach in different ways, including “stat sheets,” which are basically checklists (or standardized work) full of questions for leaders to use in the workplace. See her outstanding book Beyond Heroes: A Lean Management System for Healthcare.

What kinds of questions should we ask? The best questions are open ended. They can’t be answered with a simple yes or no answer. Questions should prompt thinking and it’s a skill to be developed through practice.

“What is the problem we are trying to solve?” is a good open-ended question.

Some questions are really questions.

When my wife and I were first married, I had a bad bachelor habit of leaving dirty socks in the middle of the floor, as recently staged here:

lean blog socks on floor questions - coaching

(She lets me use this example.)

She would ask a question that was really a request disguised as a question:

“Honey, why did you leave your socks in the middle of the floor?”

She wasn’t looking for root cause analysis.  :-)

Her question was a polite request, really saying, “Would you please pick up your socks and not do that again in the future?”

I’ve gotten better about this.

In the workplace, we have to be careful about directives that are disguised as questions.

These might include:

“Why don’t you move that bench over there?”

Um, because I don’t want to. Or, because I resent you telling me what to do.

“Why did Bubba screw up that specimen?”

That’s blaming disguised as a question. That’s not a good way to get to a root cause.

“Don’t you think we should re-state the background on that A3?”

Another declaration.

I think if you’re doing to make a declarative statement, such as “I think the background section of that A3 isn’t very clear,” I think you should just do that rather than disguising it as a question. Even if we should limit the number of times that we give solutions to people, maybe it’s more respectful to be direct rather than asking fake questions?

What other non-question questions do you hear? Are there any you’re guilty of saying yourself? Have you worked to help break this habit, either individually or as a team? Leave a comment below.


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

17 Comments on "Questions That Aren’t Really Questions"

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  1. George Harvey says:

    Well, let’s see…
    I’m getting better through practice and have been aided by Ed Schein’s excellent book, “Humble Inquiry”, but still find it difficult to hold back when I think I have an answer.

    I think this skill really requires humility and the ability to know the difference between what we actually know and what we assume we know. To ask a question we know the answer to could be pretty insulting…and probably doesn’t help clarify the problem. If we humbly recognize the gaps in our knowledge (and ask questions to close those gaps) it becomes easier to ask non-leading questions. Easier said than done of course, but I’ve offended enough people to make the effort worthwhile.

  2. Mariana says:

    Definitely the way the question is asked makes a huge difference and I have seen a tremendous improvement in the way Michael ask questions when trying to solve a problem. I can see how asking the question in the right way can help you achieve more when it comes to changing practices or trying to take a different approach at work.

    Coaching is, to me, the hardest thing to do because you never know how the person you are coaching will react. And, knowing how to handle the situation with the right set of questions can help with the overall acceptance to the changes.

    Loved this article!

  3. BS says:

    Another common question that is not a question I hear from senior leaders during report out is, “Did you think about xyz when you were making the improvement?” These non-questions always result in negative feelings. It can also generate contempt for the leader considering most or all of the senior leaders in my former organization have never even participated in a team project.

    I’ve been to report out at other hospitals including ThedaCare and they definitely don’t do this. Questions are simply for learning and clarification.

    • Mark Graban
      Twitter:
      says:

      You’re right, BS. My advice to senior leaders, when they are doing rounding, gemba walks, visiting Kaizen boards, etc. is to BE POSITIVE.

      Their role is to thank people for participating and to recognize people, as to drive more participation and more improvement.

      Asking questions like “Why did’t you do this?” or “Did you also consider that?” might be OK in a mature “Lean culture” or “Kaizen culture” but that’s not usually the starting point.

      Leaders have to be very careful about not seeming like they are being critical… and this is mostly a function of their position. If they don’t have relationships with people and if they weren’t part of the team, they haven’t earned the right to question things…
      Mark Graban recently posted..Kaizen Coaching: Don’t Give People Answers, Let Them LearnMy Profile

  4. Excellent article, Mark. The question-asking skill is a core competency when it comes to coaching, which is itself a core element of lean leadership overall.

    To refine this question-asking skill is harder than it seems though. Anybody who has, like me, been assigned to coach without any real structure or technique to guide us has probably felt a little rudderless and at times downright panicky about which question to ask next and how to ask it. This leads to “defects” in the learning/coaching process.

    The turning point for me (although I’m very much a work-in-progress), came when I realized it’s “easier to act our way to new ways of thinking than think our way to new ways of acting” as the saying goes. I needed a pattern of coaching to practice so that I could “act” like I knew what I was doing in the short-term, so that I could actually acquire the mental dexterity needed for competent coaching in the long-term.

    For me, the coaching pattern that worked was the Coaching Kata (http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/The_Coaching_Kata.html). Within the Coaching Kata approach we use the 5 Questions, which is a series of open-ended questions that adhere to your tips for good question-asking. The 5 Questions provides a framework for additional question-asking…sort of the way the 12-bar blues provides a basis for musicians to riff off of in a million different ways. But regardless of how far the question-asking meanders, it always comes back to the 5 Questions to ensure a good, productive coaching cycle that keeps us moving forward with improvement.

    I think ThedaCare’s Stat Sheet process provides another great framework for coaching in general and question-asking specifically. That process, combined with a Kata-infused mindset, would be powerful indeed I predict.
    Michael Lombard recently posted..Healthcare Kata on YouTubeMy Profile

  5. Dale Savage says:

    I agree that coaching is situational and that we need to be careful when asking questions that aren’t really questions. I think that one way to avoid confusion or hurt feelings is to make sure that the individual realizes that you ARE coaching. It shouldn’t be done in a subversive manner. For instance, the question about the A3 above maybe should have followed the staement and then been, “How do you think we could re-state the background on that A3?” I find that when associates know that I am trying to help them come up with an answer for themselves that they don’t mind the questions as much.

  6. R says:

    Don’t you think that asking better questions is a valuable skill?

  7. Karen Skinner
    Twitter:
    says:

    I’m so glad to know that the socks on the floor picture was “staged”! In all seriousness, this is great advice that I will pass on to our clients. As you know, the lawyers we work with are quite used to asking leading questions…

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