#KaizenLive: Asking, Not Telling… Not Just About Solutions, But About Problems

IMG_2970Wow, we had a great time at Franciscan St. Francis Health this week. We had the “Kaizen Live!” class and workshop Monday through Wednesday. Yesterday, I got to spend the day with Joe Swartz and his “Franciscan Transformation” team from across the system.

There are so many great lessons to share from the time there.

One that I’ll share here is the idea of “asking versus telling.”

It’s becoming more common knowledge in the Lean community that leaders (or Lean coaches) should avoid giving people answers. Instead of telling people how to solve problems (as if we really know), we need to instead ask the people who do the work to:

  1. Brainstorm countermeasures or improvements
  2. Test possible improvements
  3. Evaluate things to see if it’s really better

The role of a leader is to help. To coach. To facilitate.

As John Shook from LEI says, giving somebody else answers “robs them” of the chance to learn, develop, and grow.

So, we have leaders who are getting better about asking employees for ideas, instead of telling them how to fix things.

But, we still have the issue of deciding WHAT to fix.

Too many leaders still try to tell people what problems to solve in a top-down, almost dictatorial way. I’ll tell you what to fix and you tell me how to fix it. That’s better than the manager dictating everything.

But, when we tell people what to fix, maybe we rob them of their ability to figure out what needs fixing or improving. Are we stifling their development somewhat?

One common theme at Franciscan, through Kaizen and other Lean efforts, is the time spent asking employees what needs to be fixed. That taps into intrinsic motivation. That, along with time spent building relationships (another key theme at Franciscan), means that improvement probably goes more slowly at first… but then it actually moves along better… and improvements are more sustainable.

When I’ve asked client teams, “What do we need to fix?”, the answers the front line employees come up with tend to be very close to what management would have come up with anyway. Sure, management has a role in setting direction and goals… communication the mission, vision, values, and goals of the organization. But, the discussion is better when it’s more collaborative instead of just top-down. It requires two-way communication.

This is an old lesson from Masaaki Imai… the idea of starting to engage employees by letting them work on what they want to work on, saying “yes” to ideas as often as you can (or working together to find an alternative that works). Then, over time, you can teach better problem solving skills AND work on getting better alignment to organizational goals.

If you start with engagement and participation, alignment can follow. If you try to force alignment too much at the start, you might not get engagement and participation.

Again, the key questions are:

  • What do we need to fix?
  • How do you think we could fix it?

Those are very important question…. asking, not telling. And it means asking honest questions, not manipulating employees to do what you want.

This was also a key theme that I saw when I visited Cleveland Clinic back in December… and I still need to write about that.

What do you see happening in your organization? In your own work?


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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.

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