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
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. 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.

    • Hi George-

      Thanks for your comment. We all have missteps along the way… the thing we wish we hadn’t said, etc. As long as we’re reflecting and getting better, I’m not sure else more we can do.


      • Thanks for the reply Mark. You’re correct that reflecting is critical for learning and getting better. I try to point out my missteps so others can possibly learn from them…I don’t waste time beating myself up over them and don’t beat others up for theirs either.

  2. 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!

    • Thanks, Mariana.

      I think a lot of coaching is very situational. We have to know the individuals we are working with. One person might love debating ideas back and forth and loves being challenged. Others are very sensitive or they’re not very confident in their abilities yet, so we have to be more cautious and understanding of that.

  3. 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.

    • 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…

  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 ( 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,

      Very good point. The Kata method is very helpful in coaching improvements which provides a structure for improvements overall. However, it does take some training (for both the coach and the one being coached) in how to use the method effectively. Once you have it down, you can definitely avoid questions that aren’t really questions.

    • Michael,
      I am working my through this now and wonder if you have some thoughts on how you started to learn and incorporate the Improvement and Coaching Kata? Ideally we’d learn with the guidance of a coach, but I’m the only person in my organization trying to adopt this method at this point (I hope to change that as we progress). Did you learn through self-study?

      • George,

        At our company we had a short workshop on the Kata method through a network of which we are a member, but mainly we have worked through it on our own. There is a lot of information on the internet about the Kata Method which include free materials. Mike Rother has also done some video interviews that are probably available on YouTube. So, if you can get a couple of other key members of your organization on board, you should be able to learn and implement through self-study. This also helps to avoid the cookie cutter approach so you can taylor it to your organization’s needs.

      • Hi George, I was in the same exact situation as you when I began practicing the IK/CK two years ago. No coach/sensei/external expertise. I just took a step forward, somewhat blindly, but with the mindset that it was an experiment. I would perform a bunch of coaching cycles with several learners, stop and reflect on my coaching technique, then try to incorporate my learning into the next batch of coaching cycles. Basically, it’s PDCA for coaching. After about 350-400 cycles, things started to make a little sense.

        I’d be more than glad to chat on the phone if you want to email me at to set up an appointment. Also, please check out my video on YouTube where I share my top 10 lessons learned during my initial coaching cycles:

  5. 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.

    • Yeah, I think it’s important to set an expectation up front that says “I’m here to coach and not to give you answers.”

      And making sure you have permission to coach somebody is important. They have to want to be coached.

  6. 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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