Why Do You Ask?

This question is typically posed in response to a question that is deemed a bit nosey. It’s actually more of a statement. Along the lines of, “Mind you own business!” But, for the purpose of this post, it really is a question - one of, and for, the lean leader’s self-reflection. What truly is the purpose of the questions that we ask? Granted that we must always consider the particular situation, the intent of our questions says a lot about our own lean leadership effectiveness.

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Do we ask questions targeted primarily to extract information from others so that WE can solve the problem for them (maybe despite them)? Or, do we ask questions to develop the critical thinking of others so that they can develop their own problem-solving muscle and so that they can learn how to mentor others in a similar way? In short, the role of the lean leader is to teach and learn. NOT to fix. I know, I know, this is crazy talk. …Especially when we have historically and routinely been rewarded for being someone who quickly fixes problems single-handedly. All hail the superhero! What the heck is it with Toyota and that notion of building people before cars?!? Looks like we'll need a double-dose of patience, humility, and help in questioning strategies and techniques. So, when is the “extraction method” OK? I’m guessing there are a couple acceptable scenarios where leader as fixer is appropriate (see below). However, the rest of the time, it should be leader as teacher.

  • Life or death situations, and/or when time is really short. The mentor asking the mentee, “What do you think we should do to disarm this soon to detonate explosive device?” probably isn’t going to work out too well.
  • Subject matter expert dealing with a non-expert in an area where deep mentorship is not pragmatic or important. For example, it’s OK for the doctor to ask closed or leading questions after the initial open-ended question of “How do you feel?” The doctor is trying to quickly discern the situation and help the patient heal. The doctor/patient relationship is usually not about the physician teaching the patient to self-diagnose and treat.

In order to develop problem-solvers, we need to help our mentees identify and acknowledge the problem and ultimately, solve the problem. This requires the mentee to think, to engage, and to take ownership.  The extract and tell method that is often employed by leaders doesn’t do any of that well.

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What kind of questions help folks to identify and acknowledge problems?

  • What did you observe?
  • What is/was supposed to happen?
  • What is actually happening/happened?
  • How do you feel about that?

In order to provide good coaching, the lean leader needs to understand how the mentee is thinking, why they’re thinking it, and what they know/think they know and don’t know. Some simple, open-ended questions:

  • What are you thinking?
  • Why do you think that?
  • What makes you say that?
  • How do you know?

Finally, the mentor must help the learner through the PDCA process without doing the telling and without taking ownership themselves. This includes prompting the mentee to identify and articulate the problem to be solved, discover the root causes, formulate potential countermeasures, converge on and experiment with the countermeasure(s), reflect (a.k.a. check) and adjust. Here are some example questions (in addition to the relevant ones listed above):

  • When/where is the problem happening?
  • When/where is the problem not happening?
  • What do you think is causing the problem?
  • How do you know those are the causes?
  • How can you address those causes?
  • Did the countermeasures work as planned?
  • How do you know the countermeasures were effective?
  • What’s your plan?

One thing that I’m sure you have noted is that the example questions are all open-ended in nature. That’s because closed questions (typically limiting a person to a yes or no answer) and leading questions (i.e., “When are going to get the police report?” versus “What further information do you need to close this claim?”) do little to foster critical thinking and ownership. Open-ended questions also demonstrate the leader’s respect for the mentee’s ability to think. That’s important. So, ask away with good intent…and listen. Related posts: Lean Listening, 12 Narrow Lean Gates, 6 Leadership Habits for Effective Tiered Meetings

There are 6 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the comment. Excellent real-world point about leadership!

So often we look purely at the technical expertise of folks when considering them for promotion and neglect their lean leadership behaviors (or lack thereof). The "technologists" who do not effectively apply lean leadership behaviors typically default to the role of fixer, which does little for the development of their people.

Best regards,

Chris Longstaff's picture

A good way to get leaders to develop this skill (or identify bad leaders) is to put them into a process they know nothing about. I recently was put in charge of an extremely complex process I literally had no knowledge of. When I am presented with a problem, I have no choice but to ask questions like: "Explain why you think that?" and "What do you recommend to fix it?." Bad leaders will fall on their swords in this situation, because they simply don't have the knowledge to be a fixer.

Dale Savage's picture

Another situation with questions that also needs to be guarded against is asking questions only until we get the answer we want. This type of manipulation can be done without being overly suggestive in how the question is asked. At the moment, the associates will feel like the idea is theirs, but ownership will be lost in the long run as associates realize they were manipulated through the questioning.

Also, it is important to continue asking questions even if the associate's answer is correct. That allows them to think deeper and to understand the "Whys" behind their answer not just the "Whats". However, if a leader is known to be manipulative in their questioning as above, they will become suspicious of the questions and the learning opportunities are lost.

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.

Your points are outstanding and are reflective of real-life experience! Lean leaders should take note of what you have shared. I know I have.

Similar to the phenomena of (not) giving up prematurely on the 5 whys, we need to have the stamina to follow through on our open-ended questions with those whom we are mentoring. It's about both getting to effective problem-solving AND developing people.

Best regards,

Christian Paulsen's picture


Another great post. It's quite a challenge to be the teacher and always tempting to jump in to be the hero. I can be even harder to not take control while teaching the PDCA process.

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment and the kind words!

It is very hard to be patient after being conditioned to "fix" things quickly and then move on. It's even hard teaching PDCA in a workshop environment with breakout session time constraints!

Best regards,