Ask without telling, the art of asking questions

To make good questions and help your team to develop their problem-solving skills, you need to know how to ask without telling.

One thing that everybody does every day is asking questions.  We ask questions to learn, clarify doubts, or obtain information.  As a leader, you ask questions to learn about a situation.  Also, you make questions to guide your team on their learning process.  However, are you asking or disguising your solutions as questions?  To promote a learning environment, leaders need to ask without telling.

Sometimes a leader needs to tell

Leaders have the responsibility to communicate, set direction, and provide a purpose.  To accomplish them, they tell information and share news or concerns with their team.  Moreover, there are times when they need to set direction.  Sometimes, there is a need to change a strategy or adjust a plan.  When that happens, the leader tells the group what the change is and why it is needed.  Also, how it will affect them and the new expectations.  During these situations, telling is the right thing to do.

Another responsibility of leadership is to teach and coach their team.   The objective is to transfer knowledge and create capabilities.  While facilitating the learning process, leaders tell new information.

Finally, sometimes leaders need to advise people.  It is common to share previous experiences or tell a story to illustrate a point.  If that is the case, say what you are trying to do, do not hide it behind questions.  The best leaders are humble and compassionate.  There is nothing wrong with showing your humanity by using past experiences to illustrate a point.

Why do you need to ask without telling?

A servant leader’s job is to develop more leaders by teaching, motivating, facilitating, and supporting the team.  By asking questions without telling, they promote learning.  Also, their team’s confidence in their ability to solve problems and create more value grows.  As their confidence grows, their participation in the improvement process grows as well. 

A critical step to change the culture is to empower the people.  While asking questions with respect, leaders guide them to find answers by themselves.  By allowing people to use their brains and participate in the daily management processes and innovation, they feel more engaged with their work and happier when they come back home.  

How can you ask without telling?  How to ask better questions?

When you ask questions that people can answer with a simple yes or no, they don’t put too much effort. Closed questions do not lead to engagement or promote thinking.  When you don’t receive answers, the next thing you do is telling people what to do.  On the other hand, with open questions, people need to think.  Use the 5W and 1H to ask questions.  That is, reframe your questions using who, what, where, when, why, and how.

To keep the brain’s wheels turning, ask one question at a time and give people time to think.  In general, we are not comfortable with silence.  Therefore, right after asking something, people jump to tell their answer.  To be successful in asking without telling, you will need to become comfortable with silence.

Sometimes it is easier to ask closed questions.  Therefore, you would need to stop and think about how to reframe it as an open question.  There are two questions that I used often.  The first one is, what makes you think that way? or ” What do you think we can do differently?”  The second question I often used is, “How do you think we can accomplish that? 

Ask without telling that is what we should do.

Contrary to common perception, leaders are not supposed to have all the answers.  However, very often, they have ideas or solutions to share with the team.  During those times, tell the group that you want to share something with them.  You can always tell people, here is a suggestion and then ask how they can improve it.  Do not hide answers using questions.  Let people think, promote learning and problem-solving skills.

By telling, leadership is not fulfilling their responsibility of teaching and coaching.  Once again, this is a stop-and-think situation.  Think about your idea, do you have any doubts about it?  What parts of it need fine-tuning?  Use your doubts or unknown parts to ask open questions.

A continuous improvement culture seeks to foster a learning environment.  Servant leaders teach, motivate, facilitate, and support their teams.  Show them that you care by helping them to develop their skills and grow.  Learning how to ask questions without telling is a way to achieve that.

Gemba Walk, What does it mean?

Take a gemba walk, go see, ask why, show respect.

Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho’s words, “Go see, ask why, show respect,” are famous. They are like a creed for lean practitioners around the world. Gemba is the place where value is created, where the work is done. Go to gemba is one of the core principles of continuous improvement. Cho’s words are a summary of what going to gemba is. What do those words mean? What is a gemba walk?

Go See, take a gemba walk

The purpose of the gemba walk is to understand the work and grasp the current situation. Some people know them as observation walks. A process has three versions, what should happen, what we think happens, and what happens. Certainly, you will get an understanding of what is happening by observing everything within the area. In other words, you go to gemba to observe the people, equipment or machine performance, and the work environment. If you notice any gaps or problems, focus your attention on one at a time.

Go see these things

These are the things you need to see for yourself.

  • What people do, are they following the standards?
  • How people spend their time, how is the work environment?
  • How people move around the work area
  • The workflow, how the product or information flows through.
  • Where the flow stops?  Watch for interruptions and delays.
  • Handoffs between workstations, how the materials, ingredients or information arrives and leaves the station.  

Remember that you are there to understand the situation, not to judge.  All gemba walkers are there to practice observation and active listening.  Focus on the system, quality, cost, and morale.  Look for improvement opportunities. Practice respect while asking questions, let the team shine.

During a gemba walk, ask what?

Even though Cho’s phrase says, ask why, the first question is what, not why.  What is the purpose of this process, what it intends to achieve?  Only ask why type questions, which are to diagnose, after you understand the process and the current situation.  Ask why there is a gap to the standard, why delays happened, why does rework occur, and others.  Listen to the answers to understand the point of view of the people who do the work, keep learning from them.  The conversation will lead you to a point where you can ask what if.  At this time, you can ask for their ideas, what if you change the method?  

Gemba Walks are a powerful tool to promote the continuous improvement culture or a fast way to kill it!  In a blame-free culture, your associates will be honest, talk freely about their concerns, and share their ideas without problems.  The way you, and your leadership team reacts to comments and concerns, and how diligently you are to facilitate their work and solve their problems will determine how successful these walks are.  As a system, gemba walks supports the scientific method (PDCA) because it is based on actual observation.