How to Ask Effective Questions

Highlights from the Netherlands with Isao Yoshino

A month ago I had fabulous opportunity to go back to the Netherlands for two different events, along Isao Yoshino – my friend, mentor, and now partner in book writing (!) – and now learning trips to Japan (join us in May 2019!)

It was a intense and fun week of teaching, presenting, learning, and connecting with colleagues from Europe and other parts of the world.

I enjoyed teaching two workshops (for the European Lean Healthcare Summit and HAN University), and keynoting the HAN IMPACT conference.

But the highlight of the week, that I want to share with you in this post, were the learning sessions that Isao Yoshino and I co-led at the European Lean Healthcare Summit on what we believe is the fundamental skill for leaders to develop a learning organization – asking questions.

Even if you didn’t attend the European Lean Healthcare Summit 2018, you can click here to get a copy of the handout we created on Isao Yoshino’s tips for “How to Ask Effective Questions”.

Thank you to excellent hosts

I want to thank Catalysis and HAN University for hosting us and for convening such great forums for learning.

I also want to thank my Dutch colleagues – and now friends – who opened their homes to me for meals and shared special Dutch experiences with me: Jannes Slomp for not only inviting me back to HAN University and hosting us with such generosity, Peter Kabel for taking me on a biking excursion around the streets of Amsterdam and lunch in his home, and Jeroen de Groot for taking me on an excursion to the Windmills outside of Amsterdam and dinner with his family.

Now back to the learning session on asking questions!

Asking Effective Questions: The fundamental skill to develop a problem-solving culture

For the past four years since Isao Yoshino and I met, questions have been central to our relationship. In an email after the first day spent together in Tokyo City and Nagoya in 2015, Mr. Yoshino told me that I myself have learned many things from the questions you asked. Coming from this Toyota leader, I couldn’t have been more honored.

Questions continue to be the foundation of our relationship, and particularly the past six months as I have been interviewing him to prepare for the leadership book we are co-writing (see end of this post for more information).

Experience and practice aligned with theory

Mr. Yoshino has often remarked to me that he never was formally taught the theory around asking questions. Rather, it was just part of what good leaders did.

Most of you who have followed my blog or had a chance to hear Isao Yoshino speak, know that he was John Shook’s first senior manager at Toyota, and was one of the models for the “Sanderson” character in Shook’s book about A3 thinking, Managing to Learn. Mr. Yoshino is the epitome of a leader who is passionate about developing people and who leads by asking effective coaching questions.

Mr. Yoshino has found it interesting to learn more of the theories and research about coaching and questions asking that I’ve shared with him directly and by participating in some of  the workshops that I’ve led at recent conferences. The theories and research supports what he knows is true through personal practice.

We melded our experiences for the learning session.

Overview of the session

After an intro of our relationship and the context of why asking questions is important, we moved into a facilitated Q&A session where I asked Mr. Yoshino to share his experiences at Toyota of how he learned the importance of asking questions, and how he has demonstrated this approach in his own leadership.

I then built on Mr. Yoshino’s experiences by sharing a framework for different types of questions, followed by learning experience for participants to practice asking questions. It was a packed 75 minutes!

Read on to get more details of the session, and click here to download the handout to get all of Mr. Yoshino’s tips on “How to ask effective questions”.

Asking vs. Telling

We opened the session with the question: what is your more common habit – telling or asking?

As humans, we more often than not tell others our ideas and offer advice than ask questions, often with the intention of being helpful. But research from Edgar Schein (author of Helping, Humble Inquiry, among other books) and many others has shown that asking questions is the most effective way to help someone and not take ownership away from solving the problem.

Of course, there are times when telling is important and appropriate, but our habit is to show up in telling mode, when often showing up in an inquisitive mode would be more helpful. It all depends on our intention and what the learner needs in that moment.

We have an imbalance in our habits – and we need to practice how to ask more effective questions.

If we want to develop people’s capabilities for problem solving –  we are more effective when we support them in thinking through their issue at hand by asking effective questions, rather than showing up by making suggestions or telling them what we think is the right answer.

You can hear more about this topic in my 10-minute talk from the Lean Summit: “Getting Out of the Habit of Telling”.

Some stories and insights from Mr. Yoshino

Photo credit: Stephanie van Vreede

For the first part of the learning session, we used a Q&A style format, where Mr. Yoshino shared his experiences and insights about the importance of asking questions as a leader. The stories varied a bit by each session, but the key take-aways were all the same.

Why questions are important

When asked why asking questions is so important to ask as a leader, Mr. Yoshino said:

People can learn the knack of solving problems from actually contemplating the best approach in their own mind and practicing it by themselves.  

Mr. Yoshino’s comments align with what Schein and others have found:

 “Asking questions is more important than telling the person your idea. When you ask a question, you get the person to tell you what they are thinking in their own words.

Everybody has different way of thinking and different way of approach to problems. Also the situation of the problem could not be exactly the same. If, by luck, the boss’s idea worked fine, the person would be happy to see his/her problem solved. But it has a potential problem – it won’t help him/her feel like they have accomplished the task. They only borrowed an idea from you and applied it and it worked.

Pushing them too much to exactly follow your advice, it would take away a chance for them to come up with their own idea. You have to give enough room and capacity for them to analyze the problem and the solution.

Match your style to the learner

In our sessions, Mr. Yoshino talked about his mentor Mr. Sugiura, who was his best boss at Toyota. You can read more about what Mr. Yoshino learned from Mr. Suguira in my earlier post “Toyota Leadership Lessons: Part 9 – Learning the Importance of Asking Questions

In our prep for the Summit, Mr. Yoshino elaborated an important approach for asking that he learned from Mr. Sugiura during the “Kan-Pro” program in the late 1970s, and he shared a version of this during the learning sessions:

One of the lessons I learned from Sugiura-san is that you need to adjust your pace to that of the people, not to expect other people to adjust their pace to yours. Your major role as a questioner is to make people happy to open up.

When we talked to executives who were confident about themselves and eloquent in their talk, Mr. Sugiura would try to ask more straightforward questions. Those people, particularly engineers, don’t hesitate to speak up, and we didn’t have to push much –  just keep the momentum. Mr. Sugiura tried to ask questions which he believed those executives wanted to talk about. He asked questions in a brisk pace and the executives responded in a brisk pace too. Sugiura-san would dig down into more details and keeps listening to them. Everybody feels happy if someone asks topics that person wants to talk about.

On the other hand, when we ran into very quiet and reserved executives, which is not uncommon at Toyota, Sugiura-san would adopt a different approach. He would start with a general question & small talk to open their hearts. He didn’t proceed too hastily, particularly when he didn’t know much about the other person’s personality and way of thinking. He would follows the executives’ own slower pace. It’s simple, but it works.

Get more tips from Mr. Yoshino

If you want more tips from Mr. Yoshino on what he has learned about How to Ask Effective Questions, you can get a copy of the handout we created for the summit by clicking here .

These and other stories will be included in our book! In the meantime, you can check out more stories shared in past blog posts.

A framework for asking questions

In the second half of the session, I presented a framework for asking questions that I share in nearly any workshop or learning session, as developing the habit of asking more effective questions is so foundational to good leadership and coaching.

Not all questions are created equal!

There are many questions that we can ask in support of problem solving, but they differ in the intention and outcome of problem solving ownership. I like to use the categories of questions developed by Edgar Schein, that I learned from my own coach and friend Margie Hagene, when thinking about the helpfulness of different types of questions.

Humble inquiry

Schein says that most effective questions are those of pure humble inquiry – questions for which you don’t have the answer. Humble inquiry questions keep the problem solving thinking with the problem owner, not the person asking the question.

These are most typically are WHAT and HOW questions.

Diagnostic inquiry

Other effective questions that can be asked, once the problem is clearly defined, are diagnostic questions. Diagnostic questions help the problem solver discover cause and effect, more clearly define the root causes for the gap between the way things should be happening and the way they are happening today, and make a link between proposed countermeasures and the problem.

However, beware of asking non-causal “Why” questions, such as “Why did you think that?”, as they are questions of judgement.

Warning: prompting and leading inquiry

Beware of asking prompting or leading questions!

Prompting questions are just like a wolf dressed up in a sheep’s clothing, these “questions” are not really questions – they are your idea dressed up as a question.

Pay attention to how often you ask closed ended or leading questions!

Process inquiry

Good questions to ask during problem solving coaching are not related to the problem at hand, but to the problem solving process or relationship.

Process questions could include asking: “What next steps will you take?”, or getting feedback on the helpfulness of the coaching session: “What question was most helpful to you to advance your thinking?”.

Practice – the best way for adults to learn

With that framework in mind, participants practiced asking questions to each other and receiving feedback.

The group broke into trios – problem owner, question asker (1st coach), and observer (2nd coach) – with everyone having a chance to experience each of the three roles over three cycles of practice.

Using these three roles is simple process that you can follow in practice a practice scenario like this – or even when you are in “the gemba” where your work is done.

As a coach in the workplace, you can record verbatim what someone says at a huddle board or in a meeting, and provide this as evidence of their practice. Or ask someone to do this for you if you are wanting to improve your coaching habits. Immediate feedback is powerful!

More resources on asking questions

To learn some of the strategies I recommend for practicing asking better questions check out post I wrote and the 10-minute talk I gave earlier this year at the Lean Summit:

Also check out some of these past blog posts:

Just a taste of more to come – now time to write this book

It was a great experience to partner with Mr. Yoshino in this style of session, and it was a good experiment for us to run for the format of combining both of our experiences and insights together to make a shared learning experience. This is our vision for the book we are writing!

Upon returning from the Summit, I finally started the actual writing process for the book that Mr. Yoshino and I are writing together. I bought a few larger darumas a few years ago when I made a pilgrimage to the daruma temple in the Japanese town of Takesaki and have been saving this mid-size daruma for an important goal. Writing this book with Mr. Yoshino is it!

You may find that I write fewer blog posts over the next 6 months while I focus on the book writing. My goal is to keep up with one a month (which has been the trend lately due to book prep!). I’m excited to be working on this venture together – and look forward to sharing it with you next year.

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