It’s Not About the First Question

Too Many Questions. Colourful question marks background

As a leader preparing to go to gemba or connecting with staff at huddle, the emphasis is often placed on crafting that perfect question. While having a good first question is important, I would like to suggest that it is not as important as what comes next.

Your reaction to the answer could overshadow the question and will impact what those you are coaching take away from it. 

Some common pitfalls are:

Expressing Disbelief

Let’s take for example that you are exchanging information with a front-line staff member in the work.  You have carefully prepared your initial question, wanting it to be open ended, inquisitive but not leading.  You ask, “What is your most significant safety concern?”

Your staff member will provide you an answer. While your question was crafted to help them think proactively, what comes next will influence them more. Let’s take the scenario where as a leader you express disbelief or shock.  This response may be verbal comments such as “‘THAT’s’ telling,” or “How could we let this happen?”.  Or you may express disbelief with a non-verbal response like, rolling your eyes or throwing a look to someone else present.  You may even have nonverbals that you are unaware of that your staff is dialed into.  You may have no clue that you rub your forehead when frustrated but your staff may quickly identify this behavior as a signal to go another direction.

These responses will indicate to staff that maybe the climate is not safe for them to raise issues.  This may signal to them to temper their responses and may cause them to be hesitant going forward.

Impatience or High Expectations

Now let’s look at another common reaction, “isn’t it fixed yet?”.  Sometimes your follow up question may sound something like “how did you address that” or “show me what you did,” implying it should already be handled. Some issues, especially safety ones, require a sense of urgency, but it is important you’re your follow up questions doesn't send the message that these issues shouldn’t be raised until they're resolved. This limits your ability to remove barriers and support the staff.  This can also eliminate the opportunity for you to coach your staff member through root cause analysis or PDSA thinking.

Suggestive Questions

Your reaction or impatience can often lead you down a road of suggestive questions or the “did you try this?” approach.  Especially as you transition from ‘manager’ with the answers to ‘leader as coach’, you may have staff looking to you for direction.  Like any new behavior or habit that we try developing, we find under stress that we quickly revert to our old patterns.  Be patient with yourself but recognize your need to improve.

If you tend to follow up with these types of responses, consider spending more time on your responses than initial questions.  When you feel disbelief that this is going on, what could your verbal and non-verbal reaction be?  What could you say to staff regarding what you have just heard?  Sometimes our non-verbals are faster than our ability to think of a response.  How do you address that in the moment?  At a minimum, consider thanking them for sharing this information.  If you are more of ‘get it done now’ person, what next question could you ask?  How can you better understand the problem and how they are seeing it?  What opportunities do you see for advancing their PDSA thinking?  If you find yourself wanting to help them by making suggestions on what they should do, what question could you ask to better understand their thinking?  Sometimes our desire to help is very strong so you may need to reframe the way you look at ‘helping’ them.  Rather than suggesting answers, help them develop the skills to independently problem solve.

Regardless of what scenario you find yourself in the next time you go to gemba, remember the most important question may not be the first one.

Please share any thoughts you have on how to be a better coach in the gemba.

Theresa Moore



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