Becoming Lean Coaches in King County

Lean Leaders are Listeners

In a traditional organization, the leader is the top problem solver and tells people what to do; they’re the “boss.”

In a Lean organization, the role of the leader is to develop everyone else as a problem solver. The leader listens and asks questions that stimulate and guide the thought process and problem-solving ability of the people who do the work.

At a recent King County learning lunch, Lean Specialist Vicki Oyadomari facilitated a Lean coaching practice session for interested county employees, including frontline staff looking for tools that could be useful for “managing up” with leaders.

The group focused on two key aspects of Lean coaching:

Multi-tasking is a myth! The group paired off and each tried to listen to their colleague describe a problem while simultaneously counting to 30 in their own head. “It felt awful,” one person remarked.

That exercise mimics the impossibility we all face when we try to rush to our own solutions as we try to listen. It can’t be done.

Yet, as Oyadomari noted, “Often as leaders we attend to our own self-talk and chatter versus listening to the person speaking and trying to understand their thinking.”

Lean leaders are active listeners.

The value of open-ended questions. Closed questions (questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”) tend to confirm what we already think we know. Closed questions tend to be leading questions. Open-ended questions elicit what we don’t know.

Open-ended questions facilitate learning for both the coach and the person doing the work.

The person doing the work is led to think about the problem in ways that they might not have. The coach learns more about how the person doing the work has been thinking about the problem; about their strengths and weaknesses; and about how they can be further developed as a problem-solver. Both learn more about the problem.

Here are some of the open-ended questions that the group practiced asking and answering together:

  • What do you know about the problem?
  • What did you actually see or hear?
  • What do know know about why it is happening?
  • What makes you think that is the cause?
  • How will that countermeasure improve things?

Asking these questions, and really listening to the answers, helps the coach and the person doing the work identify when the thought process has jumped to a solution without root cause analysis or doesn’t show a strong understanding of the actual problem.

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