I was pretty proud of myself. It didn’t matter what question a team member came to me with – I could almost always reply with an eloquent answer on the fly. It was like magic, and I thought I was fantastic!

Boy, was I wrong. (Keep reading to find out how)

Problem Solvers in Traditional Management

In traditional organizations, problem solving is often limited to support groups at the corporate office or the engineers or the managers in a plant.

In fact, many of us were promoted into management or through the ranks of management because we were good at two things: (1) executing our current job and (2) solving problems (figuring it out, getting it done, overcoming obstacles, making it happen – all variations of “solving problems” in the traditional management sense).

We may actually see (or just think we see) the answers a little easier than others. We have experience and so sometimes we “just know.” And we have a bias for action.

So, we – the managers of the operation – are often the traditional problem solvers.

Who Solves Problems in Lean

With Lean, though, problems are meant to be solved within the context of the process. If a problem is at the line processes – then it should be solved at the line. Not by the plant manager who is removed from the process (though managers do need to play the role of teacher, coach, and mentor).

Managers still solve problems – but instead of solving line process problems, they should solve problems that occur in their work processes (including leading culture, developing people, cross-functional collaboration problems, etc.).

As Lean practitioners, we are focused on working together to create more value.

More people solving more problems creates more value. Therefore, one responsibility as Lean leaders is to develop the problem-solving capabilities of team members throughout the organization.

That means that effective Lean leaders don’t jump in and solve all of the problems. Instead they teach and coach the problem-solving capabilities of the team so problems are solved at the right steps.

But, there’s a problem.Transition to Problem Solving Coach so Problems are Solved at the Right StepsIf you’ve ever been used to being the problem solver and you start to shift how you lead to allow other people to make decisions, you know how hard of a shift this is to make.

We are often so used to jumping in to be the problem solvers and the answer-givers that even when we are practicing Lean those old habits still show up.

But shifting to solve problems at the right step is a necessary shift to transform from traditional management to effective leadership.

How My Answers Were Wrong

Years ago, I attended a workshop and we did a question-asking exercise. And in that moment, I realized just how hard it was for me to keep my mouth shut, not give the answer, and instead simply ask good, open-ended questions that didn’t lead the team member where I wanted to go.

You see, even when I was technically asking a question, I was actually influencing the other person’s mental process. I was perhaps telling in a form of a question. Or maybe more subtly I was leading the team member to a focus.

Asking “have you thought about trying X” is often received as telling “you should do x”.

And to cap it off, I was making assumptions in the process – thinking that I “knew” based off my previous experience rather than recognizing that I didn’t actually know the answer in this situation.

In the book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein describes what he calls humble inquiry as “the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Ahhh – curiosity and interest. The secret sauce.

8 Tips to Become a Problem Solving Coach

Transitioning from problem solver to problem solving coach isn’t easy. Here are some tips to help you out.

1. Believe that you can learn from team members

That’s right. You don’t have all the answers. And as long as you believe you do, you’re going to have a hard time stepping back and coaching problem solving. If you’re not there yet, try out tip #4 to open yourself up to the possibility.

2. Tell your team how you are trying to change

Be honest, transparent and vulnerable. Let your team know that you are trying to change. You want to stop jumping in and dictating answers and instead help coach problem solving. Tell them you know you’re going to fail at it as you have some old habits to break, but that you’re asking for their help along the way.

3. Ask yourself – in what process is the problem occurring?

To help slow yourself down and solve problems at the right steps, deliberately ask yourself “in what process is the problem occurring?” This will give you the context to know which team members you need to partner with and coach through the problem-solving process.

4. Be curious

I think curiosity is the least-talked about component of effective leadership. Put yourself in a place of curiosity. Make “I wonder” one of your most-used phrases. I wonder what I can learn here. I wonder what ideas team members have. I wonder what the true root cause is. I wonder what factors I haven’t considered. I wonder what possible countermeasures the team will come up with that I never would.

5. Prepare Good Question samples in advance

Early on, this transition from problem solver to problem solving coach is really, really hard. Your old habits are going to keep showing up. Get a leg up by writing out some sample Good Questions (open-ended, curious, non-leading questions) in advance. You can also use statements like “tell me more.” This isn’t a script you have to follow, but having these prepared and available (potentially even kept in your pocket for quick reference) can help you extinguish old habits to make room for new coaching habits.

6. Start with “What do you think?”

Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. So prepare yourself to start a problem coaching discussion with “What do you think?” This is also a great question to have ready every time a team member comes to you and asks what they should do!

7. Bite your tongue

I know – easier said than done. What can you do to keep your jumping-in reflexes at bay and give yourself time to consider those good question samples you just developed? Not sure? Try counting to 3 before asking your next question. There may be a little awkward silence at first – but since you already told your team what you’re up to, they will understand. And sometimes, that silence gives the team member an opportunity to fill it with their own additional thoughts!

8. Reflect and adjust

That’s right. We need to apply PDSA to our own leadership. After you practice coaching, stop and reflect on what you expected to happen, what actually happened, and what you learned. Write down how you want to adjust and then practice this adjustment. In the next coaching

Solving problems at the right steps is a necessary shift to transform from traditional management to effective leadership. And that means transitioning from the primary problem solver to a problem solving coach.

Take Action to Transform to Effective Lean Leadership

Try it out. Spend a week deliberately stopping yourself from giving the answer. . . Including in seemingly innocent ways like “Have you thought about trying ABC”. Even in these softly couched phrases, we are still giving the answers.

Try it for a week. Ask yourself, “Was that a good question?” Did you come from a place of curiosity and interest?

I bet it’s more difficult than you expect!

Be sure to share your tips and good practices in the comments so we can learn from each other.

Did you miss the previous four Lean leadership shifts? Check them out here:

And don’t forget to download a FREE PDF to assess and track your improvement in fifteen Process + Results Lean Leadership areas!

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