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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Pst...I don’t know, but don't tell anybody.

by Tilo Schwarz | Tips for the Kata Coach | Episode 14

This article discusses deepening questions for the Coach to help the Improver clarify their thinking.

Recap of the last episode:

In the previous episode, Denise has used the Kata Cycle as a helpful reference for evaluating her Improvers response, especially for the expectation regarding an experiment.

(Read Episode 13 for details)


Episode #14

Jason recently joined the company as head of sales administration, and two months ago started practicing the Coaching Kata. He regularly discusses his experiences with Denise. Today Jason has come to Denise's office to explain some difficulties he encountered when using the coaching questions.

"I have been using the five questions of the Coaching Kata for quite a while now and feel quite comfortable with them," says Jason. "However, I have the impressions that the five questions are not enough." "What do you mean exactly?" Denise wants to know.

Jason continues. “Some time ago, you told me about the 5 phases of a coaching cycle, every question of the coaching kata opens a phase of the conversation and is like a quality gate. (see article 1). As a coach, we should only move on to the next phase if the 'gate question’ is answered precisely enough.

For example, sometimes, I have the feeling that the answers are imprecise or based on assumptions. I know that we should not immediately move on but investigate more deeply, but how do I address this as a coach? Often I then fall back on closed questions like, "Are you sure?" or "Is that really the case?". That is very, very suggestive and could even be understood as mistrust. Even just saying what I think we should do next would be better than that.

On the other hand, then I’m no longer coaching. It would be much better if I could continue coaching by asking a clarifying question. Then, of course, I would need more questions than just the five starter questions of the Coating Kata. "That's true," Denise picks up the thought. "If we can't answer a gate question as you call them, precisely, the coach should help the Improver to clarify for themselves. The coach can do this by asking open deepening questions," Denise continues.

Jason responses, "that's what I thought as well, and therefore, in situations like that, I have started to dig deeper by asking more questions. However, I tend to lose the thread of the conversation once we get into the details.“

Denise remembers that in the beginning she struggled with that as well and gives Jason the following advice: "When we start using deepening questions as a coach it is important to remember in which of the 5 phases of the coaching cycle we currently are. We should always use the five starter questions of the Coaching Kata because they are like milestones, the framework of a good coaching cycle. If we skip one or mix them, the conversation quickly becomes chaotic. That is how I came up with the "Rule of thumb." (see Episode 1)

Jason replies, "I know. Never the less I have the feeling I often spin in circles once I start using deepening questions and end up being suggestive. Wouldn’t it be good to have some reference for good deepening questions? I'm glad you’ve had the same experience. Maybe we could start a list of useful deepening questions. What do you think?“

"I'm in," Denise responds. She asks Jason to describe a suitable situation from his coaching cycles. Mark ponders and says, "often it already starts in phase 2 with the current condition described very generally. Something like, today the process is running a lot better already".

Pause for a moment and consider: How would you react as a coach now?

Denise starts laughing. She remembers some of her coaching cycles with her team-leaders Joe and Mark. "I know this problem. I now ask 'what does this mean in data’ in situations like this. That usually solves the case. In the beginning, we often reached the threshold of knowledge with this question and had to do more measurement as a next step. However, that's totally ok. Now we sometime have the problem that the data displayed for the current condition is not really up to date.”

Mark jumps in, "you could simply ask‚ what was the current condition yesterday, or even today." Denise replies, "that’s a cool idea. The shorter I choose the timeframe, the more my Improver has to come up with current data. I even could ask about the current condition on the last shift or even the last hour“. They pencil the question on the list opposite phase 2.

Tip for the coach: After your coaching cycle take a minute to reflect. Which deepening questions did you use today? Which where helpful? Use a question card with some empty space to take notes on helpful deepening questions .

Source: The Toyota Kata Practice Guide, Mike Rother, McGraw Hill 2018, Page 210

Then Jason continues by explaining another situation. "Our processes in sales administration are often not as easy to measure as your processes in production. Therefore sometimes data is estimated or extrapolated from a few single point measurements. Of course, that’s not what I want, because without good data we will soon end up with messy assumptions.

However, these situations are often hard to identify for me as a coach. Nobody likes to admit not having a clue when asked for data“. Jason starts laughing, “especially in sales, we know how to sell things impressively even if we don’t have all the details. However, when coaching, I often feel the urge to burst out ‚that’s an assumption' or ‚oh come on, that can't be true.' I truly have to bite my tongue then. Maybe I should discuss my feelings about these situations with my team“.

Denise ponders. "Well, that could be a good idea. Actually, we have this problem with missing data and facts quite often throughout the company. Just think of our project meetings when we get asked about some specific details regarding one of our projects. Would we actually openly admit that we don't have precise data about this aspect right now?"

Jason starts laughing again. "That might be quite a bit of fun, simply admitting ‚ I'm at the threshold of knowledge, I don't know '. Maybe we should give it a try next time".

Denise shakes her head. "I don't think that would be a good idea. Or at least that might be the last project we were asked to lead. Most of the time, we therefore try to give at least a vague answer that sounds good.“

Jason laughs even harder. "At my old company, we always called this AC-WAC. Act Confident Without A Clue. That seems to be an important skill for managers in many companies.“

Denise continues the thought. "But that's exactly the way of thinking and acting we enforce with people. In many companies it's not a good idea to simply answer ‚I don't know' when asked by your boss or in a meeting. If this way of thinking is established throughout the whole organization, it can have fatal consequences. The person asked has no clue but pretends to know and gives an off the cuff answer based on assumption or estimations. The one asking, assuming the person knows, takes a decision based on the answer, not knowing it's just an assumption.

By the way, that's one of the thinking patterns we try to change through coaching and practicing the Improvement Kata. From assumptions and opinions to getting current facts and data first-hand. Go and see first-hand and with your own eyes.“

Jason nods approvingly, and Denise continues. "I once heard Mike Rother giving a speech about behavior patterns at Toyota. He explained that Toyota asks people to immediately indicate if they don’t know something. Pretending to know without having a clue would be a cardinal sin. That's 180 degrees opposite to the behavior patterns in many western companies.

At Toyota, if you don’t know yet, that is totally ok. However, there is a consequence linked to it. You have to explain what your next step will be to find out. I think that's a fair deal. That's how we should do it as well.

To do so, we would probably have to practice how to handle our threshold of knowledge as we all feel uncomfortable with not having an answer. Therefore, whenever I realize that my Improver is reaching the Threshold of Knowledge, I jump to question 4 (next step) and add the following introduction. ‚Don’t worry if you don’t know yet. What is your next step to find out’?

Adding ‚to find out is also helpful for me as a coach to make sure the next step is concerned with investigating at the Threshold of Knowledge rather than jumping to an arbitrary action caused by our action bias.

Pause for a moment and consider: How can you identify your Improver is reaching the threshold of knowledge? Think of words and signs in body language that are often linked with the threshold of knowledge.

After this little detour on Toyota, Denise comes back to Jason's original question. "When you feel that the data presented is lacking proper backing or is based on too few measurements, you could stay calm and simply ask something like ‚How did you measure this data'. Maybe even add ‚let’s go and see'. Then it would be much easier to determine if the quality of the information is good enough.

Mark responds, "that's very good. I'll try that, and I'll also talk with my team about the Toyota story and discuss with them how we would like to handle our threshold of knowledge.

Sorry, the story has become quite long. Let's take a break and continue next week. That also means our reflection on the tricks Denise used in her coaching cycle in the last episode will have to wait. We’ll come back though. Keep your notes, and stay tuned.

Next week: Read about more deepening questions Denise and Jason add to their list.

If you like this post, forward it to a friend or colleague right now because they will appreciate getting helpful tips from you.

Some helpful deepening Questions for Phase 1 and 2:



For new readers: Every week, I share hands-on tips for coaching with the Coaching Kata. This episode is part of a series of articles about Denise, who has taken on her first management position as a department manager at PowerPump Inc. Denise intends to develop her team through coaching. Read Episode 1 to get into the story.

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