A customer recently contacted me to let me know that business conditions had changed and he would be unable to put his Gemba Academy subscription to use. He was consumed with several business problems to solve at once and was working to find his way through a field of obstacles. We arranged a phone call so I could better understand how I might be able to help.
The customer, we’ll call Joe, listed the issues he was dealing with and it was clear to me he was firefighting with a short supply of water. He sounded a little down and seemed as though he might be close to moving into survival mode. This worried me a bit because we don’t perform at our best when we are trying to just survive. While we can’t always choose our circumstances, we can choose how we respond. Responding well to an overload of problems can be a matter of process.
Asking The Right Questions
I was well aware of the fact that I could do nothing to solve Joe’s problems for him. I could, however, play a role in helping him discover his path through his obstacles so he could solve his own problems. After Joe explained his situation I started asking questions.
“Joe, take a moment to think about the direction of your organization. Where is the company headed?” Joe was able to tell me right away. This was very helpful. Many people don’t know the answer this question.
“Where do you want to be a year or so from now–what does the situation look like then?” Joe thought about it for a moment and he described what he was trying to achieve.
“We’ve talked about the details of your current situation, so tell me, what obstacles are keeping you from reaching your goal.” After some reflection, Joe said “Me!” He had realized that his thinking and actions weren’t helping him reach his goal. He then listed other obstacles that were getting in the way as well.
“Joe, which one of those obstacles do you want to address now?” Joe thought out loud for a few minutes before narrowing down his choices to what he concluded was the best option to help him move forward.
I said, “Great! What’s your next step?”
Without hesitation, he said “I’m going to. . .” Then, I asked “What do you expect from taking that step? I could hear the confidence building in his voice as he told me his expecatations. He sounded more enthusiastic.
My next question was “When can we meet again to talk about what you’ve learned from taking that step?” Joe started reading his calendar and picked a time about a week later. That was the moment we started regular coaching sessions.
The questions I asked Joe were rephrased from questions I was reading from a University of Michigan Toyota Kata coaching card. I wanted to the questions to seem a little more conversational to keep the discussion relaxed. These questions, as you may already know, were developed and refined by Toyota and shared with the world by Mike Rother through his book Toyota Kata. (See update below for corrections to this statement)
I needed Joe to align his actions with the direction or vision of the company and also to understand the challenge he was working to meet. Once these were on his mind, we could begin the coaching kata. Here are the actual questions from the card:
- What is the Target Condition?
- What is the Actual Condition now?
- What Obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?
- What is your Next Step? (next experiment) What do you Expect?
- How quickly can we go and see what we Have Learned from taking that step?
I really did little more than literally read questions from a card. By responding to these questions, Joe suddenly saw a clear path forward. When we brought the phone call to an end, I asked “What do you think.” Joe responded by saying “I feel better already.”
It’s a Process
The act of answering these questions to someone else has power that the questions alone don’t. There’s a sense of accountability–an avoidance of excuses the other person won’t buy. Joe was no longer allowed to let himself get in his own way of being successful. Our coaching calls continue and Joe’s well on his way to reaching his next target condition.
My thanks go out to Toyota for developing this method and to Mike Rother for helping me learn it.
Mike Rother read this blog post and was kind enough to contact me with some corrected information and a useful document explaining the backstory of Toyota Kata. Here are his comments.
One small point of correction is that those questions do not come from Toyota. They were initially developed by me based on our study of Toyota, and then refined in use together with a bunch of wonderful Kata colleagues. I agree, they’re a pretty darn useful pattern of thinking. That pattern of thinking did come from Toyota, although today we can see that it mirrors a universal human pattern of improvement, adaptiveness and innovation.
Here’s a short online document about the Toyota Kata research that you might like: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/KATA_Files/TK_Backstory.pdf