COLLECT Questions for Better Gemba Walks

The purpose of gemba walks is to demonstrate respect for the people who do the work, collect information, and promote actions that continuously improve processes and shape organizational culture. People accomplish this by going to the workplace and engaging people in respectful dialogue about the processes and their performance. This involves observing the gemba and asking questions based on what people see.

Going Beyond Open-ended Questions

The standard advice for gemba walks, or most any type of fact-finding inquiry, is to include a heavy dose of open-ended questions. But there are downsides to open-ended questions. They aren’t the way some of us are used to collecting information. They can feel unnatural, both for the asker and the person questioned. For some, trying to start every question with a who, what, why, what, where, when, how or how much adds another level of challenge to gemba walks. There are many ways to get to the truth during a gemba walk, and sometimes it’s helpful to go beyond open-ended questions.

A Mnemonic Device for Gemba Walk Questions

Broadly speaking, we can organize gemba walk questions into seven types. There is overlap between them but each serves a specific purpose.  These seven are: closed, open-ended, limiting, leading, example, clarifying and theme-based. Take the first letter of each and we have COLLECT as mnemonic device.

Let’s review each of these seven types of gemba walk question below.

Closed Questions Yield a Simple Yes or No

There is nothing wrong with asking closed questions if what we need is a clear yes or no answer. They are called closed because unlike open-ended questions, they don’t naturally expand the discussion. A series of closed questions can feel like an interrogation. Closed questions don’t leave room for explanations, ideas, or opinions. This can shut the conversation down before it starts. If you’ve ever heard a reply of, “Yes, but what happened was…” it’s a sign that the answerer had more information to share than yes/no.

Open-ended Questions Encourage Explanation

The common advice is for most gemba walk questions to be open-ended. This maximizes the ability of people in the gemba express themselves, relate facts and ideas, and explain what’s going on in detail. Compared to yes/no questions, open-ended questions are harder to answer. The answers often take more time. And their open-ended nature can lead to discussions going off-topic. This is where limiting questions can help to focus the discussion.

Limiting Questions May be Open or Closed

The simplest way of asking a limiting question is to phrase it as choice between A-or-B. In this regard, it acts like a closed question. Open-ended limiting questions can be “how often…” or “which of those situations…” to guide a discussion becoming too broad toward a more narrow and specific area. By their nature, limiting questions reduce the amount of new information collected, while clarifying facts or ideas.

Don’t Lead with Leading questions

The ultimate limiting question is the leading question. A leading question guides people to the answer the questioner wants to hear. Leading questions aim to verify, confirm or arrive at agreement. Examples could be, “How long was the alarm was going off before the machine crashed?” and “Do you get enough management support for problem solving?” The former collects some new information, but seeks confirmation that an alarm was audible at the time of the accident. The latter question seeks to verify that management support is lacking rather than to collect new information. Unlike their name, we should not lead with leading questions, but rather use them to nail down the facts after asking other questions.

Ask for Examples for a Change of Pace

The conversations during a gemba walk should already be fact-based and specific. When this is not the case, or when things are getting muddled, example questions are a good all-around change of pace. “What’s an example of that?” allows you to gain additional information about a topic, without admitting that they aren’t quite getting it. “What’s the most recent example of that?” can be a softer way of asking, “When is the last time that happened?” and “Would X be an example of what you’re describing?” is a good leading question to pause, confirm your understanding or seek clarification. Sometimes we don’t get it even after all of the above questions. This brings us to the clarifying questions.

Humility is the Key to Clarity

The best way to ask clarifying questions is to say, “I’d like to ask a couple of clarifying questions to make sure that I understand you,” and proceed with asking one or more of the above types of questions. When asking clarifying questions, it’s important not to make the person you are quizzing feel like they’ve failed. This might mean starting with something like, “You’ve given me a lot of good information, but it’s a lot to process, so let me make sure I’m not missing anything.” Avoid the false clarification intended to show off your understanding. “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” followed by a sophisticated summary, often filled with jargon or in-group speak meant for other leaders, is off-putting to people on the gemba.  Humble inquiry is a better path to the truth.

Theme-based Questions to Teach and Learn

Although leaders need to leave their agendas and egos when they go on gemba walks, it’s a good idea to prepare some theme-based questions. Perhaps we want people to become more aware of safety, quality, innovation or current strategic priorities. Pick a theme and be on the lookout for cues to ask them. The theme shouldn’t be a secret or surprise. Open with, “One thing I wanted to focus on during this gemba walk is customer value creation. How do we create customer value in this process? How do we know that the customer wants? What ideas do you have for…” and so on. The purpose of asking theme-based questions is to teach people about vision, values, priorities, process focal points and so forth, and direct attention to these areas. Leaders new to gemba walks may feel more confident by preparing a theme and having a few questions in their back pocket.

COLLECT Good Questions to Build Mutual Respect

When preparing for the next gemba walk, try reviewing the COLLECT question list above. Think about how using these may help you collect the information you need to spur the right actions and behaviors. Use these questions to help you become a good listener. Take a genuine interest in people and ask questions that help them understand your priorities. Demonstrate respect for the people by raising the level of both the questions and how you ask them.

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