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The soft stuff is the hard stuff especially for leaders-in-training. This 1-hour Leadership webinar is devoted to those mentoring or coaching other problem-solvers to success. Learn how to guide team leads to navigate the human element of process improvement. Learn some essential techniques, why they work and how to use them while supporting others!

Webinar Level

  • Leadership


In this 1-hour Leadership webinar, we will cover the following questions:

  • What are Soft Skills?
  • Why should we care about Soft Skills?
  • How can they help problem solvers?
  • What are some Soft Skills techniques?
  • How do we coach problem solvers to use them?


Elisabeth Swan -

Elisabeth Swan, Managing Partner

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner and Master Black Belt of Elisabeth has over 25 years of success helping leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem solving muscles and use Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.

Webinar Transcript

Tracy O’Rourke: Hi, everyone. Welcome to’s webinar today and thanks for spending some quality time with us. Hundreds of people have registered for this webinar and we are very excited that you are all here.

Lean and Six Sigma are the go-to improvement methods used by leading organizations all over the world to delight customers, minimize costs, and develop better teams. Every month, we at craft webinars just for you, our global learner community, things that simplify the concepts and tools of Lean and Six Sigma so that you can understand and apply them more easily and be more successful. We are all about you.

So today’s webinar, I’m very excited about, it’s titled How to Coach Problem Solvers to Build Their Soft Skills. And I’m Tracy O’Rourke. I’m a Managing Partner here at And today’s presenter is also a Managing Partner and it’s the wonderfully talented and innovative and consummately passionate about learning, Elisabeth Swan. How are you today, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: I’m good, Tracy. Always good to be with you.

About Our Presenter

Tracy O’Rourke: A little background on Elisabeth. She is a co-host of the Just-In-Time Café Podcast with me and she is a long-time Lean Six Sigma Consultant, Master Black Belt, Coach, and Trainer for over 25 years. And aside from almost three decades in the business, Elisabeth had also performed with Improv Boston because she is a funny gal. And since half of process improvement is improvisation, she is really good at it. Welcome, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Thank you, Tracy.

How to Interact

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So here are a few housekeeping rules before we begin. At the end of the presentation, we will have a question-and-answer session. However, please feel free to ask any questions at any time by entering them into the question area and we would get them answered. We welcome you to participate. Also, we’re going to ask you to vote in some polls. And if we don’t answer your questions during the webinar, we’ll be sure to post them on our website and it will be on the recording as well. And yes, you will get the slides. People always ask that. Yes, you will get them.

Where Are You From?

So, please join us for our first activity, sharing where are you from? So we would love to hear where you’re from. Please click on Ask a Question and type in where you’re joining us from today. I think it just says Questions now, right? And let’s see where we got people joining us from.

All right. We’ve got the biggest little city, Laura says from Reno, Nevada, Evan from Toronto, Stephanie from Cork, Ireland. Hey, you got a Boston guy, Allison, from Boston, Massachusetts. Daniel Harris from Mesa, Arizona, Anthony from Scotland, Jennifer from New Hampshire, USA, Patricia from Quebec.

Elisabeth Swan: Hello!

Tracy O’Rourke: We have Courtney Hewitt from Prince Edward Island. We have Elena from Ukraine. We have Simone from Brazil. And we have Jonathan from the UK. Lots of different people from all over the place and lots of people from all over the United States, Elisabeth. Hundreds of people. I can’t even go through the list.

So, welcome everyone.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: Over to you.

Elisabeth Swan: Thank you. Thank you, Tracy. Thanks for the warm introduction. Sorry I can’t see everybody. And I love this international audience. This is great. Welcome. Welcome.

Who Is

Tracy said earlier, we’ve both been with since its inception and our mission is to make it easy for all of you to build your problem solving muscles. So that means we simplify complex concepts and we’ve made our training extremely practical, and I think really enjoyable.

So that means we simplify complex concepts and we’ve made our training extremely practical, and I think really enjoyable.

We provide a running case study at the Bahama Bistro. Our restaurant team applies all the tools. And aside from this webinar series, we put out blogs, and the podcast Tracy mentioned, book reviews, and a book and lots of other information to help you get where you need to go.

We’ve used – Tracy and I both used and taught Lean Six Sigma for decades because it supplies the best toolkit for problem solving. And thankfully, there’s a growing list of companies who agree with us. Here are some of the organizations we’ve helped.

We’ve Helped People From…

You can see brick and mortar, online, and diverse industries such as health care, financial services, manufacturing, and government. And the reason is that Lean Six Sigma is about problem solving. And once you have an organization, you’ve got problems. So like all of you, these companies want to be the best at problem solving so you’re in good company.

So more on benefits later, first, let’s look at our agenda.

Today’s Agenda

First up, what are soft skills?

Next, why should we care about them?

How can they help problem solvers?

What are some soft skills techniques?

And how do we coach problem solvers to use them?

What Are Soft Skills?

So let’s start with that first one. What are soft skills?

The soft skills are often framed as common sense, having the ability to deal with other people, having a positive, flexible attitude. They are less tangible. They are harder to quantify. It’s etiquette. It’s getting along with people. It’s listening, engaging in small talk.

In contrast, hard skills are specific. They’re teachable abilities that can be defined and measured such as typing and writing and math and reading and Lean Six Sigma. So problem solvers spend a lot of time learning definable skills. We get certificates. They indicate the level of our ability.

Why Do We Care About Soft Skills?

Now, let’s talk about why we care about soft skills. So in contrast to soft skills, when you’re mastering hard skills, problem solvers get to practice on their own. So they can spend time on their own and then they can show their work to coaches and mentors like you and they get specific feedback and then they’re able to take in that feedback and improve. And it can be relatively straightforward to learn continuous improvement technique. So the so-called hard stuff is often easier than the soft stuff.

So one of the most common traps that we see problem solvers fall into is doing all the improvement work all by themselves.

The soft skills come into play when we’re dealing with people. So one of the most common traps that we see problem solvers fall into is doing all the improvement work all by themselves. They’ve learned this new skill. They want to do the right thing. They are trying to be helpful and useful. So they’re doing this out of great motivation. And they may have done great work and come up with truly elegant solutions. But when they try implementing their idea, people are not as interested in changing the process.

If people have no part in the solution, they’re less interested in implementing what you came up with.

If people have no part in the solution, they’re less interested in implementing what you came up with. So, that leads to frustration all around. It leads to wasted efforts and request the leadership to intervene, ‘These people would not do what I’m asking. I came up with this great new way. I’ve proven. OK. I got my great chart showing you how much faster this is. But they would not do it.”

So it’s one of the reasons people give up on continuous improvement because if it’s not a great experience, why would you want to repeat it? So that is a huge loss.

So most businesses tie their funding for training to return on investment, and that means there are lots of offerings to become trained in process improvement. Without clearer return on investment, those soft skills training are not as readily available. You’ll often find that’s the first one that gets cut if there’s any kind of budget reduction.

Coaching Problem Solvers

So we hear a lot from problem solvers, and their biggest problem is resistance. So if you’re in the position to help them, they need some guidance for the people side of process improvement. So your title could be coach. You could be a Lean Sensei. You could be a Master Black Belt or a Black Belt or even a Green Belt. But whatever your title, if you’re in a position to provide guidance then you might be coaching Lean problem solvers, other Green Belts, Yellow Belts, anybody.

Poll #1

So what I want to do is check the experience of all of you on this call. So this is our first poll. Did the people you are coaching have soft skill obstacles to process change and your options are:

  • A. Not much
  • B. Some
  • C. Enough to warrant attention.
  • D. Constantly

So let me launch that one and you guys can fill that in. Tracy, what’s your experience?

Tracy O’Rourke: So yes, I find that people sometimes are so focused on the skills, the actual hard tools, and following the rigor and the methodology that they sometimes aren’t thinking about how things come across, or they are feeling like they are so knowledgeable now that they sort of mow through people instead of working with people.

Elisabeth Swan: Mow through, that’s a nice verb.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, that’s unfortunate to watch and not effective.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. Well, let’s see what these guys came up with.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So we have number one, enough to warrant attention, 41%. So it sounds like people are also experiencing the same thing. They have some obstacles to process change followed next at 33%. So those make up what, 74% of what people responded with, 21% constantly, and 5% not much.

Elisabeth Swan: So it’s the reason they’re on the call. That’s good. OK. That’s helpful to know.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Some Soft Skill Techniques

Elisabeth Swan: So let’s come back. So soft skill techniques, we’re going to cover three techniques today that we find are helpful to problem solvers and we’ll describe how to use each one, we’ll cover why they’re helpful to problem solvers, and we’ll give you some guidance on how you can coach problem solvers to get better at these techniques.

Advocacy vs Inquiry

So first up, we’re going to talk about inquiry versus advocacy or advocacy versus inquiry. And advocacy is defined as the act of pleading for, supporting or recommending its active espousal.

…advocacy is defined as the act of pleading for, supporting or recommending its active espousal.

Inquiry is defined as seeking or a request for truth, information, or knowledge. Inquiry is a process of asking about or investigating something in order to find out more about it.

Inquiry is defined as seeking or a request for truth, information, or knowledge.

Edgar Schein in his book, Humble Inquiry, makes the point that culturally in the United States, we value advocacy. And we have an international audience always on these webinars so I’m always curious about other cultures and what you feel like happens in your culture. So this is US that advocacy is far more valued. So I want you to think a little bit about that, what’s happening culturally. It’s still – it could probably be increased. But here, advocacy is sort of rules.

So in particular, we often assume that in order to be considered smart and powerful, we should be advocating our positions which means telling others what we think. But people are often put off when others tell us either what to do or what they think is right.

Another author, Michael Bungay Stanier, the author of The Coaching Habit, he has got a name for this persona which I like. He calls it the Advice Monster. So that’s a good name.

So anyone here with an older sibling has probably heard the words, “You know what you should do?” like for most of your lives. Siblings can be annoying.

In the workplace, the results can be actually dangerous because people at every level benefit from engaging in inquiry. And processes are way too complex and technology moves way too fast for one person to be holding all the knowledge that no one of us holds all the knowledge. So it’s dangerous especially in health care processes where patients’ lives are at stake.

And we’ve heard stories I’m sure. There’s a great book called The Checklist Manifesto because that’s one of the things that came out of these kinds of errors but stories where operations were performed on a wrong limb because nobody asked a critical question. And all organizations are interdependent. You need an atmosphere where it’s OK to point out problems and speak up. So if you’re mentoring others, you want to guide them in how to build this kind of culture.

And I like this quote from Edgar Schein, “We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

And I like this quote from Edgar Schein, “We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

Advocacy in the Workplace

So let’s look a little bit more about what happens. So this is a study that happened with listening to 300 hours of organizational meetings and they found 95% of meeting conversation was spent in advocacy, people telling. And that means there’s not much discovery going on. It also means that people are missing opportunities to uncover issues and build relationships. So that’s a loss on both sides.


Now, the flipside of inquiry is then listening. And a colleague of mine has this great saying, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. It’s waiting to talk.” And that’s so true.

So one of the reasons is that when we speak, we speak at a 150 words per minute but we can process speech at 600 words per minute. So what are we doing with all that excess capacity? We have conversations in our head. We’re figuring out what we want to say next. So the challenge is how do you use those 450 words a minute, that capacity that you have to listen?

So the technique we’re talking about is inquiry. But once you asked a question then you got to listen. So if you ever dealt with a person who they’re not even waiting for you to finish answering one question they have asked before they were asking you another question or have you dealt with people who they give you cues that they want you to hurry up?

I experienced this with people who while I’m talking, they’re saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” So my impression is they would like me to finish up because they’ve got something to tell me and that also lets me know they’re not really taking in what I’m saying. So you know in those moments when people are actually listening to you or not.

Different Takes

So let’s take a look at how do we turn what could be advocacy into inquiry? So different ways of looking at something. You could on this example, it looks like people are making mistakes on the application. You’re telling people what’s going on.

To turn that into inquiry, you could say, “Do you see any problems happening with the application?” Now, they may see ones that you don’t see or they may just appreciate being able to submit their ideas but turn it from telling into asking.

Next one. “Customers are complaining and this department has to change.” Again, you’re advocating.

Turn that around to, “Do you see any opportunities for improvement in the current process?” Please review these edits I made to the application. Again, you’re advocating for the changes that you’d like to make versus what kinds of edits would you make the application? I already know what I want to do. What do you want to do? That could have been something I didn’t think about.

And then lastly, “Let me describe what we have decided to change.” Turn that around. What would you propose as changes?

So these are moments where you’ve got to stop for that moment of what am I about to do? Am I about to tell somebody something? Is there a way to turn that into a question?

So these are moments where you’ve got to stop for that moment of what am I about to do? Am I about to tell somebody something? Is there a way to turn that into a question? Especially in the US, our inclination is to tell. So taking that beat and then figuring out how could I pose that differently so I actually discover something here as opposed to just transmit a friend to use the word – if they’re describing a person, they’ll say – I’ll say, “What do they like?” And they’ll say, “Transmit only.” And that’s just shorthand for they’re in a telling mode most of the time. They are not engaging in a conversation with you.

Beware Fake Questions

Another thing to watch out for is something called a fake question. So fake questions are advocacy disguised as inquiry. So if you want to know what the team wants for lunch, you might ask, “Hey, what does everybody think of ordering pizza?” You’re not really asking what they want, you’re advocating for pizza. So fake questions start with things like that. Have you thought about? What about? Have you considered?

If you really want to put things out there, you could list them as options. But think about how often you do this. Once you’re aware of fake questions, you’ll hear them everywhere. So advocacy disguised as inquiry.

Advantage of Inquiry

So, advantages of inquiry. There are a number of things that happen when problem solvers switch from advocacy to inquiry. So they give other people a say in process change. That means they let other people know that they value their process knowledge. So now, you’ve made people feel valued.

It improves communication between problem solvers and stakeholders, problem solvers and their colleagues, problem solvers and other process participants. So by asking and listening, they are building these critical relationships that enable change to happen.

Also, team leads often lack positional power. And that means, they have to rely on relationships.

A recent guest on our Just-In-Time Café Podcast, Gary Peterson, he includes this technique in his hiring process. So after being selected and you should listen to the podcast because the hiring process itself is incredibly innovative. But once people make it through this incredible process, they get a 3-month internship. They’re still not hired.

And in that time, what they are watching is whether people can get others to make changes because they know that they’ve got to build relationships to do that. So these people have really zero authority. They are interns. So that means they’ve got to use inquiry. They’ve got to find a way to build relationships with people so that people will actually engage with them and make changes. So that is a great indicator, and that means they’ve got to practice inquiry.

Follow Up

Another thing is that problem solvers, once they ask for input, they have to let people know that they heard them. So they don’t have to use every idea. We’ll get to that later. Not every idea is a good idea. But people need to know that you heard them.

So there are a lot of options for that. You could just – if I’m in a meeting, I just put it on a flipchart. Somebody, they want to be heard, they have an idea but they don’t really believe people have heard them until it appears somewhere. So I just put things up on a flipchart. It’s a really great way to post – retain the idea and move on. Now, it’s there. We got it. Let’s move on.

You can also relay it back in meeting minutes. It’s written. Here it is. I heard it. That’s why it’s in the minutes.

It could go into a storyboard, if obviously it ends up being part of a process change.

Or you could put it on a fishbone diagram. This person maybe giving you – this is an issue. I’ve documented it. This is something I’ve observed in the process. Great. That goes right on the fishbone so that we can deal with that or verify or come up with root causes and solve for it.

So once people see their ideas in writing, they feel heard.

Coaching Problem Solvers on Inquiry

OK. So now, let’s come back to your role as coach or mentor. How can you help problem solvers master the art of inquiry?

So here are some of the questions you can ask:

Are you experiencing any resistance?

What would you differently? So given their resistance ask them, “What would you do differently?”

What kinds of questions do you ask when you’re talking to people?

What works best about your listening skills? Get them to sort of assess their own ability to listen.

What do you do to capture their responses? That’s about are people feeling heard? Are you giving them feedback?

What do you think is the best way to let people know you’ve heard them?

And my favorite at the bottom, what’s your biggest challenge in terms of engaging stakeholders?

This question actually comes from one of the books. And we’ll give you all the books at the end of this. I’ll show you some nice reference material. This one is The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier that I’ve mentioned. And that’s one of the questions that I find most useful. What’s your biggest challenge? And then you could frame it in anything you want.

But I’ve had coaching calls where I thought I asked every great question of the person I’m mentoring and we talked about the project and we got all kinds of issues and we addressed them. And at the very end, I would just throw this one last question in there, “What’s your biggest challenge in terms of …?” whatever it was I was trying to get at or just general, “What’s your biggest challenge?”

And suddenly, a whole new raft of issues would come up or something that hadn’t surfaced at all. Either they didn’t think it was important to mention or thought this was something they had to deal with on their own. But always, that is a fantastic question if you don’t use it already.

“What’s your biggest challenge?” And suddenly, a whole new raft of issues would come up or something that hadn’t surfaced at all. Either they didn’t think it was important to mention or thought this was something they had to deal with on their own.

Poll #2

So this brings us to another poll. Now that you’ve heard some examples, what do you see as the most common of these?

So let’s go here. Launch that. OK. How about you, Tracy? What do you see? What’s the most common of these issues, either:

  • A. Their belief that “telling” is essential
  • B. They forget they have to interact
  • C. They don’t know how to ask
  • D. They ask the right questions but they don’t listen
  • E. They’re so busy for inquiry which means they just don’t value it?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, I actually feel like that last one, they’re too busy for inquiry or people don’t value it, they don’t see what the power is, that I think is a really big challenge. So it’s a skill that they’re not comfortable using and they think, “Well, this is working.” Telling works for me so I really don’t think I need to learn a new skill. That’s like something like that. And then they wonder why they get resistance.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: And now, it’s about changing other people and how do I focus on change management, changing other people because they’re not doing what I tell them?

Elisabeth Swan: So the interpretation of change management is that it’s about changing other people.

Tracy O’Rourke: It’s about changing other people, not themselves or their techniques.

Elisabeth Swan: OK. So let’s take a look at what these guys came up with here.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So the top one we have is same as me, they are too busy for inquiry, they don’t value it, 37% followed by a) their belief that telling is essential to their authority, which is kind of sad. C.) They don’t know what to ask, 18%, followed very shortly by 16%, they ask the right questions but they don’t listen, and then they forget they need to interact, 7%. It’s very interesting, D.

Elisabeth Swan: It is. And that’s – I mean in terms of the book, Humble Inquiry, that last one – actually, the first one, the authority piece that came in second, that’s often an assumption that I got to sound like I know what I’m doing as opposed to asking. Those are great. Thanks for that, everybody.

Building a Network of Allies

All right. So the next technique we have is building a network of allies. And an ally is defined as a person, a group, or a nation associated with others for some common cause or purpose. So that purpose could be tied to an organizational mission, maybe it’s the broader purpose of building a problem solving culture, improving government. It could be making the world a better place. I mean people have a lot of different focuses when they think about, “What is it I’m working toward?”

Or it could be as narrowly defined as benefitting from the process fixes that the problem solvers are working on like, “Yeah, I’m your ally in this because it’s driving me crazy too. Let’s fix it.”

Why Are Allies Important?

So why do we care about building a network of allies? So process improvement benefits when other people are involved. So that’s why it’s often done in teams. If you can get a team, that’s awesome. People don’t always have that luxury to get a team together.

Beyond the team, there are others who have dealt with similar issues. One of the phrases we use often is, “Steal shamelessly when it comes to improvement ideas.” How are we going to find if somebody has already tackled this if we don’t form a network, if we don’t reach out and ask?” So we’ve got to network to find out what has already been done.

So problem solvers might have a good idea but if you talk it out, if you say it out loud even and just say it to another person, they can help you build on it or even just saying it loud sometimes I find helps me see a flaw or a logic point or a missing piece.

So people outside the team also, not always, but if you find people with no vested interest in what you’re working on, they could be that fresh pair of eyes. They’ll ask the innocent question that you hadn’t considered because you’re so into the weeds that they are not and they can take that bird’s eye view or just that – the view that’s not encumbered with the process knowledge that you’ve got. So, allies are important.

Building Informal Partnerships

And finding allies can come from different areas. On a simple level, it could just be other problem solvers, key stakeholders, other team leads, people with similar lines of business, it could be people from other lines of business, it could be ex-colleagues, problem solvers from other industries. You want to keep building your network as you go. I find that’s a constant and it’s an enjoyable part of doing process improvement work but people with similar positions in the organization but with another product line or different service lines.

So one thing we see work really well constantly is when problem solvers talk to other problem solvers. And these can be team leads, Lean leaders, Green Belts, colleagues running 5S’s. It’s just a great network to build and sustain. And people appreciate being asked for help because then it means they get to ask you when they need it. So it’s a great symbiotic setup.

Ally’s Network Worksheet

So in order to help with this, we have just a simple ally’s network worksheet. That top part is just saying, “How do I find somebody to bounce ideas off?” So, just some places to look for colleagues. This is a free template.

Let’s look at the questions that we put in here for you. So questions once you get your allies is, what’s good about my idea? What are some ways to make my idea better? Have you heard of this issue anywhere else? Or do you know of anyone else dealing with this problem? Have you seen this solved in other industries?

We love getting examples from different industries. So that’s I think the race car pit crew has been sort of talked about and extracted from into healthcare industry, even lipstick casings being used in the missile industry. So lots of great crossovers from different industries. Or is there a technology fix you’ve heard about that correct this? We don’t try to jump to technology as a rule but we know in some cases, there are fixes out there that could help.

Or is there a technology fix you’ve heard about that correct this? We don’t try to jump to technology as a rule but we know in some cases, there are fixes out there that could help.

I had a recent group dealing with healthcare workers out in the field. And one of their biggest issues was how do we get them to send their invoices? That’s causing us a delay. We don’t get their invoices and then that causes us delay with billing. So, how do we deal with this?

And I think the problem was they’re out in the field and it was just hard for them to get these invoices in. Like do they take pictures? What do they do? And we just turn them on to an app that immediately turned everything into PDFs and that was just because I happen to be using it for my own invoices. So that solved. That was a quick technology fix that made things easier for them. So that’s a thing that allies can help with from other industries.

And what do you think stakeholders will like about this? Or you can throw out an email challenge. I find sometimes if you do too broad of a pitch like include too many people on an email, you don’t get anything back. So I would always caution send the email to single people. I if it’s a single person – you might ask the same question to seven people but send seven emails so that you get people feeling that connection to you and that you are actually looking for an answer from them, not just from a broad group. So that is one tool for you.

And let’s come back to your role as coach. And these are some good questions to help draw out problem solvers and help them consider whether or not they have a good network. And if they don’t, what’s stopping them?

So who has been most helpful to you? Who has been supportive to you? Where might you find support, outside of the team or the stakeholders? And what’s your biggest challenge in terms of networking to solve problems?

So that’s a set of questions obviously. Add to them. Edit them. That’s just things that we find helpful when we are coaching.

Crafting a Critics Club

Next up is crafting a critics club. So a critic is defined as someone who judges, evaluates, or criticizes. And except for when they’re describing movies, the word critic doesn’t have a great connotation. So why would we want and entire club of critics?

Why Are Critics Important?

So critics are important. And for those of you with older siblings, you probably grow up with criticism. It’s definitely not as much fun as getting compliments. But at some point, you realized you need an honest opinion.

I’ve got two older sisters and they are great when it comes to clothes shopping. As soon as I hear, “I don’t think that dress does anything for you,” it’s good. Message received. I do not have to waste money on this dress.

Inviting dissents helps them discover divergence opinions. It helps them foster what we call diversity of thought. And this leads to options when they’re problem solving.

So the same goes for problem solvers. Inviting dissents helps them discover divergence opinions. It helps them foster what we call diversity of thought. And this leads to options when they’re problem solving. So if they can share the good, the bad and the ugly in neutral territory, then they can build better ideas.

No Idea Is a Bad Idea – Maybe …

And this is interesting. There is actually research behind this, which is kind of fascinating. So for those of you that have grown up with the rules of brainstorming, what’s interesting is that they are not all good rules. At least the idea that no idea is a bad idea is not a good rule.

So a little history on brainstorming. This was a term coined by Alex Osborn back in 1948 and this key rule with brainstorming was to foster ideas in the absence of criticism and negative feedback. Really make people – make it a safe space for people to say anything they want. Anything is a good idea.

But even ten years later, there were empirical tests that refuted the effectiveness of this anything goes rule. And the reality is that processes are increasingly specialized and we need groups to solve most of these issues that we do have to collaborate together.

And in 2003, UC Berkeley did a study that showed the addition of debate conditions produced better ideas. So this idea of avoiding hurt feelings is less effective. It turns out that dissent fosters creativity. And that’s a key learning for me. I think I grew up with that, brainstorming – those brainstorming rules. But once I embraced this, I found the conversations were rich around the ideas that came up.

Collaboration and Criticism

And I’ll give you a great example. We’ll go to the movie industry for this one since movie critics are the good thing. Let’s talk about criticism and what happen. This came from a great New Yorker article, Brainstorming Groupthink by Johan Lehrer. And most of you probably know about Pixar movies here in the US. They had a string of 12 hits, 12 successful movies in a row. Not just minorly successful but hugely successful. And this is unprecedented in the movie industry.

And the internal process at Pixar required that each story be critiqued six or seven times. So Andrew Stanton of Pixar was a lead writer of the Toy Story Trilogy. He wrote and directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E. So those are big movies. I think even if you guys are out in Scotland and Brazil, you might have heard of this too. But these were very successful.

And then Disney hired this Andrew Stanton who had been the lead write to direct a movie called John Carter, which is an action film. And the results or the pictures cost from $250 million to $307 million to produce and Walt Disney took a $200 million loss on the picture. It kind of became a cautionary tale. And there are most likely many root causes. But what we do know is unlike all the other Pixar hits, there were no rounds of critiques for this film. So they went from six or seven rounds of critiques to none for this one.

People are busy or they are polite or they afraid to offer criticism. So if problem solvers don’t ask, they will not the benefit of constructive feedback.

So taking that back into the realm of problem solving, the same things happen. People are busy or they are polite or they afraid to offer criticism. So if problem solvers don’t ask, they will not the benefit of constructive feedback. And it has to become a habit. And others have to see criticism as welcome otherwise problem solvers lose the opportunity to build better solutions.

And this is something that I believe so strongly and everyone here at believes in this. And just as an example, I’m thinking about this webinar in particular. I think we went through four different rounds of what the title of the webinar should be and everybody can chime in. Everyone is part of that process. We always invite criticism and feedback. We know we’ll produce better products because of it. And the same for problem solvers.

Critics Club Worksheet

So get the free template, again, on our website. Problem solvers can use the Critic’s Club Worksheet to identify potential critiques. Some of them might be part of the ally’s network. That’s OK. The idea is to identify people who can offer constructive criticism.

And the second part of the worksheet has those potential questions that you can ask critiques. So let’s just go through those right now.

So just saying to someone, “Be my critic. What have I missed here?” Or, “How might this idea cause internal issues? If you were my stakeholder, what would you think?” or, “How might this disappoint other stakeholders? What am I not considering? How might this idea end up costing us money? Name five things wrong with this idea.”

Actually, give people a challenge. You’ve got a list five things. You got to work at it, which means people have to really think about how could this go wrong? What’s the worst that could happen? So take that sort of risk management. Actually, do almost an FMEA on it. How could this thing fail? How might it backfire? Or has this idea failed in the past and how? Because the conditions may have changed. You don’t want to just throw the idea out that didn’t work before. But how did it fail? Because that might give the person an idea then, “What can I do to change that? How can I edit what I’ve got and turn it into something that would work? What’s the better approach?”

So these are just again, options for problem solvers to work with critics and to just get in that habit of asking these kinds of questions to get that kind of feedback to really work their problems.

So back to your role as coach. Here are some good questions to uncover roadblocks that problem solvers have in terms of soliciting honest feedback. So this takes practice and the goal is to turn it into a habit.

So if people see you as open to feedback, you’ll get more. And it might take some toughening of the skin for these problem solvers. Sometimes people fall in love with their own ideas. It’s really hard to let go of them. I think in the literary world, they call it, “Kill your darlings.” You’ve got this paragraph you’re in love with but it really doesn’t add to the story so you need someone to say, “That can actually go. The story would be much better and tighter if you remove that.”

So the same with your improvement ideas. You might be whetted to something but you’ve got to be willing to drop it or at least be open to modification.

So who provides you with constructive feedback? Asking problem solvers, is anyone providing you with that feedback now? What are you hearing? And do you find criticism helpful? And if not, what would make it more helpful?

You can be very specific about how you want criticism delivered or feedback delivered.

You can actually give people guidance when they’re giving you criticism or the best way for them to present it, the angles you’re looking for. You can be very specific about how you want criticism delivered or feedback delivered.

What kind of feedback is most helpful? What do you do with it in general? Do you take it in? Do you hear it? And again, what’s your biggest challenge in terms of seeking out helpful criticism?

It’s not a natural thing for people to do. This is really critical though and you want people to form this habit. I find it just the single most helpful thing when I’m trying to really hone and perfect whatever it is. It could be a webinar. It could be a process fix. It’s always better with feedback.

Question for Coaches

Now, a question for you guys. So while you’re typing because this is our question, we want to know which soft skills you see problem solvers struggling with the most. And you’re going to enter that into the question’s area. And while you guy are typing in those questions, I’m going to cover a little bit more and we’re going to come back to those. So go ahead and type those in and then let’s just recap a little bit of these soft skill tips.

6 Soft Skill Tips

So one, help problem solvers get in the habit of asking more than telling.

Be aware of the advice monster.

Help problem solvers assess their listening skills. Are they staying present or are they planning their next words?

Check in with problem solvers to see if they are letting people know they’ve been heard.

Continuous improvement is easier with allies. You can help problem solvers build their network.

Are problem solvers sensitive criticism? Help them get comfortable seeking feedback. Help them get that thicker skin.

All of this builds relationships and relationships are key to success. Relationships are key to building a problem solving culture. Really critical.

Reference Materials

These are the reference materials that I would recommend. Three great books on inquiry and coaching. We’ve got book reviews for all these on our site. My reviews are more like book reports because I initially start writing them so that I would never forget what I learned. I’m sure you’ve experienced that. You’ve read a book. You loved it. A couple of months later, someone asked what was it about and you might be able to eke out a sentence or two but you really can’t pinpoint exactly what you took away.

So for me, these book reports really nail what is it in this book that you want to take away. So even if you just read the review, you’ll pick up some great tips. The one from Humble Inquiry will on our site by the end of this month. These are all really helpful books for both coaches and for problem solvers.

Today We Covered

So looking at what we just went through. We covered what are soft skills, why should we care about them, how can we help, how can they help problem solvers, what are some soft skill techniques, and how do we coach problem solvers to use them?


And then Tracy, I’m coming back to the question. What do you see?

Tracy O’Rourke: Great. So really good feedback and comments about some of the things that people are struggling with, so that would be from slide 34, not letting their negative emotions come through in interactions. It was a comment that someone had.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s actually – that’s probably the basis, one of the basis of I think Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, that one of them was anger management. So I think the negative comments might be so they’ve been in that category of watch those negative comments.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yup. Someone else, Mizba said, “Lack of empathy.” So I think that speaks to maybe getting criticism but then getting it fairly harshly and someone maybe not thinking about the delivery of it. Listening.

Elisabeth Swan: Or problem solver not empathizing with what people in the process are experiencing when change is happening to them or in their world. So having empathy for the people experiencing change.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Definitely. We have listening. So that was obviously something you mentioned a lot of in this webinar that we really need to listen. And I think people just – there’s so much going on often that people sometimes just aren’t spending the time listening to people they are talking to.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s a good one. Yeah. And you said a lot of people mentioned that.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yup. Asking more than telling, selling the idea, so a lot of people are speaking to the advocacy versus inquiry. I actually agree. I think people – problem solvers struggle with that particular technique the most.

Critic’s Club, it seems like there are so many critics out there. It’s funny you mentioned that. I was like, “Why would we want more?” But that could be an issue.

Receiving constructive feedback is what Jennifer said. It’s a big one. I want them to be receptive to feedback and know what this will make them and their processes better in the long run.

Elisabeth Swan: And I think that’s connected to the last one. Like Critic’s Club, there are so many critiques out there but that next one, you said it was Jennifer saying that you have to be able to listen to it. It often feels so negative. People just sort of brush it off like I can’t hear it because it’s not fun to listen to it. The trick is to find the gems in that criticism, to take that in because it’s going to make your problem solving better.

The trick is to find the gems in that criticism, to take that in because it’s going to make your problem solving better.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Scott McMamora said, “We would say seeking out criticism is big.”

Donna Drolac, hey Donna. How are you? Listening to the naysayers. I would agree.

“And preferring a fast change over taking – preferring a fast change over taking time to involve stakeholders in the right change,” from Megan. Very nice.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s huge. And I think that’s – people don’t get that what they are thinking of as efficiency is going to hit them in effectiveness. But blazing something through, you’re going to lose people and you’re not going to be able to implement the way you want. And that’s a hard lesson because people want to move, move, move.

Tracy O’Rourke: “Checking ego. Avoiding, ‘I knew that” in security or defensiveness,’” from Jay. This is a challenge for new workers joining workforce or work as a new teams, a good challenge for improvement.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. I think the phrase what you said I already knew that. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I’ve heard that before. I already knew that.

Tracy O’Rourke: You. So some really good comments and there’s obviously some challenges with soft skills, right?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: It’s a constant. Being vigilant on that in growing those skills can be very helpful.

Elisabeth Swan: So thank you, everybody. Those were great. Thank you for chiming in. So what we’d like you to do now, Tracy and I are going to review some stuff while you type in any questions you’ve got for us around the topic of today’s call. So take your time. Enter some more of those questions and then we’ll just give you a little roundup of some great things that are happening right now at

Getting Started

This one, just a reminder that you can sign up for any of these trainings and certifications and get more on effective problem solving. This might be your start or you might be way down the funnel on your journey.

You also get a discount just for joining this webinar, and that’s I think really awesome. So 20% off until the end of this month.

eBook: The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit

Another thing, Tracy, tell them about our ebook.

Tracy O’Rourke: So this was based on need. Our students, our learners, or the people that like our websites and our tools and our training really wanted a book, and it was a problem solving toolkit book. And honestly, we thought about it we’re like, “A toolkit? Really? There are so many out there.” And we just said, “You know what? Let’s do one and let’s do it in the best way we can and let’s make it the best that’s out there.” And so, that’s what we think we put out there.

Elisabeth Swan: So there’s more great stuff on that book. It’s available with any Green Belt or Black Belt Training or you can go straight to Amazon and download the Kindle version. But yeah, Tracy, it’s awesome.

Tracy O’Rourke: It is.

Elisabeth Swan: Tracy, tell them about your upcoming webinar.

Upcoming Webinar: August 16, 11am PDT

Tracy O’Rourke: So we’ve got an upcoming webinar on August 16th about Introduction to A3 Problem Solving. So how do we use the A3 tool? What does it do for you? It’s not a document that you fill out after a project or an improvement effort is done. It’s actually something to see the thinking and make the thinking of people visible. That’s really what it’s for. And we’re going to tell you a lot more about how to use it next month.

Elisabeth Swan: Join us for that one, August 16th, 11 AM Pacific Time.

Just-In-Time Café Podcast

And then this is the podcast interview I was referencing. Gary Peterson works for O. C. Tanner. They make awards, employee awards and software to acknowledge employees which is kind of a cool thing to produce in the beginning. He has a great story about their hiring process which I can’t even tell you except that it involves a little bit of terror and very effective and great storyteller. He has got wonderful stories. Great Lean leader. Great changes have happened to this company and he has got some great examples. I would tune in for that.

Success Story Webinar

This is a success story. We published these with process improvement leaders every month. This one was a nonprofit, a childcare agency near me here at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And they improved in kind reporting. And that meant logging in and accurately reporting how often parents help with the students or volunteer their time or people donate goods. And that’s important for them to get grants that are all related to running this nonprofit. So wonderful story there because she improved the accuracy by 100%. Tracy and I have never seen numbers like that so that was very, very impressive.

Wonder Women of Quality

And then Tracy, tell them about our latest Wonder Women of Quality.

Tracy O’Rourke: Our latest Wonder Women of Quality is Karen Martin. Woohoo! This is a powerhouse Wonder Women of Quality. She is everywhere. I know her personally and I just get exhausted talking to this woman. She has got five books and she just won a Shingle prize and she has got all kinds of webinars. She is flying all over the place. She is great. Congratulations Karen Martin for your Wonder Women of Quality status.

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely.


And that brings us back to questions. So Tracy, do we have any questions from our listeners based on coaching people through soft skills?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So let me go back up to the top here. And Anthony asks, “Can your ally’s network overlap with your critic’s club?”

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely. Absolutely. And you may have very few that don’t overlap. The idea is that you seek out both those connections, those relationships, get those problem solvers to have that network, and also get them used to soliciting that feedback, that constructive criticism. So it could come from the same groups. Absolutely.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful. Thank you. Jen asks, “How would you go about dealing with people who think all the ideas are bad unless they came up with it?”

Elisabeth Swan: I see a persistent problem brewing there. So all ideas are bad unless they came up with them. That’s a tough one. I mean I always come back to questions are the way to go at it. So I would ask them, “So and so had this – if you’re there and can help facilitate, I heard so and so had this idea, what do you like about that idea?”

Actually, the coolest technique that might help there and that is called likes, concerns, suggestions. And the rule is that when you hear an idea, you first have to say, “What do you like about it?” which might be very little.

Actually, the coolest technique that might help there and that is called likes, concerns, suggestions.

In this person’s case, they might have a hard time finding what they like about it. But then they get to say what are their concerns because this person is ready with their concerns. But for each concern, you’ve got to provide a suggestion. So it actually turns it around so the person is building on an idea.

So likes, concerns, suggestions. You start with what’s good about it. You have to think, what is good about it? And then we try to shoot for three. Give me three concerns you have about this idea. So now, you’re poking at it, trying to get that – do some critiquing. But for each critique, you got to provide a suggestion which means you’re building. So really simple technique, I’d say try that one.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful. We have a lot of questions about dealing with some of these more painful situations. So I’m going to throw them at you, Elisabeth. We got a little time.

Elisabeth Swan: OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: So Nicole asks, “Effectively dealing with people who complain about processes but do not provide their feedback when the opportunity arises. How do we get these folks to become more involved in changing the process?”

Elisabeth Swan: So in those cases, I wonder if the venue is important. So it might be a case of they complain about it but when formally asked, they don’t contribute. So is this a case where you want – allow people to submit anonymous critiques? And for that, I’ve seen some cool apps that you can use that let you set a question up and let people anonymously submit ideas about it. So it may be a case of people wanting to maintain their anonymity as they slam the process and all the things that are going wrong from their perspective.

It may be a case of how they’re asked. I don’t know. I can tell these are going to be very case by case but I can give you some general stuff that helps. So that venue, change the way you get the feedback might help.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yup. Like for introverts and extroverts and focusing on exercises to bring and draw out introverts.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. I mean you’ve – yeah, what you’re saying, Tracy, I think sometimes I’ve been in meetings where we’re brainstorming and somebody is facilitating and you’re up at the flipchart and they’re writing stuff down but that means that people have to say things out loud. And if you’ve got as you said a mix of introverts and extroverts, you end up getting ideas from all the extroverts.

So Post-It notes that we should have invested in a long time ago. But Post-It notes are the feel safe for letting people write their ideas and post them instead of asking someone to announce their ideas and capturing them. So that lets quiet people write stuff down and post them on wherever. And then there’s going to be duplicates, which is really easy to deal with. So that’s a method too that might help if it’s an introvert-extrovert issue.

Tracy O’Rourke: Great. OK. Kelly has a question. “For those that I coach …” so she says, “My question is actually in reverse, not those I coach but those I answer to, management. They, above me, seem to be onboard and excited when I talk about process mapping, doing process walks, leaning down the processes and streamlining work. But when it comes to actually supporting the implementation of these changes, it’s suddenly not a priority anymore or something they want to do not that it affects them. Any tips?”

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. And when it’s leadership, it’s – basically, that’s the death nail. If they’re not going to do it, there’s nowhere else to go. The things I’ve seen helped are to stay very connected to let people know at regular intervals, “This is what we’ve discovered.” Get them on phone calls if they’re not physically in the same area. So it’s a regular drumbeat and they hear, “This is what the team discovered. This is where they’re going.”

Once again, soliciting their feedback. What do you like? What do you not like? Where do you see that we could be expanding on our ideas?

So include them. If they’re a roadblock then they may need to be engaged at a greater level or more in depth level with the process and what’s happening at each phase because if it’s the case of, “Here’s this great idea. We’re going after this.” And they say, “Run with it. Love it.” And then a little while later, you come back and go, “OK. We ran with it and this is what we came up with.” And they weren’t ready like you said, for it to impact their world then they put to bash. So it might mean that case of just keeping them close at hand the whole way through.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful. Thank you, Elisabeth. So this is the last question unless other people have more questions to ask. This comes from Rafael, “What is the role name or job title of the problem solvers coach?”

Elisabeth Swan: Well, this is depending on your realm. It could just be called a coach. It could be a Lean Sensei. It could be a Master Black Belt. It could be a Green Belt. It depends on the structure, the terms used in your organization.

Tracy and I have found that it varies from arena to arena and people have ways they want to be referred to. The organization has terms they are comfortable with. Some people don’t like the belts. Some people don’t want to have anything other than a coach just called a coach.

Tracy, do you want to add to that one?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah, absolutely. I absolutely agree. It could be just your coach or your mentor. There are so many names for them now and I think it really just does depend on the lingo that your organization is using.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. We got one more. I think we have time to squeak out one more.

Elisabeth Swan: OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: Although this one could be a long answer. Any tips on getting quality and production teams to work together as one?

Elisabeth Swan: Quality and production teams to work together as one. I think just like the message I just gave about leadership is to really stay connected, to include people where possible. And it might mean techniques that we talk about all the time like a process walk. That usually forms engagement and starts building relationships right away. So that means the process improvement team is interviewing the people in the process.

So if this is operations process then they’re going to be picking people to interview so they understand key steps and the people within that process are going to then join the interviewing team and keep going through. So that’s kind of step one as far as we’re concerned, right?

As soon as you’re defining a project, you’re defining a problem, you’re defining who the customers are, and you’re defining a process. That process walk helps you build that understanding and starts you building those relationships. That’s usually when I see breakthrough start to happen between a process improvement, team lead, or team and process participants. That’s that first really great step because it involves those conversations and inquiry.

The process walk interview sheet is also on our website so you can download that for classic questions going through the process walk and guidelines on doing the process walk. So I think that is a great opportunity.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful. Awesome. All right. That concludes our questions.

Elisabeth Swan: Thank you, everybody. It was great to have you all in this webinar. Thanks for interacting as much as you did. It made it for a better webinar. And we look forward to having you guys back next month.

Tracy O’Rourke: Thanks, everyone.

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Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner at She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.