Adopting a Tool-Agnostic Approach to Problem Solving (

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 05-29-24

When someone utters the phrase “problem solving”, what is the first image that comes to mind? For most people, those words immediately take you into problem solving tools and templates. This is because many of us have gone through training program after training program to learn various tools. For myself, just some of my tools-based learning includes my various engineering degrees, Kepner-Tregoe, TQM, Six Sigma, A3, TRIZ, Design Thinking, and more. 

It is worse when leaders adopt this perspective. How do you earn “credit” for problem solving? In most organizations, you only get credit if you used the right tool and properly documented on the right template. Many managers will even dictate a tool’s use, such as “you should do an A3 on that.” This establishes a clear expectation that you pull out the template, and fill in the boxes. 

Tools aren’t the problem, but being overly focused on tools can be. Throughout this article we will examine what it looks like to take a more tool-agnostic approach to problem solving, and how that benefits your performance. 

What does tool-agnostic problem solving mean? 

Tool-agnostic problem solving doesn’t mean that we never use tools, and doesn’t even mean that we don’t care about tools. It means that tools are not our focal point, and that we are not dogmatic about tool selection or tool use. That is the main reason for this mentality, is to avoid the dogmatic and even unthinking approaches to problem solving. 

Being dogmatic may not seem like the worst problem to have, but when it comes to problem solving it can become terribly destructive. First, people unintentionally shift the ownership for the results to the tool itself, instead of with themselves as the owner of the problem. You essentially follow the process and expect the process to lead you to the answer. It never actually does. The tool and template does not solve the problem for you. 

The most extreme version of this mindset is what I refer to as malicious compliance. This is when people get forced to utilize the tool, and they comply, but with poor or malicious intent. Every box on the template gets filled out, but not in a way that leads to useful insight. This might sound extreme, but it is quite common based on my own observations. This happens because people don’t have the behaviors, the capabilities, or the coaching support they need to effectively use the tool, so they know they can’t be successful. Of course they could decide to make an effort, seek out some coaching, and learn how to use the tool but the easier path is to just get through the exercise. Even the best problem-solving organizations get exposed to some of this behavior. 

Another problem with tool-centric is represented in my first paragraph of this article, and that is too much jargon. A3 and DMAIC and Red X and all of these terms are jargon. Now jargon has a use, as these tools and methods need names and so we can’t avoid it. However, when you are tool-centric then you must go through the jargon just to initially engage, and this creates a barrier to engagement for those just starting out on their problem-solving journey. If people don’t know what you’re talking about because of all the jargon, they assume that their first questions will likely be met with just more jargon. All of this limits their willingness to engage in problem solving efforts, and hurts the overall effectiveness of the organization. I have observed this behavior as an impediment to the majority of organizations I’ve seen. 

You might suggest that being tool-agnostic isn’t necessary to avoid a dogmatic approach to problem solving. However, they really turn out to be just different points along the same spectrum. It is hard to be tool-centric and not end up with at least some of the organization being dogmatic. Tool-centric is what I deem the opposite of tool-agnostic. Tool-centric puts the problem solving tools as the focal point, and this bypasses what should be the center of problem solving: the people. 

My own journey towards tool-agnostic

I didn’t always take this view of being tool-agnostic. As I earlier demonstrated, I’ve learned a great many different problem solving techniques. Some I’ve used more than others, and certainly have developed my favorite go-to choices. When I wrote the first draft of People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem, I actually had A3 problem solving laced throughout the book, even though it wasn’t about the tool. However, I began to explore whether that was really my view and whether it was really helpful to others who might read the book. 

Through a great deal of observation and reflection, I realized that my, and many others’, primary reason for selecting A3 problem solving was comfort and familiarity. I had used that method more than any other method, and that made me quite familiar with how to use it, as well as how to be flexible in using it. I’ve observed the same in many other excellent problem solvers, where they might be even trying to learn a new approach but continue to return to their favorite approach to solving problems. 

I really started to look at the best problem-solving organizations, and people, that I knew. Having worked with over 300 companies on their own improvement, this gave me a wide spectrum to examine. I also considered some of the worst at solving problems. There were a couple of very clear conclusions. First, the very top problem solving organizations all used different tools and templates from each other. Second, many of the tools and templates used by the best were the same ones used by some of the worst. 

In other words, there is almost zero correlation between tool-use or tool-selection and success in problem solving. This was instinctively true, yet really examining the question made it undeniable. Problem solving success isn’t about selecting and training the right tools. Problem solving success is about the people who engage with problem solving, and the behaviors, capabilities, and leadership that enables good problem solving. 

Close cousins of problem solving 

To help us explore a broader definition of problem solving that goes beyond the tools, I want to spend a little time exploring the close cousins of problem solving. These are common activities found in organizations that share many of the same traits of problem solving, but may not be recognized as such. Why is this important? Because when we see the connections between these close cousins and problem solving, we can then see the power of getting the capabilities and behaviors right. These capabilities and behaviors go beyond what you do in a problem solving template, and therefore have much greater leverage. 

An example of these close cousins is setting goals and objectives. Good goals and objectives should set a clearly defined gap, which we can think of like a problem statement. There is also likely some work to do to learn how to close the gap. It’s more than just a decision to make, but we have to understand why the gap exists and how to close it. Setting goals and objectives very rarely shares templates with traditional problem solving, yet in many ways they are the same thing. Imagine if we brought the same capabilities and behaviors to both. This is why looking at problem solving more broadly can be so powerful. 

Creating your strategy is another close cousin of problem solving. It often follows a very different path. It often begins with a lot of analysis. This is usually the middle of problem solving, but with strategy development there is plenty of situational analysis up front. Strategy development is also often looking at all of the problems at once, and looking at how they are interrelated. That generally isn’t good advice for problem solving. In the end, all good strategy development is a form of problem solving. 

There are other examples of close cousins, from innovation and product development to closing a sale. Building strong capabilities and behaviors related to problem solving not only helps problem solving but helps these close cousins as well. However, when we take a tool-centric approach, most of the learning is retained inside the use of the tool and is therefore less useful. 

Focus on building capabilities 

Before you just throw out the tools, consider that they do have value. One of their greatest values is in both teaching people capabilities related to problem solving and then creating a habit of deliberate practice by following the steps laid out in problem solving. However, we have to understand that those capabilities live both within and beyond the problem solving tool. If we make this clear up front, people can build capabilities and are more likely to leverage that capability beyond the framework of the tools. 

There are numerous capabilities that help, but here are what I believe are most valuable. First is the ability to frame the problem through the problem statement. Second is the ability to study and understand cause and effect. Third is integrating intuition effectively into your problem solving effort. Fourth is ideating and selecting solutions. Fifth is testing to learn. 

Problem statements are the front-door to all problem solving efforts. They are like a vector; they establish both the direction and the magnitude of the effort that must follow. Whether you are solving the problem yourself, or delegating problem solving to others, effectively framing that problem is critical. This work often begins before you ever start using a problem solving tool or template, and also is very useful in instances where there is no structured problem solving. I believe if there is one capability from problem solving that should be widely adopted and cultivated, it is this one. No idea, proposal, or even action should be adopted without defining what problem you are solving in the process. 

Studying cause and effect requires curiosity, persistence, and selecting a good strategy for observation or study. For many problem solving tools, this results in a root cause analysis step and is often very limited in what approach is taken, ranging from process maps to 5 Whys to fishbone diagrams. Instead, you have to treat this like a learning activity. I find there are two important questions. First, what do you not know about this problem that you need to learn? Second, what is the best method to learn what you need? Problem solving is often about closing knowledge gaps before you close the performance gaps. 

Integrating intuition is a more difficult capability to develop, but may be the most important. The development of intuition requires deliberate practice and accumulated experience over time. I’m always reminded of an old adage that experience is not what you’ve been through, but it is what you take away from it that really matters. Problem solving is not about throwing away intuition and experience in exchange for analytical methods and critical thinking. It is about integrating them. Intuition is sometimes just about knowing when you need to pause, when you need to slow down, or when you need to look at a problem more broadly. Those little twists and trust in the road of discovery do not follow a set recipe. That is where your intuition can serve you well as your guide.

Of course problem solving ultimately results in solutions. Ideating and then selecting solutions is a critical capability. This is a great place to make the point that using only one of these capabilities without the other is not a good path forward. For example, jumping to solutions, no matter how good you are at developing them, without taking the time to study cause and effect, can lead to failure. However, assuming you have that understanding, then effective problem solvers rarely utilize their very first idea. Ideating multiple solutions stokes creativity, and allows a more thoughtful selection of a final solution. 

Finally, testing to learn is not just about validating your final idea, although that is part of it. Testing to learn is about answering the question “how do you know?” It applies all throughout your problem solving effort. There is a balance between the efficiency of moving forward in the process and confidence of knowing that you’re right. How do you know your problem statement is helpful? How do you know your analysis of the current state is accurate? These are questions that can be answered with a well-placed and well-designed experiment. As I said, you have to balance your learning with the speed of forward progress. Testing to learn can be a powerful skill to help reduce risk and accelerate progress. 

These capabilities do not depend on any problem solving tool or method. They are helpful for every single method listed in the first paragraph, and most importantly are capabilities that provide a benefit even when none of them are used. This is why capabilities are a more powerful focal point for building strength in problem solving. 

Problem solving behaviors drive your culture 

How we behave has a tremendous impact on our outcomes. Imagine you are on your way home in your car. You have all the tools you need at your disposal: gas pedal, brake pedal, speedometer, a clear windshield, and so on. You also have some rules in place, such as a speed limit and other traffic rules. However, these things only enable your outcomes. Your beliefs ultimately shape your behaviors which determine how you utilize those tools and rules. If you care more about speed than safety, that belief will determine your actions. 

Here is the basic formula. Our beliefs drive our behaviors, which determine our moment-by-moment actions, which ultimately affect our results. According to this formula, focusing on the right beliefs would be logical. However, over time I have learned to focus more on the behaviors because they are observable. Beliefs are not observable. This matters because first, I can observe my team’s behaviors and either recognize success or hold them accountable for gaps in behaviors. The second reason is that I can visibly role model the desired behaviors, which is a powerful mechanism to create change. 

The culture is shaped by people’s experiences. Leaders should create experiences that help shape those beliefs and behaviors. These experiences include our decisions and actions, how we recognize people, the questions that we ask, and more. Your culture is being created whether you have a plan or not. People have experiences every day, and those experiences could help them believe that it is better to keep their head down and stay to themselves, or to speak up and engage directly in the problems. You will create a culture, and that will either be an accidental culture or a deliberate one. To ensure that your culture is a deliberate culture, you must clearly articulate the desired behaviors, and then think about and execute the experiences to generate the culture you desire. 

The leverage to improve problem solving 

The vast majority of organizations that want to improve their problem solving turn to training as the answer. This is an easy lever to pull, and usually this leads us back to the tools and methods that gain more focus than they should. What’s worse is that when the training they deploy doesn’t produce the results desired, the most common adjustment is…you guessed it…do more training. 

I believe that coaching is a much more effective mechanism to create change. To be clear, it is harder and more time consuming. However, that is a necessary investment to maximize improvement of problem solving. There are two primary reasons that coaching is the most effective change mechanism. 

First, everyone is different and problem solving is a very personal and individual activity. We have been problem solving since we were infants. We developed many habits, some good and some bad, over the years through school and our professional life. Pretending that the learning needs for all people is homogeneous assumes that their journey to now has been homogenous. Instead, everyone’s journey has been their own, and their opportunities to improve are their own. Coaching allows you to tailor the learning journey to each individuals’ needs. 

Second, learning to be more effective in problem solving requires repetition. There are many lessons that occur in the nuances and variations from one problem to the next, and this is what helps develop that important intuition mentioned earlier. Coaching integrates with the ongoing efforts of problem solving more naturally than the short burst of training. 

The ideal state is that every employee is no more than one degree removed from access to a coach. That means consider everything from the organizational chart to geographic to shift structure. The most natural way to achieve that is to make every manager a coach, although that may not be the easier way. If you want to invest in your problem solving capability and capacity, consider investing in developing more coaches for problem solving. 

No matter what problems you are facing today, and what problems you may face in the future, problem solving is the one core capability that can help you through the challenge. Remember that tools don’t solve problems, but people solve problems. Focus on empowering your people and giving them what they need to be successful in facing their next problems.