Are you working on the right problems?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 05-17-12

Lean is not all about waste, despite what we see in most definitions and applications. If it were about one thing (which oversimplifies things) it would be about problem solving, at all levels of the organization.

We take problem solving for granted. Why? Because we’ve been doing it since we were very young. We learned it in school. And because when we teach lean we mostly focus on the technique of solving problems, it sounds pretty simple and so we dismiss that we have much to learn.

One of the most frustrating problems I hear managers at all levels of organizations talk about is not having enough time. It is one of the reasons I spend so much coaching time on prioritization and personal productivity. But we always have time for problem solving. I haven’t met a manager yet who somehow skips problem solving because they are too busy with other things. We might skip doing it well, or doing it differently, or doing it collaboratively, but one way or another, problem solving always makes the cut.

Therefore, I would contend that it is one of the best levers for change that we have, because we are doing it anyway. Just think, with all the problems we’re already trying to solve, if we became 5% more effective at solving the problems we are already working on…or 50%, or 200%…just how powerful that would be!

Here is the first level that we make the mistake. Imagine you have 5 direct reports, and each one of those directs has 5 problems. We think we have 25 problems. If our directs have 25 pieces of equipment down, we think our problem is that we have 25 piece of equipment down. If our directs have 25 unhappy customers, we think we have 25 unhappy customers. If our directs have 25 projects behind schedule, we think we have 25 projects behind schedule.

This is a fallacy. Our directs’ problems are not our problems. Our problems are different.

The manager’s problems are why those problems exist. The manager’s problems are why we can’t solve those problems faster.

I’ve met too many executives who think their job is to go and meet with the largest client who is unhappy, or to ask about the why the largest piece of equipment is down, or why a particular department exceeded their budget. There is nothing inherently wrong with these questions, depending on why you are engaging them. Of course sometimes those are the right problems for you to work on as well, but often they are not. You have different problems.

Your problem is why is the preventive maintenance program not working that allowed all those pieces of equipment to go down in the first place. Or why are your customers not seeing the value proposition. Or do we have a planning problem or an execution problem that allows so many projects to get behind schedule.

You have unique problems, and until you understand that fact, and work on the appropriate problems for your role, little progress can be made.

But this is not our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is our past experience, not the problems that lay before us. We take a super-worker and turn them into a supervisor, but their skills were already most effective in their last role.


The role of a manager is more than problem solver…it is problem solving architect. You must put into place and into practice all that is required to make those around you effective at solving problems; and not just solving problems, but solving the right problems. This isn’t a company issue or a CEO issue or a “lean guy” issue but is an issue anyone leading a group of people must face and tackle.

There are 3 components of doing this work. The reason that these 3 components are so important is that too often we try to improve problem solving one-dimensionally. We roll out new problem solving training, and find nothing changes. Those 3 components are:

  • the problem solving culture and behaviors: how do we think about and treat the problems we have
  • the problem solving methods and skills: yes, the technique still matters, but not as much as the skills in which we deploy those techniques
  • the systems to manage problems: how do we manage problems, surface them, track them, prioritize them

Are you a problem solver? Or a problem solving architect?

Reflection question: what components are holding you and your team back from more effectively solving the problems you are already dealing with? 


Want to learn more about problem solving through A3 thinking? You can download my ebook on LeanPub or Kindle.


  • Well done. I have a team of 7, and reading this was like a revelation. We’ll see how it goes 🙂

    Jason Michener May 17, 2012 at 9:17 am
  • Glad to hear it, Jason. Thanks, and good luck. I should probably put in parenthesis of the title “(and it ain’t easy)”

    Jamie Flinchbaugh May 17, 2012 at 9:30 am
  • Great post Jamie. It helps to refocus ones thinking, once in a while. It definitely is not easy, but it is so rewarding to see someone understand it, and apply what they have learned. I love that you mentioned planning and execution, as this is a primary focus for my team this year…teaching managers to think about it.

    John Fleck June 1, 2012 at 8:31 am
  • Thank you John. I hope your team does well with it.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh June 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm
  • Exactly right. As a manager (in Deming’s view) you are responsible for improving the system of management in the organization. You need to find weaknesses in the system (failing to use control charts most effectively, failing to adapt new customer desires quickly enough…) and address them. Not to address the specific issues involved (though maybe do that sometimes) but to see what system fixes (training on control charts, a bit of free time for engineers to go visit with customers…) are needed and make them happen.

    The idea that we are improving and so don’t need to worry about continual improvement is a mistaken mindset. It is close to impossible not to improve your results. The issue is how quickly you are improving. You improve quickly by addressing systemic issues and having everyone able and encouraged to focus on improvement.

    John Huner June 2, 2012 at 6:58 am
  • Many of us know this, but fall back into old “super technician” habits because we haven’t fully worked through and implemented the proper lean leader standard work (and continued to improve it). Old habits die hard unless you acknowledge them then consciously do something about changing them. Thanks for the reminder to be diligent in working on this.

    Don Jones June 3, 2012 at 8:07 am
  • […] Flinchbaugh has a thought-provoking post asking Are You Working on the Right Problems? Probably not, especially if you’re a manager. “The manager’s problems are why those […]

  • Jamie

    It brings to light the difference between what a true manager is and what many people think a manger should be. And it relates to how we choose those who lead at various levels in an organzation.

    A managers job is not getting an organizations work done, but it is managing the people and resources under them in such a fashion that the work gets done. A managers problem is not solving a workers problems, but rather developing and empowering the worker to solve the problem.

    A big mistake is promoting people who are the best at something to the role of manager. This has two key flaws, one you end up losing the person capable of doing the best job, and you often set them up for failure, because being good at the work has nothing in relation to being good at managing people and resource to get work done. The skill sets are totally different.

    I have seen this happen time and time again when highly specialized staff such as sales, engineering, maintenace are promoted to managemnt positions because they are good at the job. You often find that they either drive away good people because they are always getting in the way, or they step in and takeover, which results you their staff never growing. On the other hand I have seen people with no real knowledge of a job, step into manager roles and drive huge success. What they had was people skill, they managed their staff and supplied their staff the resource they needed to get the job done, then they let them actually do it.

    Managers need to understand that they succeed only when they help the members of their team succeed.

    Robert Drescher June 14, 2012 at 11:01 am