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Too Many Problems

To be effective, and to avoid being overwhelmed, managers need to be coaches and nurture the problem-solving skills of their direct reports


Jamie Flinchbaugh
Lean Learning Center
Novi, MI


How many managers have just the right amount of work on their plates? I doubt many, at least from my observations and surveys. Many are overloaded; quite a few are overwhelmed. A large percentage of a manager's time is often spent on problems, both those chosen and those that simply pop up and demand attention. Many managers would simply describe their work as solving problems.

Problems multiply by how many direct reports we have. Each direct report has a few problems, and therefore so do we as managers. This becomes a situation where one more problem can break the manager's back. You've seen it happen: someone speaks up about a new problem and the look on the manager's face tells all. It speaks loud and clear: "This is now too much. I cannot handle one more problem."

Managers get tons of training on how to solve problems. They get no training on their role in problem solving. Their role isn't just about solving problems, but here is the neat trick: It's solving problems that probably got them the promotion into management in the first place.

Problem solving is a core system within a company that requires many dimensions to work in alignment to achieve success.

This happens continually in the management chain. What leads to success in one role is often different from the skills required for success in another role. We cannot take a super worker and make him or her a supervisor without changing the individual's role and skills. So what happens to managers when they get promoted? How do they start to engage in finding solutions to the organization's problems? Many experience what I call The 25-Problems Problem.

If you have five direct reports and each of them has five problems they are working on, how many problems do you have? If you didn't think I was setting you up, most would answer 25 problems. But that's the wrong answer. Your team has 25 problems. But those are NOT your problems. Your problems are not the sum total of the problems of your direct reports. You do not have 25 problems. You have your own problems.

Here's what it probably looks like. The team has 25 problems. Picture these 25 problems as 25 straws lying on your desk. You cannot deal with all of them, so you triage those 25 straws to determine which are the most problematic. You then focus your energy on the most critical problem straws and, in turn, the select people currently dealing with them. And that feels good, because they are getting extra attention.

But let's take that to the extreme. Imagine the CEO leads an organization with 1000 people, each of whom has five problems. Does he or she illustratively have 5000 problem straws on her desk, and just has to decide which ten to deal with? I say ten because obviously a CEO can handle more problems than the average person, or so we like to think (in case you didn't pick up on it, please note intended sarcasm). If the CEO only looks at those 5000 problems and picks which ones to work on, many of the things that must go right won't happen in the organization.

A manager must differentiate between the team's problems and problems that are owned by the manager.

So what are your problems? Your problems are the barriers that prevent progress, breakdowns in your systems, and opportunities that enable success across the work of your direct reports. So let's define your role at a different level.

Your team works within a system that is made up of activities, connections, and flows. Your job is to make sure that work done by the team is effective. You are ultimately responsible for working with your team to design, manage, and improve the work to get the right results.

You should, of course, be aware of your team's problems. These provide some of the information or data about what is going on at the system level. Problems become indicators. They are evidence. They are symptoms that reflect what's going on in the system.

For example, if you are expediting shipping to customers, that's a symptom. Most organizations would focus on rushing stuff out of the door and paying extra attention to the tracking and arrival of shipments. But that's just the symptom. Understanding the information and material flows, and how they are connected, reveals the source of the problem. That is where the real fix should be found.

We need systems, or work designs, for how we spot problems, how we surface those problems and draw attention to them, and how we solve problems revealed by our systems. Also, managing the problem is just as important as solving the problem. For example, during one assessment I observed a team that wrote several problems up on their management board along with their planned actions to help solve the problems. This seemed reasonable. Upon further observation, the team continued discussion of several problems to which they had no answers. These were problems they didn't know how to solve yet. Those problems didn't go up on the board. The board was for known solutions. It was clear that this team had no system for capturing and managing problems that they didn't yet know how to solve.

When it comes to problem solving and your systems, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do people know that they have a problem?
  • How do they know their work is being done effectively?
  • What do people do when they have a problem?
  • What kind of help is needed by your people, and how do they connect to that help?
  • How do you manage problems through their lifecycle, from initial observation to verification of results?

This will help you design the right systems to support people with their 25 problems, without making those 25 problems your problems.

The skills and abilities needed to solve problems might be described as part of the system, a particular part of the system that, as a manager, you are responsible for developing and improving.

The 25 problems should give you ample opportunities to observe, coach, and develop people in their capabilities to manage and solve problems. Part of your role is to observe people. You cannot observe people if you rush to solve problems for them. Not only are you not in the right mindset and focus to observe, but you've taken your colleagues out of the equation. Observation requires restraint and patience to truly understand the current conditions.

You also must be an effective coach. Put your hand up if you consider yourself a coach. Most of you just did, at least mentally. But let me distinguish coaching people towards the solution versus coaching people on the method.

If someone comes to you with a problem, when do you start thinking about the solution? For many of you, if you're honest, it's before the other person finishes their sentence. This is natural. But whatever conversation ensues, you are likely to coach that person towards what is (or what you think is) the right answer. This is very different than coaching someone on the method. When you coach someone on the method, your focus is on neither the problem nor the answer. It is on the thinking of the individual: What questions do they ask? What evidence do they gather? Whom do they include? How do they develop options? How do they test? If you want to build skills, then you must take the time to coach people on the method. It takes longer, but it provides a better return on your invested coaching.

For example, if an engineer comes to his or her manager with a problem with material warping, the manager could recommend checking the pressure and temperature settings, and then checking the tension settings, followed by a quality check of incoming materials. Instead, the manager could ask what the engineer thinks the problem statement would be. Next, the engineer could develop a list, perhaps through a fishbone diagram, of all the potential causes of the warping. The manager could then ask if there were any potential causes that could be quickly ruled out or tested. Following one path might get to an answer faster. But what about the next problem, and the next, and the next that the manager will still be depended upon to help solve? If the manager chooses to coach the engineer, and develop his/her problem-solving skills, the manager not only helps solve the problem, but also helps develop another problem solver.

Ask yourself:

  • What are my team's problem-solving skills? What strengths and weaknesses do they exhibit?
  • What kind of coach am I? What kind of coach do I want to be, and how do I get there?
  • What are my coachable moments? How do I determine when I should be coaching?

Improve yourself to improve your team.

Culture can be described as the collective and shared thinking and behaviors of the organization, or the team. And it has a huge impact on the problem-solving process within the organization.

Consider what happens when there is a need to surface a problem. If a member of a team surfaces a problem, and you groan and drop your head or assign a weekend's worth of work, or criticize the fact that the problem exists, what behavior do you think that reaction will drive? It will create an unwillingness to raise problems in the future. Your behavior impacts the behavior of other persons.

The responses of managers do more to build the culture, either positively or negatively, than any other aspect of life within a company. People learn very quickly. If bringing up problems brings about more suffering for themselves, they will be hesitant to surface problems in the future. If bringing up problems provides them with help and resources, workers will continue to be proactive in surfacing problems. Management's attitude to the surfacing of problems takes a very short time to learn.

If people don't look at problems as opportunities to build a better system, then they will just take the shortest path to removing the symptom. If people don't look at problem solving as a learning opportunity, then they won't seek collaboration or experimentation in the process. Regardless of how effective your systems and skills are, the wrong behaviors can deter all progress.

In your managerial role of developing the right culture for problem solving, ask yourself these questions:

  • What behaviors do I want to see from my team?
  • How do I articulate these behavioral expectations?
  • What behaviors must I exhibit to enable that culture?
  • What behaviors must I eliminate to enable that culture?

Problem solving is a system. It is a core system within your organization. It is not about one person or about one problem. Many dimensions must work together and in alignment for problem-solving to be successful. Most problem-solving efforts focus on one dimension or the other. Most company-driven problem-solving initiatives focus just on the tools. We roll out another tool, from Six Sigma to 5 Whys to A3s to 8D, each time expecting a different result. But, more likely, if the tool is not delivering the intended results, it is not the fault of the tool. It's more likely that the thinking and behaviors are not in alignment, or the systems aren't capable. Think about your problem solving more holistically rather than just examining the tools that you use.

Your role as a manager in problem solving is not the same role as that of an individual contributor. You must examine the role you play, and the role you should play. Your team's 25 problems are not your problems. If you see your team's problems as your problems, you'll end up with 24 more additional "straws" on your back than the proverbial camel had. By focusing on the right role, those 25 problems will go away, but that's not all. You will develop a more-engaged workforce that takes pride in their work. You will be able to solve more problems as an organization than ever before. You as a manager may solve fewer problems, but your team will solve many more.


Jamie Flinchbaugh is co-founder of the Lean Learning Center and co-author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean.You can find him at


This article was first published in the July 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 7/1/2010

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