Solve your own darn problems

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 3, 2009 · 8 comments

I was recently at a dinner meeting with a few people surrounding an event I was supporting, and at the table was both a young, aggressive, smart individual contributor from a large company and a 30+ year experienced general manager who knew his way around the flagpole. We got into a discussion about the young future manager’s thoughts on problem solving. Through that conversation, something became clear to me. New managers, and really managers in general, don’t know what problems they should be solving.

Every one of a manager’s direct reports has problems. The big mistake managers make is that they make all of their staff’s problems their problems. Those problems aren’t our problems. Here is what this might look like:


If you have 5 directs with 5 problems, that doesn’t mean you have 25 problems. Running a larger organization isn’t about solving more problems, it’s about solving more systemic problems. This is a similar gap from going from super-worker to supervisor. The scope and perspective should change.

There are two problems with taking the additive approach to problem accumulation. First, is that when you see your team’s problems as your problems, whether you intend to or not, you take ownership away from them. This doesn’t follow the whole respect for people thing very well. We aren’t trying to take over, but after all, it’s our problem too. These are their problems. Let them own them.

Second, if you are working on those problems, no on is working on the more systemic problems. For example, the skill of problem solving within the team might be a problem (something you don’t make better by owning their problems for them). Or perhaps alignment is an issue. Or something involving communication.

The point is that you should be aware of those problems. Deeply aware. Because within those problems is not only information about how your systems are performing, but also how your people are performing. But knowing the problems and owning them are two different things.

What action should you take? What can you learn from our team’s problems that tells us what problems we really need to solve? What do you say to a new manager about problem solving?

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1 Stephen Cook December 3, 2009 at 12:02 pm

I totally agree Jamie, I also call this playing your own position. Sports analogies are overused for a good reason, that being that you can learn valuable life lessons about teamwork by playing team sports. To win games, it’s really important to get the best players on your team possible, but even more important for your team to play like a team. When the chips are down, does the line decide they need to block even harder or do they start complaining that the running backs are running fast enough? Individuals on teams need to learn to play the positions they are given and assume that those around them will play their positions. I had a great football coach who would tell the team that when you have a broken play, just find someone from the other team to hit, this is much more productive than trying to figure out who’s fault it was that the play was broken. Teams need to learn to trust each other and play the positions they are playing to the best of their ability.

2 Charlene Johnson December 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Hi Jamie–agree with you in principle.

In reality, I have seen it play out this way: solving the systematic issues means more work for the team. First logging/analyzing data to understand the problem. Then developing and implementing some new process or tool to (hopefully) systematically fix the problem, with mixed results. Now you wind up with more work than you had before…the residual issue, plus feeding the new monster/process/tool.

It is good, when adding something new to the plate, to take something off. Otherwise people become cynical about systematic improvements.

3 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 3, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for the comments Steve.

I like the relation to “playing your own position.” People like their comfort zone, so if in a new position, they still prefer to play the old one (wondering how this applies to Pedroia’s switch to shortstop: )

4 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 4, 2009 at 6:40 am

Thanks for the comments Charlene. I agree, doing this work has to be done for the benefit of the team. Taking work off the team is systems level improvement, involving the scope and work loading of the organization. Working on systems doesn’t need to create a monster. It can start in simple terms with simple methods.

5 John Hunter December 5, 2009 at 11:24 am

This is very hard. I love solving problems and improving things.

6 Mark Graban December 7, 2009 at 12:03 am

Another variation on this theme (maybe worth a separate blog post) is that people need to quit looking for short cuts and answers from other people. Every lean message board or linkedin group has people who post asking for a lean example in their exact industry, company size, and region to go visit and copy from. It doesn’t work that way. This happens a lot in healthcare, related to process and benchmarking — hospitals sometimes BUY a checklist for the O.R. instead of learning how to make their own. That’s so lazy. Sure, you could argue it’s a “best practice” but are people going to follow something they didn’t get input into?

Solve your own darn problem. Make your own darn checklist. Quit copying.

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh December 7, 2009 at 8:47 am

I agree Mark, both that this is a problem and that it’s a whole other post. I actually wrote a column about that back in 2006. Here’s the column:

I think people look for the short cuts. Once they find them, NIH (Not Invented Here) sets it as resistance from the rest of the organization. That’s an often-failed path to improvement.

8 OT CHANDY December 16, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Very nice Jamie! Like it…

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