The failure of “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 7, 2012 · 15 comments

I head this approach many times, and in many different forms. Managers say “I don’t want people to bring me problems; I want them to bring me solutions.” Or “I don’t want more questions, I want answers.”

I ran across this on the Harvard Business Review Blog in The No Whining Rule for Managers by Ron Ashkenas. I was excited by the title, but disappointed in the advice. I hate whining. I don’t mind venting once in a while, especially when someone calls it out. But whining frustrates me. So I read the article with great anticipation until I got to the advice:

Accountability: First, do not allow your people to present problems without attempting to solve them on their own. If appropriate, they should inform you about what they are doing to avoid any surprises. But the basic idea is that they should do what think necessary to achieve results. There will be times where they may not have the authority or resources to execute the solution — and in those cases they should propose a solution along with their request for help.


Here’s the comment I made on the post, which upon further thought felt I wanted to share here:

I agree with the no whining rule. But I don’t agree that the solution is having to present a solution to every problem. Some problems require help. Some problems require collaboration. Some solutions are better with some coaching. Certain, most people are better with some coaching. Forcing people to essentially do all problem solving in a vacuum is a mistake.

I think surfacing a problem, in most organizations, takes courage. To confuse surfacing problems with whining is very wrong-headed. I believe one of the utmost hallmarks of a lean organization is that someone can talk very openly about the problems which they have no idea how to solve yet.

It is the un-lean organization that keeps it’s difficult problems hidden. This, above all else, is the difference between the paths that Kodak and Fujifilm (more on that in a future post). According to Mr. Ashkenas, none of the employees should be saying “but what are we going to do about the fact that film will be going away” unless they’ve already solved the problem themselves.

1 Richard Veryard February 7, 2012 at 7:03 am

Not whining but drowning …

2 Mark Graban February 7, 2012 at 8:25 am

Couldn’t agree with you more. We have to do more to honor and recognize the identification of problems. Like you said, problem solving and improvement is rarely a solo activity. This is a persistent theme throughout my upcoming book, Healthcare Kaizen, with Joe Swartz. It’s also part of the philosophy and workflow built into the KaiNexus software from the startup I am working with. Getting busy people to take the time to stop and just identify a problem is a huge leap forward… then a group or team can work together on identifying and testing countermeasures as part of the PDCA/PDSA cycle.

“Bring me solutions!!!” means that people likely won’t honestly test those solutions… they will just assume that they work and move on.

3 Richard Veryard February 7, 2012 at 9:28 am

And if the bosses want their subordinates to solve all the problems for them, what are the bosses getting paid for?

4 Chris Paulsen February 7, 2012 at 9:46 am

Excellent points! I’ve worked for managers who made it clean that they wanted us to bring solutions. Fortunately they did not take it to the extreme. There was still plenty of collaboration and help as needed. By best Kaizen effort is still one that was the idea of our VP Manufacturing (two steps up from me). That plant would still be dealing with the yield loss if our VP sat there waiting instead of being part of the team.

5 hav2remainAnon February 7, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I’m surprised no one has posted about a culture/company where managers and subordinates are told not to bring problems at all. “Keep your head down in the foxhole, don’t say anything at all!” Never mind solutions, so many middle managers and executives are so deathly afraid of losing their jobs that they don’t want to stand out at all, forget about “thinking outside the box” taking chances or Entrepreneurial thinking! THIS is what brings about the death of great companies, companies that once embraced new ideas and independent thinking. There’s no thought at all anymore, just march in a straight line, follow the plan (right off the cliff) and follow orders.

6 Richard Veryard February 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Jamie replied on Twitter to my last comment “I think having conversations about problems, and taking over ownership is two different things; its a binary view of process”

For a boss to say “don’t bring me problems” is wrong on several counts. Firstly it is stupid to suppress problems, as Jamie’s original post explains. And secondly such pronouncements seem to undermine the idea that senior managers deserve higher pay and status because they are more able (or better positioned) to solve difficult problems. (This argument is related to Elliot Jaques’ justification of management hierarchy.) If the boss doesn’t want to have to solve problems himself, then it looks as if he is being lazy AS WELL AS stupid.

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Thanks Richard. It’s difficult to discuss complicated matters via twitter.

I think that’s exactly right. Leaders don’t need to solve all the problems, and they don’t need to abdicate responsibility. The word “engaged” comes to mind. Everyone is a problem solver, but solving problems at the right level. Leaders shouldn’t shy away from them, but should take on the ones that warrant their role, skill, and responsibility.

8 Mark Graban February 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I think the best model of engagement includes:

1) If an employee brings forward a problem, go to the gemba to see and discuss the problem

2) ask the employee if they have a good understanding of the root cause (and coach them)

3) ask the employee if they have any ideas for countermeasures (people are often shy about this for the fear of being “wrong”)

4) work collaboratively with the employee and the team.

As mentioned above, this isn’t the “boss” having all the answers, nor is it the manager abdicating their role in process improvement.

9 Wesley Connell February 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

This is great! I have began implementation of a visual board to address this exact situation. I created a mini A3 template (yeah, its not really an A3 because of the size) that employees can fill out quickly when they surface problems they can’t overcome on their own. The board captures all of these complex problems along with some initial thoughts by the individual who surfaced the issue. This board has become the source of high impact kaizen activities. In the past we heard whining about current conditions, now we see issues that we need to address to improve the business.

10 Christina Kach February 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I think there is a difference between going into a boss’ office or team meeting to “complain” about the problem and going in to “bring to light” the problem – with the intent to work towards a solution (using collabortation, coaching, etc…)

11 Bryan March 8, 2012 at 7:50 pm

People should bring solutions to the discussion and not just the problem expecting answers.

12 Kevin Kobett April 2, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Problem solving is a rare skill. In elementary school, a couple of students answered the difficult math equations on the blackboard. At my first employer, teddy bears were given to employees with accepted suggestions. Three employees, out of 450, were given 90% of the teddy bears.

The most difficult task for the problem solver is identifying a problem to work on. Management’s task is to collect problems and share these problems with everyone on the payroll. This is easy. “You invent because something bothers you,” Joseph Rabinow 231 US patents. Ask employees what irritates them.

13 Steve Krim May 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I disagree with the idea that a problem shouldn’t have a solution provided. Its’ easy to identify problems and look to others to either help solve or solve for you (that’s kinda called whining IMHO). Rather, when a person identifies a problem and brings a solution, that shows depth of thought and understanding of the issue / problem. I would be personally embarrassed to take a problem to my boss or a client and when they ask (inevitably) how to fix it, and my answer is “I don’t know”…

Even if a “solution” is misguided or plain wrong, it shows a level of effort – in my world, problem solving is a collaborative effort, no one person can have the perfect solution, but a team has a better chance of getting it right.

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