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Jamie Flinchbaugh

Lean

Problem Solving Is Not Just About Tools

People solve problems—every person, every day, every problem

Published: Monday, February 28, 2022 - 13:03

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the new book People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem (Old Dutch Group, 2021) by Jamie Flinchbaugh.

For anyone reading this who is familiar with my teaching, this will come as no surprise: Problem-solving tools are not the key to success. Behaviors are more important, more effective, and more powerful than the set of tools you use to execute problem solving.

Twelve years ago, that was the premise of the first chapter of my book with Andy Carlino, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean (SME, 2006). Twenty years ago, that was the premise of starting a company with Andy. The first chapter of our book was on lean principles. We argued that lean was not born from tools but from how we think.

This premise has been tested and broadly accepted throughout the lean community. That does not mean that everyone knows what to do with the idea, but that many people believe principles and behaviors, otherwise known as culture, are a massive leverage point for the success of lean.

I was fortunate in my early experiences to reach this conclusion, although I did not articulate it clearly at the time. In the book Practicing Lean (Constancy 2016), I outlined my first deep experience with lean while at Harley-Davidson. Read my chapter in that book for the full story, but the short version is that while installing and running one of the first large-scale pull systems in North America, the majority of failure modes had nothing to do with the system design or the included tool kit; instead, failures were all about how people behaved using the system.

When it comes to problem solving, I believe the underlying concept that principles and behaviors matter more than the tool is even more powerful. Why? Because while many lean tools drive the work, problem solving is an even bigger challenge. It is a human challenge. People solve problems. There is no way around that. Tools do not solve problems. Methods do not solve problems. Data do not solve problems. We rely on the strengths and the weaknesses of people to solve problems.

Behaviors drive actions

There is a formula behind this key idea. Our principles and beliefs (how we think) drive our behaviors. Our behaviors, which can be described as a consistent pattern of actions across multiple situations, drive our actions in any particular situation. And our actions ultimately drive our results.

Let us walk backward through this to make sure we get it right. If a leader is focused only on results as the leverage in the organization, they will insist that their team “get better results.” Sure, they might say it in an artful or inspiring way, but it is still only asking for better results. When a leader focuses on actions, especially in problem solving, they might ask people to “do more A3s” (a popular problem-solving method). How many times in a meeting do you hear a leader say, “Could we get an A3 on that?” or, “I think that needs an A3.” This is focused only on the action, in the moment, of doing more problem solving.


Digging below that has a greater impact. When focused on behaviors, a leader might be both a role model and coach for people to be curious about cause and effect. This will perhaps require that we use problem-solving methods to gain that understanding, but the focus is on the behavior of curiosity. And deeper still, a principle beneath that behavior is that problem solving is all about learning.

The leverage for sustainable and impactful gains is in the principles and behaviors. More often, I really focus on the behaviors rather than the principles. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, behaviors can be role-modeled. If I want to role-model problem solving for my team, they cannot see how I think or what I believe. However, they can observe my behaviors, especially if I’m conscientious about being a role model.

Second, behaviors are observable in the other direction. I can observe whether my team is adopting and practicing the desired behaviors. To drive change, a leader must be able to observe and evaluate whether they are getting the results they desire. It is quite difficult to observe someone’s beliefs, but their behaviors are much more observable and a useful proxy for the thinking behind them.

How we fail by focusing on the tools

There are many observable failure modes when the focus is too much on the tools of problem solving, and I will explore them in the chronological order in which they appear in your evolution. The first failure typically observed is what we call “malicious compliance.” Malicious compliance is following rules or instructions but not as intended and sometimes with deliberately poor consequences. This is done either as a form of protest against the new requirement or simply not wanting to be bothered and therefore deliberately doing the bare minimum.

In problem solving, this usually looks like using the tool or method to document a preexisting conclusion. In these situations, the tool is used as a weapon of manipulation against any sense of its true intent or spirit. A long time ago, I had a maintenance manager who worked for me in our factory. In our operation, if you had at least one minute of downtime, you were required to complete a 5 Why Downtime Report. The form captured the instance and impact of the problem and required a 5 Why analysis to get to the root cause, and then a countermeasure needed to be documented and implemented. I had to review and approve any of the maintenance manager’s reports.

This maintenance manager was a tremendously talented electrician and truly cared about the operation as much as anyone. But he was also difficult, and anything that didn’t resemble people staying out of his work was met with resistance and sometimes outright refusal. He lost the battle on complying with the 5 Why Downtime Report, so he tried malicious compliance. Every single report, whether it started with a broken-down conveyor or a failed robot, went through the 5 Why analysis and got to the same root cause: not enough resources. This allowed him to declare innocence, kick the problem up the organizational ladder, and still officially comply with the mandatory report.

This story might seem extreme, but I can promise every organization has some malicious compliance going on. Since getting the culture right is a “one heart and one mind at a time” journey, there will always be someone practicing malicious compliance that you haven’t yet converted. But how many people? And for how long? By focusing on the behaviors of good problem solving, we can reduce this failure mode. People do not get “credit” for completing a problem-solving template; they get credit for practicing the right behaviors. This is obviously much harder, which we will get into later in the book, but it solves this and other failure modes.


The next failure mode that shows up is unthinking problem solving. Problem solving is a thinking person’s game. People will “give it a shot” when the problem-solving template is thrust in front of them, but they are so focused on the tool that they don’t think—they just complete it. A great way to determine whether this is how people are operating is by observing what happens when they get to a current-reality or cause-analysis part of the template. At this point, someone will capture what they already know. They will start writing down bullet points of all the things they know about the problem. But what they already know is not likely to be where the insight or solution comes from. This behavior comes from a compelling drive to get through the template and complete the task.

In one extreme case years ago, we did some analysis and determined that a team I was working with would have a lot of resistance and frustration with any tool or template. Instead of a tool, we just focused on problems and the skills and next steps of trying to tackle them. We worked on the right behaviors and built the right skills. After about six months and several iterations, the team came to me and said, “We’ve noticed a pattern in a lot of the problem solving we’ve done, so we put together this template to capture them in the future.” It looked a lot like an A3 template (imagine that!), just a little less tightly packaged. This team never focused on the template but instead on what they needed to do to overcome problems. This is not an approach I would take with most organizations, but it demonstrates how a team can truly learn without needing a tool.

The third failure mode is related to the last one but usually occurs after a person or team has overcome it. This failure mode is treating problem solving linearly as a series of steps. Many times, problem solving is even taught in numbered steps, such as 8-Step Problem Solving, which can exacerbate this behavior. A person will begin problem solving, starting with step one, and diligently complete each step in turn. The trouble is that effective problem solving is rarely linear. You learn something in one step that takes you back a step for modification. Or you test an idea, and it doesn’t produce the intended result, so you test the next solution on your list or perhaps restudy the cause of the problem. A great test of this is the problem statement itself. Ask someone how often their problem statement was modified after starting. If they never say yes, then it is likely they are treating it as a linear process instead of embracing the problem with the right behaviors and deploying the right skills.

The final failure mode is one we observe further into the journey when many people are more mature in using their methodology. I have said for a long time that if we could measure it, the best gauge of a successful journey is that there are more informal and voluntary efforts than formal and forced efforts. You want the informal to be greater in number than the formal (although not just by reducing the formal, of course). When this happens with problem solving, you see templates written on whiteboards, 5 Whys on the backs of envelopes, and deep dives being done at the point of activity through a discussion between two individuals. When we focus on the tools, this never happens, either because people want credit for their activity or simply because they can’t see past the tool because the tool is the template. This will permanently limit your ability to build a truly high-momentum problem-solving organization.

Regardless of which tools and templates you have selected, the critical behaviors and capabilities of problem solving are universal.

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About The Author

Jamie Flinchbaugh’s picture

Jamie Flinchbaugh

Jamie Flinchbaugh, author of “People Solve Problems: The Power of Every Person, Every Day, Every Problem,” is an accomplished entrepreneur, senior executive, consultant, and board member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience. As the founder of JFlinch, he helps teams accelerate their journey by solving their challenging problems and providing the resources, education, and tools needed to make lean leaders successful.   www.jflinch.comLinkedInFacebookTwitterInstagram, YouTube.