Bringing Me Problems is OK, We’ll Find Solutions Together

solutionIt’s a bit of a modern management cliché to say “Don’t bring problems! Bring me solutions!”

I think what that means is “Don’t just complain! Think about improving things!”

It’s good to think about improvement, but sometimes (if not often!) that improvement process starts by identifying problems.

In a “Kaizen” process in a team, I encourage people to bring problems forward even if they do NOT have a solution or “countermeasure” in mind. When somebody points out a problem, that can prompt discussion or brainstorming (with the manager and colleagues) about what solutions could be tested.

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Here’s an article from Harvard Business Review that delves into this same topic:

Don’t Bring Me Problems–Bring Me Solutions!”

The interview with professor Frances X. Frei starts like this:

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CBD: I thought that encouraging employees to solve problems was a good thing–?

FF: It is, of course. But sending out this message doesn’t do it. Instead of promoting accountability, it actually encourages employees to turn a blind eye to problems they see but cannot figure out how to fix. When you say “Don’t bring me problems–bring me solutions,” what you’re saying, in effect, is “Of all the problems you find, I only want to know about the ones you can solve.”

I’d add that even when people have solutions in mind, we have to be careful that we’re not jumping to solutions. Making sure we define (and understand) the problem first is a very helpful and necessary first step.

Frei adds:

Identifying problems can be a solo sport, but finding solutions rarely is. This is especially true when the problems have any degree of complexity. If you’re giving people permission to tell you about just those problems they can solve, you’re missing out on many opportunities for improvement. You’re leaving performance boosters on the table simply because the problem and the solution aren’t collocated.

Frei also says, “that managers use [the phrase] to quiet chronic complainers.” Does this make it “dangerous” for people to speak up and point out problems? We need to make it safe for people to talk about problems to create an environment where improvement can happen. She, not surprisingly, points to Toyota as an example of a company that has a healthy improvement culture.

Read the rest of the interview. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts or any reflections on this expression and what it means to your team and your organization.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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  1. Dean Bliss
    Dean Bliss says

    The approach I used with my kids back in the day was more like “what’s your plan to do something about it” rather than having them bring a specific solution. I did it to keep them from whining about something without thinking through how to deal with the situation. In some cases, I would help them through the analysis of the problem; in others, they worked out solutions on their own. At work, I’ve used a similar approach and used it as a teaching moment, frequently with the use of a new tool they hadn’t used before.

  2. Mark Graban

    Great comment from LinkedIn:

    From Ladislav Zastresek:

    To cite Colin Powell “The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

  3. Carrie Howarth

    In the offices we have a saying that for every patient that complains, there are 10 more that say nothing and just transfer to another practice. When you discourage or ignore the voicing of problems that may not have an obvious solution, those problems may indeed go away… but not in the way you want them to.

  4. John Hackett says

    I like this Mark and I agree – the phrase “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” has become yet another vacuous management ejaculation that sounds impressive but is completely stupid.

    I don’t understand why we treat problem identification as a negative activity. In fact, it is one of the most useful skills in business. Illustrating a situation for the benefit of others is exactly how an environment in which solutions can be found is created.

    A better phrase might be “I see what you mean. What ideas do you have for how this situation can be resolved?” Usually, the problem-bringer WILL have some idea of what the solution might be. A good manager would validate and appreciate their identification of the problem and then encourage them to contribute their ideas as to the solution.

    Hope a few of these buzz-phrase toting management types read your blog, Mark!

    1. Mark Graban

      Great comment, John. I think the negativity about problems maybe comes from people being BLAMED for those problems. Therefore, problems are a bad thing because I suffer when I’m blamed. So, it’s better to ignore the problems or actively cover them up.

      But, when problems are just fact — a realistic understanding of what reality is — we can work together without blame to actually solve the problem. Then, things get better, nobody loses, problems are a positive thing.

      “We need to hold people accountable” is another example of a vacuous phrase that sounds good — but it’s blaming and it’s harmful.

  5. Vulcan Alex says

    The quote is properly directed at professionals not lower level workers, and of course you can ask for help if needed.

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