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Why Problem Solving Can Seem Counterproductive

Nov. 21, 2013
What we need most in business are leaders able to teach other leaders how to obliterate obstacles.

Through engineering school I was taught that problem solving was a creative process of striving to develop something new. It was very disturbing to realize that in most organizations problems are considered someone’s mistake that has to be fixed to keep on producing. It quickly degrades to fire fighting to get through the day, not improving anything.

Even more frustrating was that even with what seemed to be the right solution, you now add people to the mix and you have ten times the complexity. Jeffrey Liker makes a comment in his Toyota Way to Lean Leadership course that improving people takes ten times longer than improving processes. No kidding.

The phrase “problem solving” is the first culprit; it should really be changed to “Problem… what problem? Solution… did you mean countermeasure?” A little lengthy, but it should get the point across. If I had to make up a phrase to replace the words problem solving, it would have to be obstacle obliteration to achieve a better future. “Problem” and “solving” do not belong side by side, let alone in the same sentence.

I always said that what we need most in businesses is problem solving. I am here to tell you that I made a mistake—what we need most in business are leaders able to teach other leaders how to obliterate obstacles. As Mike Rother has noted in his book Toyota Kata, the term “obstacle” implies that there is something in the way, but in the way of what? This naturally leads to the conclusion that you need a vision, a direction that you are trying to move toward, rather then annoying problems that are preventing you from staying where you already are.

A real lean enthusiast is not satisfied in solving problems to stay in place, but wants to move toward something. The term kaizen means change for the better. They would first identify the ideal state and then set a target on the way to getting there. They would realize that getting there is not a straight line. If there was a GPS that could give you directions it would not be innovation. So you have to discover your way to the future state through a trial and error process that we call Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA).

For the rest of the world, they might think it is a straight line. Let’s assume it’s a straight line. My next question to you would be, “Assuming you know where you want to be in the future, how would you know if there are any obstacles in your way?” It is simple—you know because you are not there currently. Using reality as a measurement stick is always the prescribed method.

Next, commit to getting to this future state. Get uncomfortable about where you are so that you can focus on where you need to be. You see, being uncomfortable is the first indicator that you have acknowledged that a gap exists between you and where you are going. Obstacle obliteration can help in your thought process from getting from Point A to Point B. Processes are easy to improve; people are ten times more difficult. My suggestion is that the biggest obstacle that you have to make improvement in your processes, is you! I am speaking from personal experience (and after all, is there any other kind?).

I suggest strongly that each time you jump to solutions, when confronted by problems, you STOP and ask the question, “What is the obstacle?”, “How do I know this is the obstacle?”, and finally, “How can I obliterate it?”

It helps in your thought process if you have a coach to give you critical feedback along the way as we are often blind to our own weaknesses. I have found great strength in having coaches such as Jeffrey Liker and Norman Bodek. So please do not be satisfied with solving problems that really are keeping you spinning your wheels. Obliterate obstacles to where you really want to go.


Liker Leadership Institute (LLI) offers an innovative way to learn the secrets of lean leadership through an online education model that is itself lean, and extends that lean education far beyond the course materials. Learn more about LLI's green belt and yellow belt courses in "The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership" and "Principles of Lean Thinking" at the IndustryWeek Store.

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