Change Your “Pet” Problem Solving Method

Some business problems require a quick reaction to “stop the bleeding” while others require creativity or more analytical approaches to reach better target states or attain breakthrough results.

No matter the problem, it probably will fall into one of the types in the helpful framework that author and veteran lean management practitioner Art Smalley introduced in his recent book, Four Types of Problems (

The flexible framework helps leaders and teams apply the right problem-solving approach by recognizing the four problem types:

– Troubleshooting: A reactive process of rapidly fixing abnormal conditions.
– Gap-from-standard: A structured problem-solving process that aims at the root cause.
– Target-state: Continuous improvement (kaizen) that goes beyond existing levels of performance.
– Open-ended and Innovation: Unrestricted pursuit through creativity of a vision or ideal condition that entails radical improvements.

In this interview, Art reflects on why we make the mistake of reaching for the same problem-solving technique over and over, how the framework helps us talk about problem solving, and why troubleshooting is so important.

Q: Why is it, and this is an insight in the book, when faced with a problem many business leaders or team members reach mechanically for an A3 or kata or six sigma or the eight types?

Art: What behavioral psychologists tell me is that two things influence how you tend to learn, teach, and problem-solve. Number one is whatever framework you learned first, that is going to put a pretty dominant brand on your brain and how you choose to look at things.

The other way of looking at it, though, is how you like to learn, teach, coach, problem-solve. Do you go more towards concrete things? Do you go more towards abstract things? Do you go more towards people? Do you more go towards numbers? Do you go more towards reflection? Do you go more towards actively learning by doing?

All those are good things, which are part of problem solving, but you will have a bias. We can put you on a radar plot in a quadrant. I can predict with about a dozen questions and people’s responses what quadrant they’ll end in.

People who love to reflect and think hard about ideas and using a numbers approach tend to prefer six sigma. If they learn six sigma first and their preference is for six sigma, they’re going to dogmatically adhere to that in many cases. By the way, it’s a great approach for a lot of specific types of problems. I minored in math and had a specialty in statistics, so I got a bias in that direction. I did process control and capability studies on crankshafts, so I’m comfortable in that field.

Those people like to learn by doing and have an implementation-based approach to problem solving. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a big part of problem solving at Toyota. We talk about learning by doing, but again, if that’s your only way of approaching problems, you’ll suffer; you won’t be able to reach some of the audience.

The point of the framework is not that any one of those is right or wrong. It’s like situational leadership. Depending upon the task, the person, the problem you’re working with, you might have to alter your pet framework to have the most effective dialogue.

Q: Now, one of the problem types is type one, which is troubleshooting. You don’t hear a lot about it, but you emphasize its importance, and this is not just firefighting.

Art: There are bad firefighting and bad troubleshooting, and there’s good troubleshooting. In Toyota, I think it’s underrepresented how good we are at daily troubleshooting. The math is really simple. There are 10,000 andon cord pulls in a 24-hour period during a [product] launch. You cannot do 10,000 A3 reports.

You cannot have 10,000 sessions where we sit down and do a coaching kata routine in a day. You cannot do six sigma-style process control studies in a 24-hour window. It’s not possible. Toyota doesn’t do that. What we do is triage. There are those little things we want to handle at the frontline through team member, team leader, or group leader interaction.

Not all of those go to type two status. Not all of them have a really hard root cause, but it’s coaching the training. It’s coaching the standardized work. It’s debugging something that’s slightly wrong.

We all do it. You can be the purist and say, “I never do that. I only coach type two.” But guess what? When your internet router at home is not working, what do you do? You turn that sucker on and off, don’t you? You get your internet connectivity working again okay because it fixes it in a minute and you don’t know what the root cause of the problem is.

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