Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

How to Guard Against Anything You May Inadvertently Overlook

The World is More Inundated with Uncertainties and Errors Than Ever Before

Checklists can help you learn about prospective oversights and mistakes, recognize them in context, and sharpen your decisions.

I am a big fan of Harvard surgeon and columnist Atul Gawande‘s The Checklist Manifesto (2009.) His bestseller is an engaging reminder of how the world has become so complex.

The use of the humble checklist can help you manage the myriad of complexities that underlie most contemporary professional (and personal) undertakings—where what you must do is too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Checklists “provide a kind of a cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”

'The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right' by Atul Gawande (ISBN 0312430000) Gawande begins The Checklist Manifesto with an examination of the characteristics of errors from ignorance (mistakes you make because you don’t know enough—“much of the world and universe is—and will remain—outside our understanding and control”), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes you make because you don’t apply correctly what you know.) Most human and organizational failures involve the latter.

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

The surgery room, Gawande’s own profession, is the principal setting for many of the book’s illustrative examples of how the introduction of checklists dramatically reduced the rate of complications from surgery. He also provides handy stories from other realms of human endeavor—aviation, structural engineering, and Wall Street-investing.

Getting Things Right, Every Time

Checklists are particularly valuable in situations where the stakes are high enough, but your impulsive thought process could lead to suboptimal decisions.

'Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition' by Michael J. Mauboussin (ISBN 1422187381) The benefits of checklists also feature prominently in the thought-provoking Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (2012.) The author, Credit Suisse Investment analyst and polymath Michael J. Mauboussin, argues that checklists are more effective in certain domains than in others:

A checklist’s applicability is largely a function of a domain’s stability. In stable environments, where cause and effect is pretty clear and things don’t change much, checklists are great. But in rapidly changing environments that are heavily circumstantial, creating a checklist is a lot more difficult. In those environments, checklists can help with certain aspects of the decision. For instance, an investor evaluating a stock may use a checklist to make sure that she builds her financial model properly.

A good checklist balances two opposing objectives. It should be general enough to allow for varying conditions, yet specific enough to guide action. Finding this balance means a checklist should not be too long; ideally, you should be able to fit it on one or two pages.

If you have yet to create a checklist, try it and see which issues surface. Concentrate on steps or procedures, and ask where decisions have gone off track before. And recognize that errors are often the result of neglecting a step, not from executing the other steps poorly.

In addition to creating checklists that are specific enough to guide action but general enough to handle changing circumstances, Mauboussin recommends keeping a journal to gather feedback from past decisions and performing “premortems” by envisioning that a imminent decision has already been proven wrong, and then identifying probable reasons for the failure.

No Matter How Proficient You May Be, Well-designed Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes

Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes The notion of making and using checklists is so plainly obvious that it seems impracticable that they could have so vast an effect.

Investor Charlie Munger, the well-respected beacon of wisdom and multi-disciplinary thinking, has said, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” And, “I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise it’s easy to miss something important.”

Idea for Impact: Checklists can prevent many things that could go wrong in the hands of human beings, given our many well-documented biases and foibles. Well-designed checklists not only make sure that all the can-be-relied upon elements are in place in complex decision-making, but also provide for flexibility and room for ad hoc judgment.

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

What’s the size of the market for razors in China? How many golf balls does it take to fill a Boeing 747 aircraft? How many piano tuners are there in the world?

Non-standard problems such as these are called “Fermi problems” after the distinguished Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–54.) Fermi delighted not only in creating and solving them, but also in challenging his fellow scientists with similar problems.

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

Physicist Enrico Fermi Was a Master of Guesstimation

Fermi was celebrated for his ability to make fast, excellent approximate calculations with little or no concrete data. In one well-known example, when the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Manhattan Project, Fermi dropped a few scraps of paper as the shock wave from the detonation passed. After some coarse calculation, Fermi estimated the power of the blast from the motion of the scraps as they fell. Fermi’s guesstimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-established value of 20 kilotons. Even though Fermi’s estimate appears 50% off, it was a reasonable order-of-magnitude estimate.

Fermi believed that the ability to guesstimate was an essential skill for physicists. A good way to solve physics problems—and complex problems in any line of work—is by coming up with simple shortcuts to make approximate, but meaningful, calculations.

Teaching Physics Students the Fermi Way of Contemplating Open, Non-Standard Problems

Based on Fermi’s technique, at the beginning of many physics courses, professors pose problems such as “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Such questions require students to employ quick reasoning and unsophisticated numerical methods to attack problems without the knowledge of any core physics concepts.

The historical emphasis on the order-of-magnitude calculation was propelled by the lack of computing power available to solve complex problems. Such approximate calculations were considered necessary to decide if an onerous and lengthy full-blown calculation was required.

Classic Fermi Problem: Number of Piano Tuners in the City of Chicago

'Guesstimation' by Lawrence Weinstein (ISBN 069115080X) Fermi problems are typically restructured by breaking them up into smaller problems that are easier for the students to approach than the original problem.

The challenge of estimating the number of piano tuners in the city of Chicago is the classical example of a Fermi Problem. A problem-solver guesstimates the total population of Chicago, then the fraction of families in Chicago that may own a piano, and the frequency of piano-tuning, the time it takes to tune a piano, and so on. This sequence of thinking, accompanied by a few conversion factors, can lead to an adequate assessment of the number of piano tuners in Chicago.

Back-of-Envelope Calculations for Fermi Problems

The Fermi technique is so popular that math buffs organize competitions in Fermi’s honor. Contestants are asked to estimate unusual assessments (the fraction of the surface area of the United States that’s covered by automobiles, the number of cells in the human body, the number of pizzas ordered this year in the state of California, for example) as closely as they can.

One distinctive feature of Fermi problems is that precision is impossible to achieve quickly, but it’s easier to arrive at a fast estimate of the range for the right answer. Before investing a big effort to measure something with precision, problem-solvers can estimate the answer approximately—and only then determine if it’s sensible to do the extra steps to calculate the accurate answers.

The Ability to Guesstimate: A Key Problem-Solving Aptitude

The ability to reach first-order estimations is an important skill in daily life. In a world where we are continuously bombarded with qualitative and quantitative information (and disinformation,) acquiring a solid grounding in numeric literacy has almost become an important intellectual obligation.

'Street-Fighting Mathematics' by Sanjoy Mahajan (ISBN 026251429X) Many problems are too complicated for you to come up with an accurate answer immediate. In analyzing such problems, precision may be impossible, but you can quickly estimate a range for the right answer. Guesstimation enables anyone with basic math and science skills to estimate virtually anything quickly using realistic assumptions and elementary mathematics.

Microsoft, McKinsey Consulting, Google, Goldman Sachs, and many leading businesses use guesstimate questions in job interviews to judge the ability of the applicants’ intelligence, their flexibility to think on their feet, and to apply their numerical skills to real-world problems.

Idea for Impact: Use Effective Guesstimation Techniques Before Undertaking a More Complete and Formal Investigation

Learn to do a first approximation of value and then, if the problem merits, refine your estimate further for much nuanced decision-making. Before putting much effort into calculating anything with precision, make a rough estimate of the answer, then decide whether it’s worth investigating further.

In my line of work as an investor, for example, I use fund manager Eddy Elfenbein‘s “simple stock valuation measure”:

Growth Rate/2 + 8 = PE Ratio

Let me emphasize that this is simply a quick-and-dirty valuation tool and it shouldn’t be used as a precise measure of a stock’s value. But when I’m first looking at a stock and want to see roughly how it’s priced, this is what I’ll use.

For example, let’s look at Pfizer ($PFE). Wall Street expects the company to earn $2.34 per share next year. They also see the company’s 5-year growth rate at 2.79%. If we take half the growth rate and add 8, that gives us a fair value P/E Ratio of 9.40. Multiplying that by the $2.34 estimate gives us a fair price for Pfizer of $21.98. The current price for Pfizer is $22.98, so it’s about fairly priced.

Let’s look at IBM ($IBM) which has a higher growth rate. Wall Street sees IBM earning $16.61 next year. They peg the five-year growth rate at 10.58%. Our formula gives us a fair value multiple of 13.29, and that multiplied by $16.61 works out to a value of $220.75. IBM is currently at $201.71.

Recommended Resources for Guesstimation

If you’re interviewing with one of those companies that use guesstimate questions in job interviews, or if you’re interested in developing your ability to make rough, common-sense estimates starting from just a few basic facts, I recommend the following learning resources:

Intel’s Andy Grove on Looking at Problems from an Outsider’s Perspective

Look at Problems from an Outsider's Perspective

Fixation Hinders Creative Thinking

In two previous articles (this and this,) I’ve addressed the psychological concept of a “fixed mental set” or “fixation:” assessing a problem from a habituated perspective can prevent you from seeing the obvious and from breaking away from an entrenched pattern of thinking.

A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment can usually dissipate fixation. The resulting shift in perspective can alter your point of view in a literal and sensory way, or it may change the way you think about or define the problem at hand.

A particularly instructive example of the beneficial effects of altering thought perspectives comes from Andy Grove’s autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) Grove, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel who passed away earlier this year, was one of the most influential tech executives Silicon Valley has ever seen.

Japanese Onslaught on Intel’s Memory Business

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Memory chips dominated Intel’s revenue, since the company was founded in 1968. In fact, Intel had a near monopoly in the memory business. However, by the late ’70s, a few Japanese competitors emerged. Grove reflected, “The quality levels attributed to Japanese memories were beyond what we thought possible. … Our first reaction was denial. We vigorously attacked the data.” In due course, Intel recognized the threat to its competitive position. (Between 1978 and 1988, the Japanese companies grew their market share in the memory business from 30% to 60%.)

At the same time, a small entrepreneurial team of engineers had developed Intel’s first microprocessor. In 1981, Intel persuaded IBM to choose this microprocessor to run their personal computers.

By 1985, when Grove was President, Intel’s executives engaged in an intense debate on how to respond to the onslaught of Japanese competitors in the memory business. One faction of engineers wanted to leapfrog the Japanese and build better memory chips. Another faction was in favor of disposing the lucrative memory business and betting Intel’s future on its promising microprocessor technology—something they believed the Japanese couldn’t match.

The “Revolving Door Test:” Getting an Outsider’s Perspective

In the middle of this intense debate, Grove was at a meeting with Intel’s CEO, Gordon Moore (of the Moore’s Law fame.) Grove had an idea for Moore; he recalled this episode in Only the Paranoid Survive,

I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why don’t you and I walk out the door, come back in and do it ourselves?”

Andy Grove's Revolving Door Test: Getting an Outsider's Perspective The switch in perspective—i.e. asking “What would our successors do?”—provided a moment of clarity for Moore and Grove. By contemplating Intel’s strategic challenges from an outsider’s perspective, shutting down the memory business was the discernible choice. Even Intel’s customers were supportive:

In fact, when we informed them of the decision, some of them reacted with the comment, “It sure took you a long time.” People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.

From the time Intel made the important decision to kill its memory chips business, it has dominated the microprocessor market.

If existing management want to keep their jobs when the basics of the business are undergoing profound change, they must adopt an outsider’s intellectual objectivity. They must do what they need to do to get through the strategic inflection point unfettered by any emotional attachment to the past. That’s what Gordon and I had to do when we figuratively went out the door, stomped out our cigarettes and returned to the job.

People in the trenches are usually in touch with pending changes early. Salespeople understand shifting customer demand before management does; financial analysts are the earliest to know when the fundamentals of a business change. While management was kept from responding by beliefs that were shaped by out earlier successes, our production planners and financial analysts dealt with allocations and numbers in an objective world.

Idea for Impact: If You’re Stuck on a Problem, Shift Your Perspective

Often, you can find the solutions to difficult problems merely by defining or formulating them in a new, more productive way.

Consider employing Andy Grove’s “Revolving Door Test” and examining your problems through an outsider’s lens. This shift in perspective may not only engender intellectual objectivity but also muffle the emotion and anxiety that comes with momentous decision-making.

What Will You Regret?

'The Top Five Regrets of the Dying' by Bronnie Ware (ISBN 140194065X) You’ve probably read about an interesting study by Bronnie Ware regarding the most common regrets of people in their deathbeds. Ware, a palliative nurse who counseled the dying in their last days, studied a cohort of people between the ages of 60 and 95. One question she asked her patients was, “what do you regret in your life?” The answers were remarkable: the regrets of the dying had nothing to do with their wealth, possessions, or status. They regretted most missed opportunities in their life—not having tried something, not having taken that chance, and not having stepped out of their comfort zones when they knew they wanted to do something and could have done it.

  • “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  • “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
  • “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  • “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  • “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

Ware published her studies first on a popular internet article and later expanded it into a mediocre book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures

Younger people shared comparable sentiments on regretting not taking chances to have fun. Ran Kivetz of Columbia University and Anat Keinan of Harvard University conducted a study of how college students felt about the balance of study/work and amusement during their winter breaks. Immediately after the break, the students regretted not having studied enough, not working, and not saving money. However, a year later, they regretted not having enough fun and not traveling.

Further along, when the students regrouped for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about not fully using their college breaks to travel and enjoy life. Kivetz explained, “People feel guilty about hedonism right afterwards, but as time passes the guilt dissipates. At some point there’s a reversal, and what builds up is this wistful feeling of missing out on life’s pleasures.”

Long-Term Regrets Are Usually About Not Taking More Risks

Regrets take two forms: regrets of co-mission (regrets regarding things you did that you wish you hadn’t) and regrets of omission (regrets regarding things you didn’t do that you wish you had.) As people get older and look back at their lives in retrospect, they tend to ruminate more about the things they didn’t do but should have. Deciding not to take gap year and travel around Asia, shying away from telling that girl you love her, holding a grudge against a sibling for years, not learning to surf, and other what-ifs will come to dominate your pangs of regret.

It's Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

It’s Easier to Live With Disappointment Than With Regret

As you grow older, you will realize that the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do—things that you didn’t commit to when you had the opportunity. The following three quotes echo this life-lesson:

  • “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth. I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace,” wrote the American writer Henry James at age 70 to English novelist Hugh Walpole
  • “The best advice I got from my aunt, the great singer Rosemary Clooney, and from my dad, who was a game show host and news anchor, was: don’t wake up at seventy years old sighing over what you should have tried. Just do it, be willing to fail, and at least you gave it a shot. That’s echoed for me all through the last few years,” said the American actor and activist George Clooney
  • “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover,” wrote H. Jackson Brown, Jr., the American bestselling author of the inspirational book Life’s Little Instruction Book. (He possibly incorporated a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain.)

Idea for Impact: You will Come to Regret Your Inactions Far Longer than Your Actions

A fascinating way of looking at life is to think about your life and your career in the context of future regret-avoidance. Regrets for the things you did are likely to be tempered by the passage of time, but regrets for the things you do not do will be upsetting in retrospect. Therefore, contemplating about what you may come to regret in the future could transform you into taking different actions today.

One key to helpful decision-making is to forestall subsequent regret. Many of the questions you will grapple with in life are about taking risk—stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. You know what you want to try but you’re not sure if you should try it.

The best things in life may happen just beyond your comfort zone. Don’t ruminate excessively before making a decision. Make a habit of embracing the adventure of uncertainty by taking low-risk actions. Being wrong and failing costs very little in the long-term. You can bounce back faster than you imagine.

Slow down, reassess your options, and question if the choices you’re making at the moment are part of a life-trail you’ll come to regret sooner or later.

How Smart Companies Get Smarter: Seek and Solve Systemic Deficiencies

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors.

At Toyota, as cars roll off the assembly line, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If these inspectors spot a paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager.

As part of Toyota’s famed kaizen continuous improvement system, floor workers identify the systemic causes that led to the specific defect on the specific car. They then remedy the root cause of the problem so it won’t happen again.

Fostering an atmosphere of continuous improvement and learning

Most companies cherish employees who are watchful of problems and take it upon themselves to detect and solve problems without criticism or complaint. A software company, for example, may treasure a programmer who observes an unforeseen coding mistake, and swiftly develops a patch to keep her project moving forward.

In contrast, companies like Toyota who are obsessive about quality improvement, organizational learning, and developing collective intelligence don’t reward or tolerate such quiet fixers.

Taiichi Ohno - 'Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.' At companies that have adopted the kaizen philosophy, continuous improvement originates from the bottom up through suggestion systems that engage and motivate floor employees to look out for systemic problems, raise quality concerns, and help solve those problems. These companies encourage their employees to actively seek small, simple, and incremental improvements that could result in real cost savings, higher quality, or better productivity. According to Taiichi Ohno, the legendary Japanese industrial engineer identified as the father of the Toyota Production System, “Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.”

Idea for Impact: To develop collective intelligence and build smarter organizations, discourage employees from heroically patching up recurring problems. Instead, encourage them to find, report, analyze, experiment, and fix systemic problems to prevent their recurrence.

Problem Reversal: How to Solve a Problem By “Standing It on Its Head”

Problem Reversal

Fixed Mental Set or Fixation

Psychologists use the terms ‘fixation’ and ‘fixed mental set’ to describe a person’s inability to see his/her problem from a fresh perspective. Fixation impedes problem-solvers from approaching problems from a different angle and from finding novel solutions.

Fixation is a persistent impasse in problem-solving in which predispositions towards a previously-reliable process, unwarranted postulations, unjustifiable assumptions, conventional thinking in identifiable contexts (called Einstellung Effect,) or recent experiences block awareness of possible solutions that may exist within other contexts. A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment frequently can dissipate fixation.

Problem Reversal in Problem-Solving

If you’re stuck on a problem and can’t solve it because you’re fixated on a reliable process, try reversing the problem to reframe your thinking and consider alternate perspectives.

Solve a Problem By

As the following three case studies illustrate, reversing a problem simply involves taking a problem and turning it on its head.

  • A top-level executive at a large American corporation loved his job, his company, his employees, and his salary. However, he despised his boss. The executive and his boss were both long tenured; neither was likely to move out of their jobs anytime soon. The executive decided to find a new job at a different company. A headhunter assured the executive that a new job could be easily arranged. While speaking to his wife in the evening, the executive realized that he could easily reverse the problem. So he returned to the headhunter the next day and provided the boss’s name. Within days, the headhunter found an appealing new job for the unwary boss, who accepted. The executive then got his boss’s job and was even more content with his career.
  • A herd of sheep was moving slowly along a narrow country lane that was surrounded by high banks. An ambulance in a great hurry came up behind the herd and requested the shepherd to move his sheep to the side so that the ambulance could drive through. The shepherd declined because getting the ambulance past the sheep would be slow and he wasn’t sure of keeping all his sheep out of the way of the ambulance on a narrow lane. Instead, he reversed the problem: he got the sheep past the ambulance. He asked the ambulance to halt and then gently turned the herd round and guided it back past the stationary ambulance.
  • An ethical used-car salesman loathed his job because he felt compelled to sell cars with problematic features to unsuspecting buyers. He was eager for a career change, but the only thing he knew was cars. Therefore, he reversed his problem: he started a new business of locating, inspecting, and recommending used cars to prospective buyers. For a reasonable fee, he helped car buyers by scrutinizing used cars, listing current and prospective problems, and offering an estimate for repairs. His business boomed and he was much happier than he was as a used-car salesman.

Idea for Impact: Solve Problems by Reversing Them

When you’re stuck and can’t see how to solve the problem at hand, try reversing it or “standing the problem on its head.” Reversal as a problem-solving technique can free you from old ways of looking at problems.

You Can’t Develop Solutions Unless You Realize You Got Problems: Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem finding plays an important role in creative thinking

Problem finding is one of the most significant parts of problem solving. However, it tends to be an underappreciated skill. Many managers naively consider it strange to encourage employees to look for problems at work: “Why look for new problems when we’ve got no resources to work on ones we’ve already identified?”

Many courses and books on problem solving and creativity overlook problem finding. Many educational resources tend to assume that problem solving really begins only after problems have been identified.

Problem-identification lead to the invention of the ballpoint pen

Invention of the Ballpoint Pen by Biro Brothers The story of the invention of the ballpoint pen demonstrates the importance of problem finding. Had the inventors not recognized a problem with the existing writing instruments of their day, they would not have developed their invention.

In the 1920s, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro spent much time proofreading and checking for errors in others’ writings. To communicate these errors to the authors, Laszlo could not use pencils because their impressions fade quickly. He tried using a fountain pen, but the ink from the fountain pen dried slowly and often left smudges on paper.

Laszlo observed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly and left the paper smudge-free. When he tried using that ink in his fountain pen, however, the ink was too viscous to flow into the tip of the fountain pen.

Laszlo then collaborated with his chemist-brother Gyorgy Biro to invent a new pen tip consisting of a ball that was enclosed within a socket. As the ball rolled inside the socket, the ball could pick up ink from a reservoir or cartridge and then continue to roll to deposit the ink on the paper. The Biro brothers thus invented the ballpoint pen. The company they created is now part of the BIC Company. The ballpoint pen continues to be called a ‘Biro’ in some countries.

Often, creativity is the outcome of discovered problem solving

Greek Philosopher Plato famously wrote in The Republic, “Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

One reason we fail to identify problems is that we do not stop to think about improving various situations that we encounter. Very often, these problems are directly in front of us; we need to consciously identify them and convert them into opportunities for problem solving. Instead, we tend to take inconveniences and unpleasant situations for granted and assume they are merely “facts of life.”

  • The grain mill was not invented until somebody in antiquity identified the ineffectiveness of two hours of pounding grain to make a cup of flour.
  • The world’s first traffic lights were installed around the British Houses of Parliament in London only after somebody thought of the problem of traffic congestion. In other words, up until the problems from congestion were identified in the 1860s, no one attempted to systematically consider how the problem might be solved.

James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine

  • James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine after discovering an interesting problem with the Newcomen steam engine. In 1763, when Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, he was assigned to repair a model of a Newcomen engine for a lecture-demonstration. Watt initially had difficulty getting the Newcomen engine to work because its parts were poorly constructed. When he finally had it running, he was surprised at its efficiency. Watt observed that the engine was constantly running out of coal because the constant heating and cooling of the cylinder resulted in a large waste of energy. Watt then devised a system whereby the cylinder and the condenser were separate. This led to his invention of the “steam engine” (or, more precisely, the separate-condenser steam engine.)
  • As I mentioned in a previous article on the opportunities in customers’ pain points, crispy potato chips were invented only when Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs attempted to appease a cranky customer who frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. Decades later, Laura Scudder invented airtight packaging for potato chips only after becoming conscious of customers’ complaints that chips packaged in metal containers quickly go stale and crumble during handling.

Finding and defining a creative problem

If problems are not identified, solutions are unlikely to be proposed

It pays to keep your eyes open and look at inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Don’t ignore these merely as facts of life.

Curiosity, intrigue, and motivation influence problem finding (and problem solving.) One of the easiest ways to develop your skills in problem finding is to ponder at anything around you and wonder why those gadgets and contraptions were ever invented. Analyze carefully and you’ll learn that the first step taken by the inventors of these objects was the identification of the problems the objects were designed to solve.

When you look around various objects in your life, think about what life was before these objects were invented. What problems could these inventions have solved? Why was the zipper invented? What problems motivated Bjarne Stroustrup to create C++? What was internet search like before Google? How did commerce transpire before the advent of coins and bills and money?

Some people make a career out of problem finding. Managers who want to know if their organizations are running efficiently frequently hire consultants to look for problems that managers do not know exist in their businesses.

And finally, if you want to become an inventor or an entrepreneur, try to start with problems you already have in your work or in your life. Ideally, identify problems shared by a large number of people to increase the probability that your inventions will be put in widespread use.

Idea for Impact: A creative solution to a problem often depends on first finding and defining a creative problem. Very often, the solution to a problem becomes obvious when the problem has been properly identified, defined, and represented.