4 Ways to Solve Problems


Last month on a cold morning my car didn’t start. I called my roadside service and the guy came with a battery charger and I was back in business. Problem solved, I thought. Then, a week later, my car didn’t start again. First time shame on my Subaru, second time shame on me. This time after the guy came to start my car I took it to the dealer who tested the battery and I got a new one. Problem solved. The car still starts every time a month later. As a Lean Thinking sensei, I’m still wondering about the heuristic algorithm some sociopathic car engineer has devised in terms of how often my battery is charged when driving. Is this an example of “planned obsolescence”?

I have been teaching problem solving skills for decades, but never conceptualized the process the way Art Smalley from the Lean Institute has. His model is pure genius. See below:


Four types of problems *
1. Reactive – troubleshooting – firefighting 
2. Reactive – getting to the root cause: PDCA, 5 whys, etc. 
3. Proactive – little improvements (kaizens) 
4. Proactive – creative innovation a new way 


The genius of Art Smalley’s 4-types of problem solving is that is gives you a simple strategy for attacking problems and it makes a fundamental distinction between reactive problem solving (types 1 and 2), and proactive problem solving (types 3 and 4).


Ambulance at crash site

So, let’s take an example to see how these four types of problem-solving work. See the ambulance at the crash site at the bottom of a sharp curve in a mountain road.


1. Troubleshooting – the ambulance and ER room have a thriving business responding to crashes.

2. Root cause analysis – why are they crashing? Cars are going too fast on the curve above. No ‘slow speed’ warning sign, install one just before the curve on the highway.

3. Kaizen – little improvement for the better – put up a guard rail along the curve in the highway.

4. Creative innovation – put high tech safety features in cars to avoid lane changes and accidents caused by excessive speed on curves. Think Positive Train Control (PTC) for trains.


Why is it important to be a better problem solver? Unless you are an ambulance driver or paramedic, or ER doc, do you really want to spend your life trouble shooting, responding to emergencies? It can be intoxicating; a lot of managers get their ‘fix’ everyday reacting to problems. Let me challenge you. How can you be proactive, make things better, and avoid the crashes? Leaders create problems, the proactive kind that make things better.

* Four types of problems, Art Smalley, Lean Enterprise Institute, 2018.