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Problem solving for the enterprise, what is it and how to teach it


Before diving into the explanations of what problem solving is we want to start by understanding what a problem is.

A problem is a mental construction that arises when we set ourselves a goal to achieve or we want to pass from one state to another.

Every time we have an idea of ​​the goal to be achieved and we begin to imagine the change necessary to reach the goal, a whole series of ideas will begin to arise in our mind about what can prevent us from achieving that change and the final target.

The ideas and considerations that we understand to be obstacles to achieving the goal are the mental constructions that we call "Problems".

From a linguistic point of view, a problem is a "nominalization". A nominalization is a pure mental construction made up of several ideas about something to which our mind tries to stick a label (a name) to make it easier to classify and understand the subject it refers to.  A nominalization does not correspond to something tangible and objectivable and for this reason it does not physically exist in reality.

No one has ever found a kg of trouble in the fridge or ever stumbled upon a problem walking down the street.

Being a mental construction; a problem lies only in the minds of the people who built it and share it but not in the mind of people that are not aware of it.

If we do not know how to reach a goal we have the rising in our minds of one or more problems (mental constructions) to solve but if we know how to reach the goal the problem or problems will not appear.


Problem solving is the mental activity that allows us to find solutions to problems that we believe prevent us from achieving a desired goal.

Depending on how difficult it is to reach the intended goal and how big the problems we will have to solve are, we can choose or not to use a problem solving method.

Problem solving without a method

All people do problem solving. From organizing a business trip to finding the replacement for the absence of an operator in a shift, to finding the solutions to repair something that has broken, etc. we all spend a part of our daily work in the activity of problem solving.

It is only when we are in moments of relaxation or when we carry out routines of which we have long established habits that we do not do problem solving.

In this context, the type of problem solving that is normally done is of an individual type and without a precise method or process; we rely on our experience, our unconscious and our logic.

Problem solving with a method

Structured problem solving becomes necessary when the objectives to be achieved are challenging, the people involved in the processes are many and the problems to be solved require solutions never found before.

Problem solving with a method may be necessary from the moment after the announcement that is necessary to achieve a new goal; because of this it may be necessary to set up a team just to study the goal and the problems that arise from it.

Above all, it is in a context in which problems must be solved together through shared solutions that we need to find a recognizable problem solving process that must be utilized by the designed problem solving teams.

If a team doesn't work with a problem solving method, the process itself would be at the mercy of the strongest individualities and partiality of views that each member of the team inevitably has.

The problem solving done with a method guarantees: an organized flow of thoughts of all the members of a team, the brainstorming for the search for solutions, the prioritization of solutions and the measurement of the results.

Emotional states and problem solving

Every time we project in our mind the image or the film of what we want to achieve, the mind sends back to our mental screen the list of problems that we must solve in order to reach the goal.

If the problem is known because it has already been addressed before and falls within our competence, the list and its details (that will pop up in our mind) will be clear and well defined; the consequent emotional state that can arise because of the knowing of what and how to do to solve the problem could range from neutral (no emotion) to positive but if the problem has never been faced before, the list of things to do to overcome the problem will be incomplete and inaccurate to the point that we may not even know what skills or resources we need to solve that problem, in this case the emotional state that will arise may go from a state of concerning to a real state of fear.

This dynamic explains why certain subjects can react more or less well when they are given problems to solve or are involved in work groups created to solve problems.

Problem solving and self-confidence

If we perceive that the problem or problems that are preventing us from achieving a goal are too numerous or too great for us, we may have the reaction of running away from the the goal and the the problems associated with it, but if we have sufficient confidence in our resources, in our skills and about the team around us then we may have the courage to truly embrace the goal and begin the problem solving path to achieve it.

Therefore, the problem solving activity can be undermined from the beginning depending on the confidence you have in yourself and in the team of collaborators.

From these considerations it follows that in a company where the emotional climate instilled in the collaborators is made of fear, insecurity and uncertainty, the normal problem solving activities that the company needs to continuously move forward, cannot be developed.


Business is the type of context in which, due to the constant need to compete with other economic entities and to produce value for the customers, the number of problems that arise is at its maximum.

If a company continuously sets new goals and shares them with its collaborators we can consider that it is operating in a full vitality mode but if the company does not ask to its collaborators for improvement ideas, changes and goals to be achieved, the problems cannot arise and as a result of this we should probably consider that the company is either already dead or is moving towards this state.

Managers and problem solving

When some managers are asked: what problems do you have in your area? They answer that they have no problems or that they are minimal; this indirectly denotes the fact that they no longer set goals or interesting goals to be achieved, and this consequently brings out the fact that the business vitality of the area they are responsible for is not at a good level.

To understand from the outside the vitality state of a company we have to observe 2 factors:

  1. The quality of the goals that the company sets itself at all its hierarchical levels.
    If the goals are not sufficiently challenging, the amount of problems that will arise will be small and this means that the company is at a development stage in which it is growing a group of collaborators who are working without dynamism.
  2. The quantity of problem solving activities that take place within it.
    If the goals are sufficiently challenging but the company does not have in place the type of organization that allows your collaborators to work with a problem solving method in a widespread and organized way, then it will be not possible to achieve the goals and this will create frustration among the collaborators.

In the framework that the goals are interesting, sufficiently challenging and all the necessary support is given to the collaborators so that they can work in a structured, organized way and following a problem solving methodology then the results will certainly be excellents; the vitality of the company will be so vibrant that it will also be perceived outside its own walls.

Rich Managers Poor Managers

Rich managers are those managers who tell you about their goals and problems.

They know that a company becomes all the richer the more it is able to find solutions to its customers' problems.

They are also those managers in whose area, as soon as you enter it, you can immediately see in appropriate spaces, what are the goals to which all their collaborators are aiming and the progress trends towards achieving them.

In addition to the visual part relating to the goals and their achievement trends, the structure and organization of problem solving activities is also clear and displayed.

Poor managers are those managers who do not tell you about the goals they are working on (if they have any ..) and they are reluctant to tell you about the problems they have to solve. They do it because deep down they are afraid of the judgment of others and for this reason they tend to hide the problems. Such a mentality leads the company to not engage all its collaborators to search for solutions to the customer problems and therefore in the long run this impoverishes the company.

In their area, there are no visualizations of the goals and their achievement trends, consequently, the problem solving activities that perhaps someone or some team is conducting somewhere are not evident.


According to Masao Nemoto, famous Japanese manager and author of "Total Quality Control for Management" in a company there are 3 main types of activities at which all the employees participate in different proportions.

The activities are as follows:

  1. Implementation, compliance and control of existing standards
  2. Improvement of standards and work procedures
  3. Innovation, processes innovation

Nemoto and problem solving

Each of the company functions has to be dedicated to the execution of a proportioned mix of activities accordingly with its characteristics.

As can also be seen in the image above, improvement activities have an important share and concern the highest number of employees in the company.

Improvement activities are problem solving activities that must be carried out with the methodology that the company chooses.

In a company guided by problem solving, each collaborator must have in his work agenda a number of hours per week in which he/she participates in workshops aimed to find solutions that lead to the achievement of the assigned goals.

The difference in performance between a company that applies structured problem solving and one that does not apply it is enormous.


Goals, Problem Solving and Standard Agenda

Many companies have goals and indicators for each business area and these are often available in the corporate network software.

This abundance of technology very often misses the basic need for a visible structure of the problem solving organization. Who is participating in which workshop for how many hours to solve this problem that brings to the achievement of this goal?  

To find out if a company has already integrated the culture of structural problem solving, just ask to be shown the standard agenda of any collaborator and check how many regular slots containing problem solving sessions the collaborator must participate in the next few days.


Although it can be based on a single methodology, a problem solving activity can take on different configurations, and this according to the type of problems that must be faced.

Types of problems

In the business reality we can have 4 types of problems:

  1. Problems that require urgent remedial actions
  2. Problems that must be solved because there are deviations from a predefined standard performance.
  3. Problems that must be solved because you need to reach a higher level of performance than the current one.
  4. Problems that must be solved because we want to cause a paradigm shift and for this we need to make systemic changes.

For each of these types of problems, problem solving activities must be put in place, adequately structured in terms of: resources, time availability, type of required skills.

Problem solving for type 1 problems

The problem solving that aims to solve urgent problems (type 1) is situational, based on experience and focused only to stop the problem/damage that is being suffered. It does not aim to ensure that the problem does not repeat, as a related problem solving activity would require more than the time available in a situation of emergency.

This type of problem solving is more related to the individual than to teamwork as it is the individual who realizes the problem at first and who must intervene immediately to stop it.

This problem solving type is utilized for example when we have the appearance of quality defects, machinery breakdowns, safety risks; all situations that require immediate problem solving.

Problem solving for type 2 problems

In cases of type 2 problems, the problems are related to a negative variation of an expected performance; the previously settled standards are not giving anymore the expected results and this deviation must be solved.

With this type of problem the collaborators must use critical / logical thinking to analyze what is no longer working compared to a previous standard.

Usually it needs a work group that has very specific skills regarding the area where the problem is happening.

The team is basically required to understand what is not working compared to before, identify the solutions, apply them and monitor that the performance returns to the expected standards or even better.

Problem solving for type 3 problems

Type 3 problems arise when there is a need to achieve new levels of performance never experienced before. For these types of problems it is necessary to utilize a type of problem solving that uses creative thinking in addition to critical / logical thinking.

We therefore need a working group that knows how to go beyond the usual paradigms, fearless to break with old patterns and has the capacity to create new ones. A problem solving process component that stimulates the creativity of the team members must be added to the usual problem solving process foreseen for type 2 problems.

Problem solving for type 4 problems

Type 4 problems are self-imposed and they arise when you have to redesign the business or face a problem whose solutions require you to redesign several parts of the whole business.

This type of problem requires strategic problem solving. The members of the team must bring in the workshop the right degree of skills to which all the types of thinking seen above must be associated, i.e. critical / logical thinking and creative thinking, adding however the ability to think systemically.

Also in this case, the problem solving process must be enriched with a component or module that stimulates and enhances the systemic thinking skills of the team.

As we have seen above, organizing a problem solving process is not a simple thing, it is necessary to take into consideration the types of problems that the company's collaborators are called to solve and structure ad hoc problem solving processes.


When you hear about problem solving you don't often hear about the problem solving process but only about some isolated techniques that are used within it.

Each technique, used alone, is not sufficient to find good solutions but must be combined with other techniques in a progressive sequence.

Here below I will report some techniques known and taught by the consultants of Kaizen Coach International ltd as part of the problem solving process called Kobetsu Kaizen.

The techniques described are used in the exact sequence reported.

Technique for Problem Definition

"The way the problem is formulated can make a big difference to success" Edward De Bono, Lateral Thinking

This technique uses a series of questions that aim to well define the problem and create a shared perception of it. The point of view of the participants in the problem solving team are exposed, blended together to get a kind of “gestalt problem definition”.

Description of the problem through the series of questions 5W2H.

  • What's the problem?
  • Why do we have to solve the problem?
  • Where does the problem happen?
  • When does the problem happen?
  • Who is witnessing the problem?
  • How does the problem happen?
  • How much the problem is affecting the KPI’s?

Technique for Searching for All Possible Causes

Using the Ishikawa diagram you go through all the categories of the 6 major causes of a problem, each participant of the team is asked based on his/her knowledge what the possible causes of the problem may be.

As the possible causes are declared, they are assigned in the diagram corresponding to the major cause to which they belong.

At the end of the brainstorming on the possible causes, the filled Ishikawa diagram will represent the map of all the possible causes and at this point the next step is to choose which possible causes it is worth going to work, in order to get to the root causes of the problem.

Technique for Searching the Root Causes of a Problem

The 5 Whys Technique.

Starting from the possible causes chosen from the Ishikawa diagram, the 5 whys technique consists in asking the team for the possible root causes through a why question on the possible cause has occurred. This question must be reiterated in an ideal number of 5 times.

At least 5 times whys, as it is believed that this is a number of times, amply sufficient to surely arrive at the root causes.

Having arrived at the formulation of the root causes, it will be natural to begin announcing the solutions for each root cause of the problem we are trying to solve.

At the end of using this technique the team will find themselves with a good number of solutions to implement and with the question: which one should we implement first?

Technique for giving priority to the found solutions

Using the priority matrix, each solution will be placed (having written them on post-it) in the quadrant of the matrix to which it corresponds. The quadrants of the matrix express the implementation priorities based on the criteria of feasibility and impact on the solution of the problem.

At the end of this process we can transcribe the solutions to be implemented in an action plan in which we will assign the responsibility of guiding the implementation of the solution to the most suitable team participant’s.

For problem solving processes designed to solve problems of type 3 and 4, techniques are also used to obtain solutions with the utilization of the unconscious mind and collective intelligence.


Facilitating the adoption of the problem solving culture in the company is a goal that require to be carefully prepared in advance by establishing:

  • The purposes of implementing the problem solving culture
  • The perimeter in which the company needs to implement the problem solving culture.
  • Defining the perimeter for a "first trial" of implementation
  • Ensure that there is already in place a grid of goals assigned to the collaborators belonging to the perimeter and a monitoring system for the trends of achievement.
  • Choose the problem solving training modules best suited to the company's situation, culture and goals.
  • Establish a “train the trainers” plan, made up of workshops in which facilitators will be trained to become trainers that at their turn will train the company's facilitators over time.
  • Start the training plan, monitor its results and if after the first trial it is believed to have been successful, take care of the deployment to the remaining area of ​​the company.

Given the complexity of such a project, we recommend making use of the advice and support of recognized professionals.