Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
The lean magic lies in problem finding

The lean magic lies in problem finding

Michael Ballé
September 27, 2021

FEATURE – Reflecting on the recently published book by Nate Furuta, the author discusses the role that deep thinking plays in a problem-finding culture and warns us against ready-to-use solutions.

Words: Michael Ballé, lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France

“There is a misperception,” writes Nate Furuta in his new book Welcome Problems, Find success, “that everyone at Toyota ‘gets it,’ that we walked into our roles, frontline assembly worker or vice president, and were automatically assimilated into the Toyota culture and able to grasp Toyota philosophies, concepts, tools and techniques. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone within Toyota had to work to develop and sustain a problem finding/kaizen mind, and it was management’s role to make that happen and provide the coaching, mentoring, motivation, and systems to further that development.”

For a lean aficionado, this statement is both poignant and challenging on so many levels. Indeed, the science of adult learning is only recently catching up with Toyota’s longtime practice. We know now that adults learn by solving troublesome problems – understanding the problem space rather than repeating a known solution. This involves:

  1. Finding problems – exploring the problem space and elaborating on one’s own naïve understanding with facts and hands-on experiment. Finding problems requires developing an awareness of problems even in situations that look perfectly banal or usual. It’s as much about seeing what isn’t there as what is. Why are we waiting? Why do we need to do this all over again? Why are we not happy with what we’ve just done?
  2. Team involvement – supporting one’s interest in solving the problem by contributing to one’s team realizing a concrete vision of what it wants to do. Facing troublesome problems (for instance, problems without an immediate, obvious solution) is hard, and best done as part of a team to sustain one’s motivation and feeling that it matters and is worth the effort.
  3. Self-directed learning – the truly magic moment, however, does not happen as part of the team but one one’s own, when the person opens a book, talks to an expert, tries something new, basically gets out of their way, on their own steam, to learn. This is when learning occurs. No matter how much social engineering you pour into the organization, nothing happens until individuals take themselves by the hand and go and explore. By themselves – and then learn through deliberate practice.
  4. Scaffolding and mentoring – there is no other way to accelerate learning than multiplying learning opportunities. Culture and organization matter because learning is made much easier if 1) the overall vision of what we’re trying to achieve is clear, 2) learning opportunities are structured as part of daily work, 3) analysis methods are at hand to help you explore problems with a starting frame, and 4) you are surrounded with mentors who won’t give you answers (learning needs to remain self-directed) but can monitor your progress and steer you towards exploration avenues you haven’t seen.

When I first studied how Toyota taught their suppliers to think the Toyota way, the sensei would point out a problem, say the machine makes more bad parts (ideally, in the problem-finding culture, people should see and tackle this on their own), and then:

  1. Ask you to draw the process in detail, explaining your understanding of what should happen;
  2. Identify the possible factors that could create a defect (as if the process was designed to purposefully make bad parts);
  3. Test them one by one (which often mean inventing practical test method);
  4. Until you could explain convincingly what was really happening – more often than not, nothing like what you thought at first;
  5. And only then come up with a suggestion for a solution.

For some reason, my father, at the time Industrial VP of one such Toyota supplier, latched on to this “hypothesis testing” as he called it and worked very hard to slow down people’s instinct to shoot from the hip and try solutions right away without having first clarified the problem. Having first visited Toyota plants in the mid-seventies, he had (painfully, eventually) caught on to what Nate Furuta explains throughout his book: the magic is in problem understanding, not solution applying.


Over the years, I’ve asked around to find out whether Toyota’s early engineers had any particular interest in psychology to develop such an approach and the answer has been consistently “no.” Pioneers like Eiji Toyoda or Taiichi Ohno were desperate to improve quality and productivity to guarantee Toyota’s independence as they felt strongly that in the early 1950s the company was constantly vulnerable to being purchased by one of the then reigning Big Three. They somehow concluded that making people think and, furthermore, making people think together was the key to success. They surmised – correctly – that giving people problems to solve without giving them the solutions was the way to accelerate thinking.

It was a brilliant intuition. We now know from cognitive psychology experiments that reasoning relies essentially on three core skills: thinking logically, imagining counterfactuals, and testing constraints.

  • Thinking logically means creating robust causal models of the situation. First, selecting the relevant variables (not a simple step) and then clarifying the links between these variables in terms of “if x moves this way, then y moves that way.” A fundamental difficulty with logical thinking is that we tend to select automatically the variables we are familiar with, looking for the lost key under the lamppost because that’s where the light is so to speak. Thinking logically really means widening the net and considering a longer shortlist of environmental variables that can impact the outcome.
  • Imagining counterfactuals is “what if” thinking. What if thinking is about playing around with our logical mental models, thinking “what if this were not so?” in order to invent scenarios that we know are not real or unlikely but could be true. This is mental exploration in its purest form and something the mind does effortlessly when it worries about one thing or another. The trick here is steering more deliberately the mental effort to purposefully changing one variable or another and imagining what the world would look like in these conditions.
  • Testing constraints occurs when, playing around with counterfactuals, your brain rebels and tells you “this can’t possibly be true,” or “don’t go there, it’s too emotionally painful,” or “you’re wasting your time, this could never happen,” etc. with some degree of self-awareness, one learns that any such mental block reveals a constraint, a rock-solid belief we have about reality, and challenging these constraints is the most common source of creativity. Is it a real constraint or is it imagined? What is it constrained by? Is there a way around it? What happens if we simply ignore it? And so on. Then trying them out – what are the facts? What does the experiment show?

Thinking logically, imagining counterfactuals and testing constraints are exactly the skills the old-time sensei asked engineers to develop. This, however, was never easy. Back in the day, people felt they didn’t have time to indulge in such painfully detailed exploration. They needed to produce results pronto and had to be forced and/or cajoled into taking the time to find problems, not just jump to solutions. Much of the early lean literature is about sensei teaching aim, aim, aim, aim fire to shoot-from-the-hip engineers. Enter the Internet and Mr. Google or Mr. Wikipedia and the issue has gotten much worse. Why work out a solution yourself when the answer is already out there, somewhere on the Web? It seems more efficient to search for an answer than to work it out for oneself, logically and experimentally.

The cognitive downside of quick searches, of course, is that they don’t stick. You hear or read an answer, test it on your problem and move on and… remember very little. Your logical tree of knowledge hasn’t grown a bit. More importantly, your perspective hasn’t widened. Novices know one answer where experts know many. Novices solve the immediate problem while experts ponder the benefit/risk balance of the potential solutions. Without self-directed learning and deliberate practice, we doom ourselves to thinking like novices… forever.


I have to confess, I am so thrilled by new books such as Nate Furuta’s Welcome Problems, Find Success or Sadao Nomura’s The Toyota Way of Dantotsu Radical Quality Improvement. Finally, now that the dust has settled, we get the Toyota experience from the horse’s mouth and can confirm or infirm our hypotheses of what lean is. We also get individual, different perspectives that add to our understanding of the troublesome problems posed by the Toyota Production System and the multiple perspectives in understanding it. It’s not a model that can be coded in an ERP. It’s a living breathing thinking tool that you make your own, to draw your own, personal conclusions and interrogations. This is the essence of kaizen mind – keep looking, keep asking, keep pondering.

But I also worry that creating a lean culture – which was never easy to begin with – could be slipping further out of reach as access to all the ready-made solutions in the world through looking at one’s phone makes deep thinking seem somewhat quaint. I’ve seen product design engineers progressively turn into solutions purchasers – then assembled on a CAD screen. Now, in software development, the rallying cry seems to be “give it to Amazon Web Services, they’ll do it better than you ever can” (probably true). The upside is speed and effortlessness, the downside is slower learning, less knowledge and therefore more problems and crises that crop up as people progressively lose their ability to think ahead.

I don’t mean to preach doom and disaster. And I’m certainly not saying that “it was better before.” I believe, however, that in order to reap the full benefits of the lean learning systems that we now know in great detail, both in terms of tools and (thanks to the books published in the last couple of years) in spirit and principle, we need to highlight and value thinking itself. Logical reasoning, counterfactual imagining, and constraints testing require mental space and self-confidence. They’re costly in brain juice, so our thinking organs will naturally shy away from such activities unless we deliberately go there, with a clear purpose to offset the effort.

As with most human things, when you stop understanding them, you lose them. I feel we should revive the conversation about the place of deep thinking in lean – what does it mean? What is it good for? How to obtain it? This was the original sensei’s original mission and to them the benefits were obvious. Now that endless prepackaged solutions are at our fingertips, I believe that it’s time to value thinking more explicitly and start challenging mental status quos more directly again, as the sensei once did with us.

Read about Nate Furuta’s outstanding experience exporting Toyota cultures to environments as diverse as NUMMI and the company’s European operations.

Nate Furuta book cover


Michael Ballé photo
Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

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