What’s another word for “problem”? Opportunity? Situation? How about challenge? Whenever I hear this question, it’s an indication of a cultural problem. Unlike in lean organizations, bad things follow the discovery of a problem within traditional organizations. Being handed responsibility for a problem hints at possible punishment. For opportunities or challenges, hint of reward. These alternatives have a more positive ring to them. Aversion to the p-word is understandable.
Organizations remain vital through a combination of innovation and problem solving. Both are instances of gap closure. In the case of problem solving, closing the gap between a standard or expected performance and the underperforming actual situation. In the case of innovation, a gap between the acceptable or accepted current situation and a more desirable future. Whether we are correcting customer complaints or creating new products and services to fulfill as yet unrealized needs, when successful, we are solving problems. How is it then that many organizations, even those claiming to be strongly committed to both lean operations and innovation, shy away from using the word “problem” to talk about their gaps?
The expression, “To not have problems is the greatest problem” has been attributed to various lean gurus from Toyota. A state of complacency, satisfaction with the status quo, or willful blindness to problems is arguably the greatest problems an organization’s culture can face. Clearly so, if we are blind to an imminent crisis. When everything seems to be going so well that we don’t see any problems, we lower our sensitivity to deviations. This allows deviance to be accepted as normal and we eventually lose our ability to sense right from wrong. We lose our ability to respond to current problems and anticipate future risks. This is why lean thinkers encourage people not to refer to problems more positively as challenges, situations or opportunities.
The Japanese word for problem is mondai (問題). It also means “issue” and also “question”, in the sense of questions on a written exam. It is possible that other languages share words for problem and question. Indeed, we call arithmetic questions “math problems”. But in literature class, they are essay questions and in history, multiple choice questions, rather than problems. Japanese speakers are not confused when they hear the word mondai. The meaning of the word is obvious in context. If the teacher asks you to read your answer to mondai number 23, it refers to an exam question. If the plant manager runs into the room and says, “We have a big mondai at the 200 ton press,” it’s an abnormality in production. How does the problem solving context, hearing mondai, differ between national, local and organizational cultures and backgrounds? Do people who grew up associating mondai strongly with “answer this question” rather than mainly with “we are in trouble” respond differently when faced with problems at work?
There is little debate over what the Toyota people from Japan meant when they said that not having problems is a great problem. However, there is a more nuanced way of understanding this. For those who struggle to speak plainly about problems, I suggest using the phrase “Not asking questions is the greatest problem” as a companion to but not as an alternative for “not having problem is the greatest problem”.
On the one hand, we need to build organizational cultures in which it is OK to talk about our screw-ups and call them by name: problems. On the other hand, we need to develop the attitude that screw ups are opportunities to ask questions, learn and correct the situation. Perhaps most important, we need to treat problems like exam questions which can be solved in several ways but have incorrect and correct answers. The worst thing we can do is to turn away from problems and run towards solutions, preferred policies and ideologies without first shining a light on the situation and its underpinning cause-and-effect mechanisms. It is less important what word we use for our problems than what we do once we acknowledge them. Facing our problems requires asking questions. Having a mindset of “not asking questions is the greatest problem” helps us identify gaps to improve or innovate.