What’s Another Word for “Problem”?

By Jon Miller Updated on February 19th, 2017

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.

  1. Shelby Jarvis

    February 20, 2017 - 3:06 pm

    Great question.

    You explore culture as an influence. Do you think the culture issue may apply to teams who believe people are to blame rather than process? That may explain the hesitance to call a problem a problem. It may feel confrontational.

    Maybe thinking of this in reverse can be used as a tool to evaluate culture. An organization which resists using the word “problem” may need help in more areas than process improvement.

  2. Jon Miller

    February 20, 2017 - 6:12 pm

    Very good comment Shelby. Yes, I think teams that believe people are to blame will shy away from the p-word. For such teams it is necessary to help them to find a mindset that sees system and process-level root causes, not just human ones.

  3. John Hunter

    February 20, 2017 - 9:32 pm

    I think this is a wise recognition: “may need help in more areas than process improvement.”

    Fear is likely a part of the problem (yes problem). Such a desire to ignore problems and the word problem can also be greatly enhanced with performance appraisals systems that create a mindset that is focused on hiding potential issues that may reflect poorly on those appraisals…

    The problem with the word problem is often not as simple as it may seem at first. Changing the word used may do a tiny bit of good but not much. The underlying issues that cause people to think problems are something to not acknowledge is not something solved by avoiding the word.

    • Jon

      February 22, 2017 - 12:48 am

      HI John
      Agreed. Not using the word problem is possibly a symptom of problem avoidance or other non-adaptive cultural traits. That does not mean simply using the word problem will address the roots of these cultural traits.

  4. Sam Selay

    February 21, 2017 - 7:43 pm

    Is there a deference between a problem and a opportunity? I know some to define a problem as a gap between where you are and where you need to be and opportunity defined as a gap between where you are and where want to be. Need implies not meeting a established stardard, and opportunity implies meeting a standard, but there is room for improvement.

    • Jon

      February 22, 2017 - 12:46 am

      Hi Sam
      I think you captured the difference. Problem would be a gap because you are not meeting a standard, a customer requirement, etc. Opportunity is when you are doing good but can see a way to do better – and for this reason, many view problems also as opportunities to improve.

  5. Patrick Herlihy

    March 5, 2017 - 12:28 pm

    “Problem” has as much a negative connotation as “Blame.” The fact is that you can be “blamed” for doing something well and a “problem” can just be an obstacle to overcome. As has been said, words have deeper meanings and invoke certain ideas and feelings, all based on external factors such as, most notably, culture. But changing a word doesn’t get to the root of it.

    “To not have problems is the greatest problem” translates to me to say “To believe that the status quo is good enough, because it is currently ‘working’, will only lead down the path to ultimate failure.”

    As I recall about a program on the pole vault I watched, the athlete stated something like, “My worst days are on days where everything goes right because I don’t get a chance to learn anything new.”

    Continuous improvement requires continuous “problems.”

    • Jon Miller

      March 5, 2017 - 11:59 pm

      Hi Patrick.
      Great illustration of the article’s point with the pole vault example.

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