Review of Four Types of Problems by Art Smalley

By Jon Miller Updated on November 8th, 2019

The new book by leading lean thinker Art Smalley titled Four Types of Problems is available from the Lean Enterprise Institute. Problem solving is one of my favorite topics. I found myself both delighted by and disagreeing with parts of this book. Nevertheless, I recommend a careful reading of it to everyone interested in solving problems and improving things.

The introduction begins “The four types of problems are…” but the author proceeds to describe four types of problem solving activity, not four types of problems.

The Four Types

Type 1: Troubleshooting. This is not a problem. What he describes is a type of activity.

Type 2: Gap from Standard. This is a problem. However, the author discusses structured problem solving, not the type of problem.

Type 3: Target condition. This is not a problem. The gap between the target condition and current condition is the created problem.

Type 4: Open-ended. This could be a type of problem, but the author describes the innovation process and not a type of problem.

My point in calling out this glaring gap between the book’s title, opening statement and content that follows, is that while the book delivers valuable information on problem solving, it failed to convince me that there are 4 types of problems or that the author’s definition of these as “the four” is valid one. It is true that these 4 types of problem solving activity exist. The question is how helpful it is to draw lines where the author did.

As the book made little effort to build a case for “four types of problems”, it is best not to take the book’s title at face value. In covering the four problem solving activities, the book could have benefited from following a consistent case study or example to show how four types of  can apply to a situation, as many LEI books and workbooks often do.

The Flat Tire

For example, let’s say we are driving to an important meeting and get a flat tire. We cannot drive safely on a flat and we will be late, missing our target. We take Type 1 containment action. Time allowing, we remove the flat and replace the spare tire, driving to our destination. We don’t stop to investigate the root cause. If we are really pressed for time we may leave our car there and take an Uber to our destination, a more expensive form of containment but necessary to protect the customer.

Later, we may learn through Type 2 work that driving is not a reliable way to be on time to critical appointments, due to road conditions, weather, accidents, or the condition of our car. Depending on our budget constraints, we may decide to repair the car, carpool, or leave early to allow for travel time variation.

In Type 3 work, we have deliberately chosen to allocate time and resources towards creating and closing a gap, making our travel time more reliable. We may look for a shorter driving route, move closer to our workplace, or reschedule all critical appointments time and locations to avoid the causes of delays.

The Type 4 approach is one in which we have removed most or all constraints from our thinking in an effort achieve a higher ideal. We may challenge the need to travel at all. Innovation may result in a decision to telecommute, only meet at or near our home, or find a different source of income to entirely remove the risks and stress associated with traffic. There is no argument that one can approach problem solving in all of the four categories described by the author.

Type1 : Containment, Not Problem Solving

At most, the book describes three types of problems: gap closure, target attainment, and open-ended innovation. Perhaps in an attempt to achieve a 2×2 symmetry, the author elevates band-aid fixes to the status of problem solving. Troubleshooting as described in the book, and as experienced by most who will read this book, is at best containment, a sub-step of Type 2 problem solving. At worst, it is fake problem solving. The author makes it clear that Type 1 is emergency response. The focus is not on finding causes and solutions, merely reducing immediate pain and inconvenience. Many organizations address problems almost solely in the Type 1 fashion. It is necessary but not sufficient and we should not validate this as a problem solving method on par with the other three types.

Although the author distinguishes between Type 1 and “band-aid” solutions, pointing out that the former leads to stability, this is only true when there is follow-through to “buy time to delve deeper into critical details for investigation”. Perhaps for the author, Type 2 problem solving is implied as a natural progression from Type 1, based on his experience at Toyota. In much the real world, Type 2 never happens after Type 1. Type 1 work can only be called “problem solving” when paired with Types 2, 3 or 4 work. Troubleshooting is problem response but does not stand alone as a problem solving method.

As the author points out, quick response troubleshooting is essential and unavoidable. However, the reasons that organizations struggle with troubleshooting is not because of a lack tools or methods to do so. It is because they fail to structure themselves for quick problem response followed by deeper problem solving. They do not allocate enough time and resources to act quickly. This allows problems to become bigger, pulling more attention away from quick-response troubleshooting. The underlying structure that enables this at Toyota and other lean organizations is to give front line leaders, supervisors and managers a reasonable span of control, expectation to roam the gemba to monitor standards, and the ability to escalate and call support staff immediately when small problems are noted. Giving organizations permission to practice Type 1 troubleshooting without addressing these structural issues is a band-aid solution of the worst kind. On the page 46 chapter review, the author raises important questions with regards to this issue, but without enough depth or urgency to raise the reader’s awareness.

Type 2: Required Reading

If “fast pain relief” are they key words for Type 1, the key word for Type 2 is “learning”. The chapter on Type 2 breaks down problem solving into 7 steps, provides detailed explanations of key points, and offers many insights for consideration and reflection. This chapter by itself worth the price of the book. It is excellent.

Type 3: What is the Target Condition?

In Type 3 problem solving, we create the gap by asking ourselves, “How can we approach 100%…” safety, on-time delivery, productivity, etc. Then we find gaps to close in our current state, which may be just fine for customers shareholders at 95% today. Thus it is a “created gap”. The key skill to Type 3 is the ability to see the current condition clearly and envision the ideal condition to an actionable level of detail. In fact, these are the same questions that we ask in Type 4 when we are practicing innovation.

Mike Rother’s coaching kata makes an important contribution in developing thinking and habits regarding how to understand current conditions and set target conditions. The book misses the opportunity to highlight the strong links between the kata questions and the thinking within the four types of problems.

The definition of Type 3 problem solving could benefit from distinguishing between situations in which there are known “ideal conditions” that we can benchmark and copy, and situations in which our research reveals no better known methods in the world, requiring trial-and-error discovery. This is also where lines blur between Types 3 and 4. When benchmarking is possible or when next steps toward the ideal are known, the 8 step process described in this chapter can be replaced with pilot projects to test and adapt these proven methods. In this case a proposal A3 makes more sense than a problem solving A3.

In Toyota’s experience with Type 3, perhaps their opportunities to look elsewhere find better examples were limited after 1965. Their bias against technological solutions, initially from a lack of funds and later due to a culture of frugality, turned out to be the right answer for them. But it may not be the right one for all of us today, as it can result in reinventing the wheel, or spending 12 years in kindergarten reinventing the wheel. The modern organization can leapfrog Toyota circa 1965 by decades, at least in terms of their production system, as long as we do not ignore the total management system context, the way of thinking, solving problems and developing people, that make it possible. When this point is missed and we copy rapidly and superficially, it rarely works. However, this is no reason to abandon the benchmark-copy-and-adapt approach or to limit Type 3 created gap closure activity to only kaizen and continuous improvement varieties.

Type 4: Good Process, Good Result?

The book describes innovation as “open-ended” problem solving. By definition this can mean nearly anything. The examples given from Toyota seem more like incremental advances rather than true innovations. There is no doubt that innovation involves solving problems, but is it a distinct type of problem solving? One could argue that innovation is a special case of created gap closure (Type 3) in which we remove constraints in our thinking of what is possible by adjusting our time, technological, or economic horizons. In many cases what the innovation process delivers may solve no problem at all, other than to stem a decline in sales. For example, a fast food company that innovates by introducing new ways of recombining their raw materials into products that will appeal increase consumption, but this may not solve a real customer problem.

Innovation can happen through experimentation and scientific discovery, a recombination or adaptation of something already known elsewhere but not locally, or by chance as in the case of penicillin. At least in the latter two cases, innovation is not a problem solving process per se, just a description of a good outcome dependent to some degree on luck. Intelligent constraints, processes and standards that enable creativity and the freedom and safety to explore enable innovation, but unlike problem solving, innovation may fundamentally be results-driven rather than a process-driven. There is no doubt that some problem solving activities result in innovations. Calling it a third or fourth distinct type of problem solving seems a stretch when innovation can be reactive or proactive, gap-closing or vision-attaining, useless to people or life-changing, achieved by intent or by luck.

How Many Types of Problems Are There in the World?

What I believe the author wants to do is help people become better at problem solving. If the book is trying to do this by identifying the “types” or problems or ways we address them, what other ways might there be to slice the problem pie? Some problems have known solutions and some have unknown solutions. There are problems with causes that are observable in action and some that cannot be directly observed. Some problems arise from multiple, interacting, dynamic causes and some from discrete, direct and simpler causes. Some problems demand urgency to act while others may demand a larger impact, even if slower. There are problems arising from human behavior and ideology versus those arriving from non-human physical phenomena. There are problems happening moment-to-moment and those that reveal themselves in slow motion over many years. There are problems that I can’t be blamed for, and those that might be my fault. “How many types of problems are there in the world, and what are they?” These are an interesting questions, but not in scope of this book. However, the reader curious about the history, context, key steps, and applicability of problem solving beyond gap closure and for goal attainment and innovation will be rewarded.

Two, One

My teachers always taught that there were two types of problems: close-gap-to-standard and raise-standard-towards-ideal. These are the book’s Type 2 “caused gap” and the Type 3 “created gap” varieties. Type 4 innovation is arguably an instance of Type 3, approached with different set of constraints, mental and practical. Type 1 troubleshooting is not a legitimate form of problem solving activity because of the aforementioned reasons. All four types of activity described in the book are necessary for an organization to adapt, learn and thrive long-term. They involve grasping the current situation, visualizing the target condition, and closing the gap through a combination of known short-term measures and long-term ones discovered through experimentation. To me this is all just one thing: problem solving.

  1. Tomas J. Aragon

    August 16, 2020 - 4:10 pm

    great article on Art Smalley book! is there a book you recommend on problem solving

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