When I first heard of “No problem is a problem”, I thought that it was a pretty deep philosophical statement. I could understand what it meant, but I realized at that time that there is something more to that statement, some deeper layers that still need to be understood.
Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System is behind this quote. His original version is “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” This idea was engrained in the TPS senseis by their senseis.
Three interpretations come to surface when you look at the quote “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”
- We are always surrounded by problems.
- We are not looking hard enough.
- By saying “there is no problem”, we are trying to hide problems.
Actually there is more to this basic idea. How would you define the concept of “problem”? Merriam-Webster defines problem as;
- something that is difficult to deal with : something that is a source of trouble, worry, etc.
- difficulty in understanding something
- a feeling of not liking or wanting to do something
The book Kaizen Teian 2 defines “problem” as the gap between Ideal State and Current State. This is the gold nugget that will provide the deeper meaning to the statement “no problem is a problem”.
At Toyota, you are trained to think of a problem as the gap between the current state and the ideal state. This way, you can start proposing countermeasures to reach the ideal state and thus address the problem. The thought process can be summarized as below.
- What is your ideal state (goal)?
- What is your current state?
- Define the problem as the gap.
- Suggest countermeasures with an understanding of the cause.
- Implement and study the new current state.
- If you have not reached your ideal state go back to step 4.
As you can see, this is the scientific thinking of PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act). With this light, and with the new definition of a problem as the gap, if you say there is no problem, it would mean that you have reached your ideal state, which is never the case.
One can thus see Kaizen (continuous improvement) as a problem solving methodology. Kaizen is the engine that chugs along towards the ideal state. This represents slow and incremental progress towards the ideal state. The reader should be aware that Kaizen does not equate fixing things. Fixing things is firefighting. Firefighting is associated with maintaining the status quo. This does not let you move towards your ideal state.
The traditional thinking is viewing problems as the fires that need to be put out. There is no continuous improvement thinking here. Putting out fires just mean that we are back where we started. This is the essence of “no problem is a problem”. By saying “I have no problems”, one is giving up on continuous improvement. By viewing “problem” as the gap, it gives motivation for continuous improvement. Think of this as Pull and putting out fires as Push. Thus, you have a better flow towards your ideal state.
The scientific method detailed above is also taught as genchi genbutsu at Toyota. This roughly translates to “go to the actual place of activity, and grasp the facts”. Interestingly, Honda uses a similar theme under san genshugi. This roughly translates to the three actualities. Honda requires their employees to go to the actual place of activity to gain firsthand information, look at the actual situation, and decide on countermeasures based on actual facts. The “gen” component of the Japanese word means real or actual. Sometimes this is spoken as “gem” as well. For example, gemba means actual place of action.
I am at fault for not always using this thinking process. Looking at problems as what should be versus what is right now, helps us understand the problem better. Being at the actual location where the problem happened, and talking to the operator, looking at the equipment or the raw materials, and understanding the facts helps us in moving towards addressing the problem. View problems as the gap between ideal state and current state, and understand that your purpose is to move towards the ideal state. Under this idea of “problem”, you will always have opportunities to move towards the ideal state.
Always keep on learning…