Author of Continuous Improvement Book "Four Types of Problems" Must Solve a Vexing Problem Before Keynoting a Major Business Conference

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Lean Enterprise Institute author Art Smalley tells the crowd at the Northeast Lean Conference how he ironically had to solve a “Type 1” problem with a broken hotel toilet before his plenary presentation on problem solving.

Four Types of Problems cover.

Four Types of Problems by Art Smalley reveals how to identify the four main types of business problems to precisely apply the right tool to the right problem.

“Types 1, 2, and 3 keep a company in the game to survive, but if you don’t have a Type 4 ability to deliver new products, processes, and growth, the company may not survive."

Arriving at his hotel after midnight, author and business consultant Art Smalley just wanted to get some sleep before his keynote presentation later that day. But Smalley, whose latest book on #lean management is "Four Types of Problems," first had to solve a problem.

“The flap in the toilet wasn’t sealing and the doggone water kept running,” Smalley told the audience during his keynote at the recent Northeast Lean Conference in Hartford, CT. “There was no valve to turn off either. It would not stop. I’m tired. I can’t sleep. I'm going nuts. What do I do?”

He briefly considered calling the front desk to request that maintenance fix the running toilet or that he be given a new room. Neither was a good solution because he would either have to re-pack to change rooms or wait for maintenance, costing him time and precious sleep.

Recognizing the running toilet as a Type 1 problem, Smalley responded by troubleshooting. “I got dental floss from my suitcase and tied up the floating device to fool it into thinking the tank was full,” he said. Problem solved temporarily at least, he laughed. In the morning he reported the problem to the front desk for proper repair.

Smalley used the anecdote to explain to the crowd that troubleshooting -- what he classifies as a Type 1 problem within his 4 Types Framework -- requires rapid response and short-term corrective actions. Another example would be firefighters extinguishing a fire before looking for the cause.

Determining a root cause is the domain of Type 2 problem solving, typically through a structured process such as A3 analysis, 5 Whys, or six sigma. “The key here is that people recognize there’s a gap from a standard in the problem definition,” Smalley explained. “The problem can’t be ignored but it can’t be solved by troubleshooting; something deeper and more deliberative must occur.”

From Troubleshooting to Innovation
While Types 1 and 2 create stable operating conditions by maintaining current standards, Type 3 problem solving raises standards or conditions to a new, higher level.

“This is popularly known as continuous improvement or by the Japanese term kaizen,” Smalley said. The organization is, in effect, creating a problem where none existed to create a new standard.

Type 4 or open-ended problem solving is innovation, where creativity and vision result in radical improvements or unexpected products, processes, systems, or new value for customers far above current levels.

“Types 1, 2, and 3 keep a company in the game to survive, but if you don’t have a Type 4 ability to deliver new products, processes, and growth, the company may not survive,” Smalley said.

Published by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, Four Types of Problems breaks new ground in the field of continuous improvement by showing that most business problems fall into four main categories:

  • Type 1 or Troubleshooting,
  • Type 2 or Gap from Standard,
  • Type 3 or New Target Condition, and
  • Type 4 or Innovation.

Using text, examples, graphics, and charts, the book explains the different thought processes, improvement methods, and management cadences required by each type.

Problems with Problem Solving
The framework helps managers and teams avoid two critical pitfalls with problem solving that are becoming more common as companies try to create corporate cultures based on developing people’s continuous improvement abilities. Smalley has observed that they mechanically reach for the same familiar problem-solving methodology no matter what the issue is, or they drown in dozens of methodologies, uncertain which to use.

“I see companies falling into both traps, unfortunately,” Smalley said.

Sponsored by the nonprofit GBMP, the 15th annual Northeast Lean Conference drew more than 500 executives, managers, and continuous improvement professionals to the Connecticut Convention Center, Oct. 23-24, 2019. The 2020 event is set for Oct. 7-8 in Springfield, MA.

About Art Smalley
Smalley was one of the first Americans to work for Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan, learning the principles of its vaunted Toyota Production System (TPS) and thorough problem-solving methods at the Kamigo engine plant, where TPS architect Taiichi Ohno was the founding plant manager. Previously, Smalley authored Creating Level Pull and co-authored with Durward Sobek Understanding A3 Thinking. He co-authored with Isao Kato Toyota Kaizen Methods. Smalley shares his expertise in lean management and problem solving through Art of Lean at

About the Lean Enterprise Institute
Lean Enterprise Institute Inc. (LEI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA, with a mission to make things better through lean thinking and practice by helping companies create more value and prosperity while consuming the fewest possible resources. Founded in 1997 by management expert James Womack, PhD, LEI conducts research through co-learning partnerships with companies, teaches on-site and public workshops, publishes books and ebooks, organizes conferences, and shares practical information about lean thinking and practice. Visit

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