The Big Problem with Problem Solving: Not Every Business Challenge Is a “Nail” But Companies Typically Reach for the Same Old “Hammer”

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Four Types of Problems, a new book on continuous improvement from the #Lean Enterprise Institute, reveals how leaders can escape the hammer-and-nail trap by recognizing four main problem types to precisely apply the right problem-solving approach.

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Just released: Four Types of Problems

It’s akin to the hammer-and-nail relationship. If my only problem-solving tool is a hammer, every business problem looks like a nail.

When faced with a problem many business leaders and teams mechanically reach for a familiar and standard problem-solving methodology, creating unnecessary struggle, frustration, delay, and ineffectiveness in solving the problem -- if it is ever solved at all.

The reality is that when attacking business problems, one or even two approaches won’t work in all situations.

Some situations require a quicker reaction approach to “stop the bleeding” while others require a slower, analytical methodology to determine deeper problems and root causes. Still other problems require higher levels of creativity and open-ended exploration in order to produce better target states or attain breakthrough results.

But managers and teams tend to settle on a favorite problem-solving technique or two from among all available -- whether it’s brainstorming, fishbone diagraming, failure mode effects analysis, value-stream mapping, kaizen events, design of experiments, A3s, 5 whys, 6 sigma, or the 8Ds – that is often mismatched for the problem at hand.

“Organizations and individuals at all levels fall into this trap of having one primary or standard way of solving every problem,” said Art Smalley, a continuous improvement expert and author of the insightful new business management book Four Types of Problems, published by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, a global thought leader in continuous improvement resources.

“It’s akin to the hammer-and-nail relationship,” Smalley said. “If my only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Managers need a better framework for thinking about problem-solving situations and what approach to use. Problems are often situational in nature requiring different responses.”

Smalley provides the framework in Four Types of Problems. He shows that most business problems fall into four main categories, each requiring different thought processes, management cadences, and improvement methods.

The Problem-Solving Framework:
1. Troubleshooting: A reactive process of rapidly fixing abnormal conditions by returning things to immediately known standards. While beneficial in the immediate term this approach often fails to solve the problem’s root cause. Example: When a house is on fire protect the occupants, treat any injuries, and put out the fire.
2. Gap-from-standard: A structured problem-solving process that aims more at the root cause through problem definition, goal setting, analysis, countermeasure implementation, checks, standards, and follow-up activities. Example: Extinguish the fire, then determine what caused it and how to prevent another.
3. Target-state: Continuous improvement (kaizen) that goes beyond existing levels of performance to achieve new and better standards or conditions. Example: Use superior layouts, building materials, and landscaping methods that are far less likely to lead to fires in the first place.
4. Open-ended and Innovation: Unrestricted pursuit through creativity and synthesis of a vision or ideal condition that entail radical improvements and unexpected products, processes, systems, or value for the customer beyond current levels. Example: Ask why not have systems that detect, prevent or immediately stop fires from occurring right away?

“Each type of problem has its time and place in the grand scheme of things,” Smalley said. “You don’t debate or analyze the root cause of a fire when it is occurring. You put it out and then move onto the next phase of determining why it occurred and how to prevent it from happening again.”

Each type of problem category has its own sub-system and surfacing mechanism, management cadence, timing, and difficulty level. "One size does not fit all situations and just training people on tools or techniques only scratches the surface of the issue," Smalley said.

Readers of Four Types of Problems will learn:

  • How to advance from treating “abnormal conditions” to more robust problem-solving routines that develops people and creates a more diverse continuous improvement culture;
  • The 4 main types of problem approaches that cover virtually every business challenge, plus real-world examples;
  • The strengths and limitations of each problem-solving type;
  • The right type of sub-system to surface each type for identification and target for improvement;
  • The importance of timing and the cadence associated with each type of routine;
  • 60+ illustrations reinforcing key points and lessons;
  • Much, much more.

About the Author
Art 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 approach at the historic Kamigo engine plant, where TPS architect Taiichi Ohno was the founding plant manager. Smalley learned directly about problem solving from Tomoo Harada, who led the maintenance activities that created the stability that enabled Ohno’s innovations in flow production to succeed.

Back in the U.S., Smalley served as director of lean manufacturing for Donnelly Corporation and later as a top lean management expert at McKinsey & Company working with Fortune 500 clients. He currently is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Besides Four Types of Problems, Smalley authored Creating Level Pull and co-authored with Durward Sobek Understanding A3 Thinking. Both books won Shingo Publication Awards. He co-authored with Isao Kato Toyota Kaizen Methods. When he isn’t practicing martial arts or busy in his woodworking shop, Smalley shares his expertise in lean management, problem solving, and leadership through his company, Art of Lean at

About the Book

Editors/Producers/Bloggers: For review copies or to interview the author, contact LEI Communications Director Chet Marchwinski or 617-871-2900.

About 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 to learn more.

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Chet Marchwinski
since: 01/2010
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