By: Daniel Faris
Problem solving is a central issue in business ownership. In fact, you might say that business itself is a series of problems waiting to be solved. But when it comes to finding the ideal approach, or the perfect process, for solving any of the dozens of problems faced by the modern business, things get complicated.
Today I’d like to discuss three methods for problem solving that have proven track records in the world of commerce. Each one of these has a strange name, but don’t let that fool you: these are big ideas that have inspired countless companies both large and small. And not only that, but they also encourage both collaboration and transparency: essential qualities for any responsible, modern business.
To get things rolling, we’ll turn to the industrious nation of Japan. The word kanban means “signboard” or “billboard” in Japanese, and it’s a concept most commonly applied to “lean” or “just in time” production. It’s a method best demonstrated with an example, so let’s turn our attention to the Toyota Corporation circa 1940.
During this consequential decade, Toyota began looking beyond the automotive industry to find inspiration elsewhere. They eventually focused their attention on supermarkets—specifically, the ways that supermarkets study customer behavior in order to create better shopping experiences.
Their source of inspiration was deceptively simple: They observed that customers traditionally retrieve only the items they need, when they need them. In turn, stores stock only what customers need at any given time. This is what’s meant by “just in time” production, and it’s crucial in any industry where perishable goods are involved.
That might make it seem like an unusual fit for the automotive industry, but Toyota recognized an important truth: Automobiles are, in their own special way, perishable goods. New models regularly displace older ones, and unsold, outdated cars are an expensive millstone to have to keep around.
But even if you’re not a supermarket or automotive mogul, the spirit of kanban can be applied to just about any modern business or industry. In a recent blog post, Kanbanize CEO Dimitar Karaivanov effectively summarized the spirit of kanban: “One of the main principles … is the goal of eliminating bottlenecks by imposing realistic limits on how much work is in progress, how much work is requested, and how much work is held off on the back burner. This is not only a way to prioritize, but also a way to ensure that no member of your team has too much on their plate.”
What Mr. Karaivanov is speaking to here is the importance of imposing order and prioritization on systems where the capriciousness of consumerism can make for sudden twists and turns.
The word kaizen literally means “improvement,” and it’s another word that we’ve borrowed from our eastern counterparts in China and Japan. Applied to a business setting, kaizen is a really big idea: It’s nothing more or less than the process of evaluating and improving every individual function within a company, from the ground up, until the whole thing is running like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
It might sound militant, but it’s anything but. Kaizen encourages individual initiative, attentiveness, and a culture of gradual improvement. For a look at kaizen applied practically, we need look no further than Amazon. Although the retail giant has caught some flak recently for their company culture, it will never be said that Amazon is willing to rest on its laurels.
In Amazon’s version of kaizen, each department within their warehouses—or “fulfillment centers, in Amazon’s nomenclature—is constantly on the lookout for wasted or duplicated efforts and inefficient processes. All it takes is one observant employee to get the ball rolling, and soon a small group of hand-picked team members convenes to brainstorm—and eventually trial—new approaches to old problems.
In other words, kaizen stresses the importance of smaller-scale innovation within a larger corporate structure. It’s a way to humanize the workplace by empowering employees to seek solutions to the issues that affect not just the company’s bottom line, but each employee’s ability to enjoy their job. The result? Improved safety in the workplace and a greater sense of job satisfaction.
Finally, let’s take a look at a homegrown problem-solving method from the States known as scrum.
Scrum comes to us from the worlds of product and software development, where creative iteration and collaboration are of the utmost importance. The idea was conceived by Ken Schwaber, of Advanced Development Methods, in the early 1900’s, though it would be slightly longer until it went by its new name.
Like kaizen, scrum focuses on the importance of anticipating and reacting to the sorts of changes that can slow down development and create inefficiencies.
So what might scrum look like in the modern workplace? It would start with breaking down a week’s worth of tasks into smaller priorities. Let’s use cleaning your room as an example: one priority would be to vacuum the floor, another would be doing laundry, and yet another would be to dust your bookshelf. To return to software development, priorities might include writing a certain section of code, or rebuilding a piece of the user interface.
What scrum does is allow us to build modular schedules that focus on collaboration. It helps us recognize which of our priorities might, for example, play an important role in another department’s work, which ones are time-sensitive, and which ones are not. Development of any kind needs to be able to react to changes in real-time, and to pressure from other teams. Building an agile schedule is an important part of reacting to those variables.
If, in exploring these three problem solving methods, you’ve come away with the idea that free thought needs to be stifled in the name of order and efficiency, that’s far from the truth. None of these methods would work as well as they do if they didn’t value (and encourage) creativity. And who knows? You may even stumble upon a solution altogether new by trying out one of these established systems. As it so often the case in business, you won’t know until you try.
Daniel Faris is a graduate of Susquehanna University's Writers Institute. When he's not writing about corporate responsibility, you can find him over at New Music Friday discussing progressive music and philosophy.