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How to Be a Problem-Solving Kid (and You’ll Really Want to Be One)

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A few years ago, there was something of a boom in the market for books about Japanese management techniques. If it had “lean” in the title or somewhere on the cover, it was snapped up as fast as the latest diet book—and there is a good chance that there was more than one overweight individual who was wondering what kind of food “kaizen” is. But perhaps it was a matter of saturation or distraction; the number of books about the zen of the Toyota Production System and the like declined.

Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe (Portfolio; $22.95) is not a book about lean or kaizen or muda or jidoka. He never mentions Toyota. But it is a book that started life as a Japanese management book—or, more precisely, as a book that Watanabe, a former McKinsey consultant, created to help Japanese school children develop problem-solving skills. (It later became a business best-seller in Japan, presumably as the kids started outthinking their parents.)

This is a wonderful book in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that it provides “serious” information about problem solving in a manner that is simple, profound and delightful. Although written for children, it is not at all childish. And while it provides the same sorts of approaches that some of you may recall from the books that reference Taiichi Ohno, it does so in a fresh way, one applicable to kids (Watanabe addresses the “problem-solving kids” in the book, and the primary examples are of young people solving problems) but no less germane to adults.

“Problem solving is a process that can be broken down into four steps: (1) understand the current situation; (2) identify the root cause of the problem; (3) develop an effective action plan; and (4) execute until the problem is solved, making modifications as necessary. These steps come as a package,” Watanabe writes. And while your problem might not be getting people to attend your rock band’s performances, buying a used computer or figuring out which would be the best school to attend in Brazil so you can improve your soccer skills, the methods you need—from root cause analysis to creating logic trees, which are covered in Problem Solving 101—are the same, even if you’re trying to figure out how to design a new car while minimizing the number of tools that have to be changed from the existing model, engineer a cost-effective but environmentally correct component, or get more work done with a reduced number of staff members.—GSV