Problem solving methodologies

This is part 3 of a series of articles on modelling and enhancing how decision-making occurs in an organisational context.

As organisations have moved away from top-down decision making approaches as the education and skills of their employees have increased, the techniques used for project management have also evolved. Two major changes in organisational approaches to project management are generally grouped under the banners of “agile” and “lean” methods.

An agile method relies upon incremental and iterative completion of goals with a self-managing team. It is often presented in opposition to a “waterfall” process that sequentially gathers requirements, completes a design, and then builds a final product.

Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka proposed the core agile concept of iterative, continuous delivery in 1986[1]. They are acknowledged[2] as the inspiration for Scrum, a popular methodology for delivering IT projects today. Co-created by Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, John Scumniotales and Jeff McKenna, the term “Scrum” is often used interchangeably with “agile”.

Properly speaking, “Scrum” is a specific methodology whereas “agile” can be any technique that focuses on iterative delivery and empowerment. Agile primarily focuses on efficiently segmenting the business processing cycle of the problem-solving pattern into “chunks” that can be executed in parallel.

A lean method is one that aims to provide “perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste”.[3] Taiichi Ohno, developer of Kanban at Toyota, came up with the foundations of just-in-time planning and delivery mechanics such as Kanban that are at the core of lean.

In contrast to agile, which splits up work, lean focuses on continuous improvement of cross-functional teams and end-to-end process management. Lean places a far greater emphasis on the knowledge processing cycle of problem solving, continuously seeking new solutions to the status quo.

It is important to note that the Toyota Way, the culture surrounding the Toyota Production System which was the origin of “lean” techniques, is more than just the principles identified as lean. The Toyota Way “encourages, supports, and in fact demands employee involvement”.[4] In The High-Velocity Edge, Steven Spear’s definitive book on highly adaptive organisations, he identifies four rules that organisations such as Toyota follow[5]:

  1. Design — Create systems with built-in tests to expose execution gaps
  2. Improve — Swarm problems to contain, investigate, and resolve them
  3. Share — Widely share the discovery process as well as the particular solution
  4. Develop — Continuously build your team’s problem solving capabilities.

Only the first of these items can be achieved through top-down management fiat. The rest require the “hearts and minds” of employees. In this sense, the agile manifesto to trust employees captures the Toyota Way far better than the sometimes clinical language of “lean”.

It is interesting to note the recent emergence of “Lean Six Sigma” advocates; this marks the reclamation of Lean philosophy by top-down management, instead of the more radical Toyota perspective of empowered, trusted, and self-managing teams[6]. But more importantly, following these rules places a relentless focus on discovering new problems, and in continuously building and enhancing the shared context required to effectively solve these problems.

The benefits of using problem solving methods to increase performance and adaptability have been repeatedly demonstrated. In fact, recent research suggests that the process of defining a problem as a series of small projects is often more important than picking a particular execution methodology[7].

In the next article, we look at the unique challenges of management versus manufacturing, and the need for multiple tasks to be coordinated and executed in parallel.


  1. Nonaka, I., and Hirotaka, T., The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, USA: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  2. See (accessed 5 July 2016).
  3. See (accessed 5 July 2016).
  4. See (accessed 5 July 2016).
  5. Spear, S., The High-Velocity Edge: How Market Leaders Leverage Operational Excellence to Beat the Competition, McGraw Hill Professional, 2010, p302.
  6. George, M., Lean Six Sigma: Combining Six Sigma quality with lean speed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
  7. See (accessed 5 July 2016).

Originally published at RealKM.

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