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Collaboration.4 -- Developing collaborative problem-solving


1.    Cultural development:

The central decision-making habit of classical management slows down the organization and reduces efficiency. Problems of today are complex to be solved only by the management, and carrying all issues to the "decision-making center" is expensive. Agile organizations solve problems collectively and make their decisions fast. Swarm intelligence outperforms individual intelligence. Click here to get an idea about the swarm.

Genchi-Genbutsu is a Toyota-Way principle that tells us to stay close to the problem during attempts to solve it. Willingness to Genchi-Genbutsu is often damaged, when distinctions like shop floor / management, or white collars / blue collars turn into symbols of privilege. When our distance to problems increases, assumptions that are open to errors replace reliable data that can be easily collected by hearing, seeing, and feeling. As D.Kahneman says in his book "Fast and Slow Thinking," the brain is a machine for jumping to conclusions.

If you see the importance of solving the problems where they occur, invest in a culture that develops critical thinking and collaborative problem solving (PS) skills.


2. Standardized problem-solving tool

I named the factors mentioned above as "barriers" because they increase the risk of making mistakes. These factors are not mental deficiencies but an integral part of the human mind. As they shape us "human," trying to eliminate them is an impossible task. If our objective is to gain awareness of them, then we can avoid mistakes.

We can observe this awareness in the behaviors of problem-solving experts. They;

  • meticulously avoid assumptions, preconceptions, and rush

  • follow a method

  • proceed to the next step only after they find their thoughts constitute a reliable ground

  • test their judgments from various angles

  • monitor the implementation of the solution skeptically


For me, the prevailing attitude of these behaviors is self-criticism along the entire process.

Feeling comfortable with our thinking now is the state of complacency that hides the activity of thinking errors and biases. That means we are instantly unaware. The scientific method helps us to think freely from biases and mistakes, and the 8-Steps PS provides similar protection in our workplaces.

Even though we learn the 8-Steps technique, our brain will always tend to use its old habits whenever it faces a new situation. When the case is urgent, the brain even doesn't use newly acquired skills but responds instinctively. The solution is to develop the capability to a level that it becomes a reflex, and this possible: Use 8-Step method with critical thinking, until it becomes your second nature.


3. Collaborative problem-solving training

We can't remember our early experiences (times before we learned our mother language) later because there were no words representing things in the mind yet. Some people believe that we have no access to this period of our lives, even with psychoanalysis. Even we access, I think that there is no content, because there is no language. It's not that we don't remember, but there is nothing to remember.

We think with language. Without a language, we can't think. People talking different languages assign different meanings to words and thus think differently.

A language is needed for an individual to understand a problem, solve it, and implement the solution. Whichever the language is used seems unimportant, because I haven't seen anybody complaining, "My language does not allow me to define the problem." (In fact, some philosophers do, but their effect on business-life is unfortunately limited.)

Although having a mother language is enough for individual PS, it is not enough for solving problems where other people are involved. Anybody who didn't suffer from endless meetings? Do you believe that the "received part" of the messages exceeds 20% of the messages given? Isn't everybody familiar with meetings where somebody tries to explain the effects of a problem to the company, another proposes countermeasures while some others helplessly try to make root cause analysis? Having the same mother language is not enough for efficient communication in the PS process. Frequency mismatch!

Using the 8-Steps PS method as a common PS language eliminates these inefficiencies. Those who talk this language can interconnect their thinking capacities at the right PS process step.

Though collaborative PS language is necessary for better communication, we need some more effort to create synergy with others. Our brain does not suffer and feels pain from the continuous control of desires, beliefs, and biases because its continuously under anesthesia of group psychology. One can't see the chains around his/her thinking unless he/she is unaware of the factors acting on the brain.


Human is the only living creature who has the potential to see these chains. Cats, dolphins, and elephants, too, think in some form. Exclusively, a human can think about how he/she thinks. Using this skill called meta-cognition, we can analyze our thoughts more objectively.

When you come together with someone else to solve a problem, similar biases act on both brains. You can notice the barriers affecting your counterpart if you learn to think critically, free from your barriers. And you can teach meta-cognition to others.

After the announcement of The Toyota Way 2001, we, as Toyota managers, received Practical Problem Solving and A3 Reporting training in overseas Toyota plants worldwide. This training didn't include the cultural dimension because it was not necessary, as we were all living in Toyota culture. In the following years, we have disseminated this business practice to our organizations through continuous training, assessments, and mentoring during practice.

I applied the same method during my work at other automotive OEM's, after 15 years in Toyota. However, I could not get the same results, and I realized that this was due to the absence of an essential element, the culture. 

Changing the culture or creating a culture from scratch is not an easy task. However, if you model the culture as common behaviors in practice based on shared principles, then you can dare to shape it. At LeanOpex, we designed the Collaborative Problem Solving Workshop    to bridge the gap between the principles and the practice.


During the workshop, we criticize countless daily behaviors according to Toyota Way principles; respect, challenge, kaizen, teamwork, and genchi-genbutsu. We put light on how individual and social barriers hinder our PS capacity. A collective effort to understand the feelings that affect our thinking is the key to collaborative PS. Bringing the desires and beliefs to consciousness enables us to criticize our preconceptions. This thinking practice that we usually omit during daily life, clearly reveals that most of such prejudices are not deep-rooted, reliable, or useful in workplace relations. An awareness raised to this level has the power to break preconceptions.


4. From theory to practice

A crazy river runs in between knowing and doing. We need a bridge to cross. When you learn the grammar and the words of a foreign language, you can partially understand conversations. When it comes to speaking, it is far more complicated. The ability to speak, like other skills, requires the establishment of new neural connections (bridges), that can be developed only by talking.



Likewise, everybody understands the concept quickly by taking an 8-Steps PS training. Then you see even people with high self-confidence making critical mistakes. A common mistake is jumping over one or more steps of the 8-Steps method. The brain does not like standard procedures at all.

We all need critical thinking to understand which PS steps we often bypass. Nonetheless, it's not easy for us to catch our own mistakes. Finding the mistakes of others is much easier because we are used to criticizing others, not ourselves. We can use this skill to criticize the effect of our behaviors on others, to be able to understand our mistakes.

When you develop critical thinking culture and make an 8-Step PS method, the workplace language, all employees see their thinking errors from their reflections from other employees. Cultural literacy raised by collaborative PS training and practice allows you to feed qualitative information back to others about their improvement potentials. Managers thus become leaders who teach how to solve real-life problems, on the job.

There are reliable tools to help to turn the theoretical approach above into practice; unfortunately, however, many organizations utilize them for lower-level purposes like process improvement and reporting.


5. Tools for developing collaborative PS at the workplace:

A3 reporting workshops: 

Group criticizes A3 reports prepared by individuals regarding 8-Steps PS methodology. The apparent purpose is to improve individuals' skills through feedback. The more in-depth objective is developing the collaborative PS language.

Kaizen circles: 

Members develop 8-Steps problem-solving skills with structured 3 or 6 months of group work. The involvement of superiors is the key as leaders can show all members which steps they bypass. Unfortunately, many leaders don't feel accountable for this responsibility.

Jishuken (Cross-Functional Teams): 

Members from different disciplines form these PS groups to overcome operational blindness, departmentalism (silos), and to trigger creativity. Creativity has a social nature which can be unchained by leaders who role model collaborative problem-solving. It's the leader's role to constitute an environment that is suitable for creative ideas to fire, and to grow once they turn into practice.

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If you use these tools only for process improvement, processes improve. As you continue using them, you see that they also develop your employees as a side benefit. The big opportunity is behind this side benefit: Collaborative problem solving, seen from this perspective, transforms an organization to Continuous Improvement phase, as Jeffrey Liker indicates in 4P model:



Wrong (WASTE): Reducing waste by developing problem-solving skills of employees

Right:                   Developing collaborative problem-solving skills of employees by waste reduction activities.



The literature considers problem-solving generally as an individual skill. Looking at real-life problems, however, it's unrealistic to assume that a group of employees, highly skilled in individual PS, can solve complex problems just by bringing them together.

Literature about PS in groups is still weak for use in manufacturing organizations. Most of the related documents suggest bringing the stakeholders together first and then follow the same 8-Steps by adding some fancy tools like "brainstorming."

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In the meantime, problems get complicated as diversity, complexity, and uncertainty increase in the operations. The knowledge in the literature is under the test of passing from knowing to doing.

The bridge needed between knowing and doing in workplaces is not readily available in the market. It is a rope bridge with smaller ropes woven from principles, by collective efforts of brains you have.


If you believe that our hypothesis at the beginning: "Inefficient collaboration is due to the clumsiness in interconnecting our minds at the right time and right frequency." survived all the criticism we made, imagine now. Seeing what happened when computers are interconnected (internet), can we imagine the potential if we can interconnect and work collectively?

  • Mother language is not enough to release our potential against complex problems. Develop collaborative problem-solving as the language of your company culture.

  • Our education developed our individual PS skills. Extending it further may kill the seeds of collaboration.

  • For two minds to connect, they should first get rid of their chains and then be at the right place, at the right frequency.

  • Critical thinking unchains the minds, and collaborative PS navigates them to the right place and frequency.


Contact LeanOpex for more information about Collaborative Problem-Solving workshops, agile culture development, CFT, Kaizen Certification, and A3 workshops.

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