Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.