“No Problems is Problem” – Video


I've heard the famous Toyota “no problems is problem” story (and retold it) many times.

Here is a YouTube video with a version of the story right from a primary source who used to work at Toyota in Canada, Erik Hager.

This story gets right to the core of the difference in traditional management and Lean management. Traditional management sticks its head in the sand and doesn't see problems, or they have too much pride to admit them. Or, they're afraid (often rightfully) of the “help” they might get.

Lean management is all about making problems visible so we can work together and constructively to make improvements without blame.

I know the title of the video says “Lean Sensei” and regular readers know I don't like the profligate use of that term. I've met Erik and he's the real deal (as explained in this blog comment).

Back to the point, what is your organization doing to create an environment where it's OK to have problems as long as you're fixing them?


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Tim McMahon says

    Mark, this video shares a great story of the concept that there are always problems and opportunities for improvement. Thanks for sharing.
    .-= Tim McMahon ´s last blog ..Lean Quote of the Day, May 14, 2010 =-.

  2. Duane Long says

    This brings to mind one thing that drives me crazy. Often improvements are made in a CI event, a Lean Sigma project, or some other vehicle. Once that is over, some seem to think that somehow by magic we have reach perfection. I’ve heard managers explain to their VP’s that they have already “CI’d”, and that they have no problems.

  3. Mark Graban says

    Duane – that is frustrating, especially when people say “we already lean-ed out that department” as if that’s possible. Like you said, it’s a never ending process of identifying problems and finding new ways to provide better value to customers with the least waste.

  4. Graham Foster says

    Another subtle variation on this would be if you think you don’t have a problem, you just can’t see/realise that you’ve got a problem! And if you can’t see/realise you’ve got a problem…?

    Also, taking the CI approach, you’d generally hope to fix the biggest problem (biggest business problem/benefit). Once that one’s fixed the 2nd biggest is now the biggest, etc – you’ll always have problems!

    Great post!

  5. Dean Bliss says

    Thanks for posting this, Mark. I use the story all the time when I teach, and it’s good to have confirmation that the story actually happened, rather than it being an urban legend.

  6. Brian Z Jones says

    There is danger in this attitude: “no problem is a problem.”

    That danger comes in the form of morale. Simply put, there are days when everything goes right. If you are a blind devotee to TPS/Lean, and your instant retort to a morning status report that has no bad news is to say, “no problem – that is a problem,” you have probably become the problem that no one wants to talk about.

    If you don’t allow for a good day now and again, your people will wonder why they continue to work for you.


    New disclosure: I no longer work for Toyota, but I was brought on to a new project to help instill TPS/Lean from Day 1. (Hint, it rhymes with “Mesla Totors”)

  7. Tim McMahon says

    Brian, you are concluding that solving problems is negative and can’t result in a good day. I think the contrary. You can have fun, meet your productivity goals, and still work on improvements. Celebration in a necessary part of reinforcing cuture change since what you recognize gets done. So we must celebrate. We must also continuously look for ways in which we can do things better. A good day is making things easier. The size of the improvement can be small but no less important. I think this is all about attitude and how we perceive making improvements.
    .-= Tim McMahon ´s last blog ..Inefficiency Through Default Meeting Times =-.

  8. Mark Graban says

    It seems “no problems is problem” works best in an environment full of trust and respect.

  9. Brian Z Jones says

    Indeed, I agree with attitude being the key. However, my comment speaks to the manager of the meeting. My experience comes from exactly the same situation explained in the video: a Japanese, Toyota President, saying “no problem is a problem.”

    It can motivate the first time you hear it. But, the 400th time, with no pats-on-the-back in between, you get pretty sick of hearing it.

    If you blindly devote to the letter of TPS/Lean, with no sense of yourself or your impact on others, you will fail. Look at Toyota’s recent troubles: these are not breaks in the system itself, but breaks in communication & understanding.


  10. Anonymous says

    I liked the punch-line in the video. We have managers who can’t identify what improvements they should be working on because everything is running just fine.

    On the other hand…. Why is there a special meeting to bring forward problems? Shouldn’t identifying ongoing problems be part of ongoing discussions up and down the line? I attributed the failure to identify problems as the absence of these ongoing discussions.

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