Is “The Jerk” Good at Problem Solving?


Four years ago, I parodied the style of GEICO commercial that they were running at the time with a “did you know that Steve Martin's character from The Jerk was bad at 5S?”

The other day, I was thinking about the scene in the movie where Navin R. Johnson (Martin's character) was working at a gas station and somebody was shooting at him, missing and hitting cans of oil (warning: a few PG-13 words):

This is all tongue-in-cheek, but let's analyze his problem solving.

First, Navin discovers a problem. “Something's wrong with these cans.” He gets credit for not jumping to a root cause.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 7.52.41 PM

He might have been thinking about the way I was taught by Pascal Dennis to define a “problem:”

  • What Should Be Happening? Cans hold the oil inside
  • What's Actually Happening? There are holes in two cans, suddenly
  • What's the Gap? Two holes
  • What's the Impact? Oil is spilling out

Navin can't hear the crazy man who's shooting at him and two more cans spring leaks:

Navin yells to the owner of the station, “These cans are defective… they're springing leaks!”

He's made a faulty assumption that the cause of the holes is “defective cans.” He's getting off track in terms of finding a countermeasure.

The owner, played by the legendary Jackie Mason, sees the shooter up on the hill.

He corrects Navin and says “we don't have defective cans… we've got a defective person out there!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 7.57.53 PM

More cans get hit.

So, Navin has understood a cause of the cans springing leaks. Asking why…

  • Why is oil spilling out? Because there are holes
  • Why are there holes? Because a man is shooting them
  • Why is he shooting them? “He hates these cans!”

Navin has made a bad assumption here. The shooter hates Navin (for representing a completely average person, it seems).

Navin proposes a countermeasure that might not work… he yells, “Stay away from these cans!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 8.00.53 PM

Navin runs away from the oil cans… to test his countermeasure in practice (we never know if a change is really an improvement until we test it out).

He runs to a Coke machine and realizes “there's cans in there too!”

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 8.02.43 PM

So he modifies his countermeasure a bit (a small PDSA cycle?) by running away from the Coke machine.

He runs inside the building… more oil cans!

Navin takes action again… by clearing away the cans (making it, unfortunately, easier to shoot him?)

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 8.04.23 PM

Maybe this illustrates how we might panic when trying to problem solve in a stressful situation. Sometimes, we have to contain the situation, putting the proverbial fire out, before we figure out the root cause and longer-term countermeasures.

The station owner coaches Navin by yelling, “He doesn't want to put holes in the cans, he wants to put holes in you.”

Maybe it's idea for a coach to lead by asking questions. But, again, sometimes when you're just trying to contain a problem, you might have to be more directive as a manager.

Armed with his better understanding, Navin tries a new countermeasure… driving off in a car. But, there's a defect in the process, as the car doesn't have its tires installed and he's driving on the wheels.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 8.08.01 PM

Navin manages to drive off and escapes to a carnival.

Unless most ineffective warning signs, the shooter is actually deterred by a sign that says “Carnival Personnel Only.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 8.10.20 PM

What's the moral of the story? You can be a bad problem solver, but sometimes, with a coach (even a directive one), things can turn out OK. Hmmm…. I'm not sure about that lesson…

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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