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How to hone your Problem Solving Method through watching movies

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Art Smalleys 4 types of problems example

Problem Solving & Movies are two things we like at Sempai. The former we’ve been coaching for 20 years. Sometimes very well and in the early days, not so well.

We've loved movies since schooldays and have learned many lean lessons from them. "Moneyball"for example, is packed full of lean wisdom.

This blog is about Practical Problem Solving in movies, and it's not our first on the subject. Here's our 7 step method to develop Practical Problem Solving skills & the 10 most common mistakes to avoid.

Our lean Problem Solving Method

Over the years we’d broadly carved Problem Solving up into:

1) Troubleshooting to deal with “abnormality” and return to “normal”

2) Practical Problem Solving (Toyota TBP style) to get to root cause & prevent recurrence with flexible use of pie chart, pareto chart, 5 why, fishbone etc

3) Using A3’s to coach 2) with Team Leaders & Group Leaders & for “raise the standard” activities

1) 2) and 3) are often connected. As in, a problem that repeatedly crops up in 1) benefits from an approach to get to recurrence prevention like 2)

We appreciate that other opinions are available but these rough categories worked for us & our clients.

A Toyota TPS guru classifies 4 types of problems

Art Smalley is not a household name. His fame stretches as far as the borders of "leanland" but not much beyond. In common with John Shook, he spent many years as one of the first foreign nationals to work for Toyota in Japan. In a manner of speaking, Smalley studied at the feet of the masters and now spends his time decoding the apparent black magic behind Toyota's success.

Smalley wrote a book, with a no-nonsense title, called "Four Types of Problems" in which he laid out, well, four types of problems. His 4 types are:

Type 1 - Trouble-shooting

the reactive process of fixing problems by returning to "normal' conditions

Type 2 - Gap from Standard

solving problems at root cause in relation to existing standards

Type 3 - Target Setting

removing obstacles to achieving a well defined vision or new and better standards

Type 4 - Innovation Oriented

the open ended pursuit of a vision or ideal condition

In an interesting wrinkle, he further clarified them into "caused/created" and "reactive/proactive, as in the chart below:

4 types of problems classified as created/caused and reactive/proactive

A Practical Problem Solving movie experiment

When Smalley offered up his new idea for classifying types of Problems, our ears perked up to the extent that we designed a small, informal experiment to test his model (which we're calling the Smalley Sieve). We got to wondering if we could recognise & stratify a nice balance of the 4 types of problems, from one movie.

"Apollo 13", "Moneyball", "World War Z" and "The Founder" were candidates, but we settled on Ridley Scott’s "The Martian", based on Andy Weir’s book. The movie is just under 3 hours of wall-to-wall Problem Solving from stranded Astronaut Mark Watney & NASA, so we were hopeful.

(A) below shows our workings and results, based on our interpretation of Smalley’s categories. However, we now believe that our results in (B) are debatable at best - more on that in (C). As ever, application of a model deepens understanding, challenges biases & tests the model at its margins.

(A) Showing our Data Analysis (workings)

Here are our workings showing what each problem was, when it happened & how we stratified it. Good luck reading it, the handwriting is shocking. In our defence, it's hard to stratify data real-time, while watching a movie, holding a pen and drinking a beer. We just wanted to show that we put in the hard thinking yards.

workings from finding problems while watching a movie

(B) Results on the 4 Types of Problems in Problem Solving

Type 1 - Trouble-shooting

6 Problems identified

Type 2 - Gap from Standard

4 Problems identified

Type 3 - Target Setting

9 Problems identified

Type 4 - Innovation Oriented

10 Problems identified

(C) Conclusions & Points of Interest for Problem Solvers

By the way, we only looked at Technical Problems faced & solved by Watney on the red planet, the crew of the Hermes or the NASA boffins on Earth (The book is also a far richer resource in Problem Solving terms but we didn’t fancy reading and dissecting it again)

Conclusion 1

This entire exercise is technically futile as everything in The Martian, from the point that Watney got accidentally shanked by the flying aerial (opening scene!), is a caused problem, mostly Type 1 Trouble-shooting…

Conclusion 2

And yet, if you can get past this and accept that Watney establishes new ‘normals’, subsequent problems can be stratified into the 4 types (maybe)

Conclusion 3

Later on we decided that most of the problems were Type 4 as they’re forced to be pretty innovative. Really interestingly, severe resource constraints removed most cognitive constraints. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

A lot depends on your definition of “Troubleshooting”. Our years working with Japanese manufacturers mean that we define it as “returning a process to normal”. When the intention (normal) wasn’t to strand a man on Mars, there is no “normal” to return to, or is there?

None of this stopped our children pointing out that we should get a more fulfilling life. We think there’s something in this though, a group of lean thinkers gathered around a movie screen debating how to stratify Problems. Add popcorn or beer & we’ll be there.


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