Solving problems is a central issue in business ownership. In fact, you might say that business itself is a series of problems waiting to be solved.

But, when it comes to finding the ideal approach, or the perfect process for solving any of the dozens of problems faced by the modern business, things get complicated.

Today I’d like to discuss three methods for problem solving that have proven track records in the world of commerce. These are big ideas that have inspired countless companies both large and small.

In 1953, Toyota began using Kanban logic in their main plant machine shop.

Kanban: A method used to control production

To get things rolling, we’ll turn to the industrious nation of Japan. The word kanban means “signboard” or “billboard” in Japanese, and it’s a concept most commonly applied to “lean” or “just in time” production. It’s a system best demonstrated with an example, so let’s turn our attention to the Toyota Corporation circa 1940.

Kanban is a scheduling system for “just in time” production. In Japanese, it literally means signboard or billboard.

During this decade, Toyota began looking for inspiration beyond the automotive industry in their search to improve processes. They quickly focused their attention on supermarkets—specifically, the ways that supermarkets study customer behavior in order to create better shopping experiences.

In this arena, they observed a deceptively simple relationship between customers and the stores they shopped in: customers traditionally retrieve only the items they need when they need them; in turn, stores stock only what customers need at any given time. Perfect symbiosis. This is exactly what is meant by “just in time” production, and it’s crucial in any industry where perishable goods are involved.

That might make it seem like an unusual fit for the automotive industry, but Toyota recognized an important truth: Automobiles are, in their own special way, perishable goods. New models regularly displace older ones, and unsold, outdated cars are an expensive millstone to have to keep around.

But even if you’re not a supermarket or automotive mogul, the spirit of kanban can be applied to just about any modern business or industry. In a recent blog post, Kanbanize CEO Dimitar Karaivanov effectively summarizes the spirit of kanban:

“One of the main principles…is the goal of eliminating bottlenecks by imposing realistic limits on how much work is in progress, how much work is requested, and how much work is held off on the back burner. This is not only a way to prioritize, but also a way to ensure that no member of your team has too much on their plate.”

What Karaivanov is speaking to here is the importance of imposing order and prioritization on systems where the capriciousness of consumerism can make for sudden twists and turns.

If you’re looking for a solution to control the rate at which you produce a product, consider aligning your inventory levels with your customer’s actual consumption. Supply only what is needed when it is needed.


Kaizen: A way to improve all functions and all employees

The word kaizen literally means “improvement,” and it’s another word that we’ve borrowed from our Eastern counterparts in China and Japan. When applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that aim to improve every individual function within a company, including the way each of the employees operate, from the customer service representative, right up to the CEO until the whole business is running like a well-oiled machine.

While it might sound militant, it’s anything but: Kaizen encourages individual initiative, attentiveness, and a culture of gradual improvement. Amazon provides us with a great example of kaizen in practice. Although the retail giant has recently been in hot water regarding their company culture, it will never be said that they’re willing to rest on their laurels.

In Amazon’s version of kaizen, each department within their warehouses—or “fulfillment centers,” in Amazon’s nomenclature—is constantly on the lookout for wasted or duplicated efforts and inefficient processes. All it takes is one observant employee to get the ball rolling, and soon a small group of hand-picked team members convenes to brainstorm—and eventually trial—new approaches to old problems.

In other words, kaizen stresses the importance of smaller-scale innovation within a larger corporate structure. It’s a way to humanize the workplace by empowering employees to seek solutions to the issues that affect not just the company’s bottom line, but each employee’s ability to enjoy their job.


Scrum: A flexible way to manage product development

Finally, let’s take a look at scrum, a problem-solving method that is increasingly popular, especially in the technology sector.

Scrum comes to us from the worlds of product and software development, where creative iteration and collaboration are of the utmost importance. 

Like kaizen, scrum focuses on the importance of anticipating and reacting to the sorts of changes that can slow down development and create inefficiencies.

The idea was conceived by Ken Schwaber of Advanced Development Methods in the early 1900s, though it would be slightly longer until it went by its new name.

So what does scrum look like in the modern workplace? Classically, it begins by breaking down a week’s worth of tasks into smaller priorities. If your goal is to launch a new homepage on your website, you would break it down into smaller parts: write a certain section of code, create images, write content, do bug testing, and so on. 

Instead of one big task, you’d have many little tasks, each with an assigned date and team member, allowing you to work through the process faster, and adapt it more easily when and if necessary.

What scrum does is allow us to build modular schedules that focus on collaboration. It helps us recognize which of our priorities might, for example, play an important role in another department’s work, which ones are time-sensitive, and which ones are not. Development of any kind needs to be able to react to changes in real-time, and to pressure from other teams. Building an agile schedule is an important part of reacting to those variables.

Final thoughts

If, in exploring these three problem-solving methods, you’ve come away with the idea that free thought needs to be stifled in the name of order and efficiency, that’s far from the truth.

None of these methods would work as well as they do if they didn’t value (and encourage) creativity.

And who knows? You may even stumble upon a new solution altogether by trying out one of these established systems.

As is so often the case in business, you won’t know until you try.

View our Business Management Guide today!

Hear more about Kanban, Kaizen, and Scrum with Peter and Jonathan on the thirteenth episode of The Bcast, Bplan’s official podcast:
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AvatarDaniel Wilhelm

Daniel Wilhelm studied business and creative writing at Susquehanna University, and has written for a global audience ever since. He currently serves as a columnist for the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can join him for political conversations at Only Slightly Biased, or you can visit The Byte Beat for science and technology news.