THE BLOG
05/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Importance of Problem-Solving

Why is it important to learn problem-solving skills? Because we all have to make decisions. Whether you're a student, a parent, a businessperson, or the president of the United States, you face problems every day that need solving. Maybe you're trying to save your company, keep your job, or end the world financial crisis. Maybe you simply need to eat better or find more time to spend with your family.

Whether the issue is big or small, we all set goals for ourselves, face challenges, and strive to overcome them. But what you might not know is there's an easy way to consistently arrive at effective and satisfying solutions. There's a universal and fundamental approach to solving problems, but chances are no one has ever bothered to show you how.

I saw the importance of problem solving first hand when I was working as a consultant for the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. For six years, I worked with major companies all over the world to help solve their business challenges using a straightforward yet powerful set of problem-solving tools. And these were tools that anyone could use. They didn't require complicated computer software or an MBA. These simple approaches are basic enough for a child to understand.

So in 2007, when Japan's prime minister made education his nation's top agenda, I felt compelled to do my part as the nation turned its focus to the educational system. Although Japanese business leaders, educators, and politicians have long talked about the need for Japan to shift from "memorization-focused education" to "problem-solving-focused education," no one had figured out a concrete and effective way to make this happen.

So I left McKinsey to write a book and to teach kids. My aim was to teach Japanese children how to think like problem solvers, to take a proactive role in their own education and in shaping their lives. I tried to frame the tools we used at McKinsey in a fun and approachable way, one that would show kids what a practical approach to problem solving could help them accomplish. Although I don't claim to be any kind of expert on education, I hoped that the book would at least provide a starting point, one that would help shift the debate from whether we should teach problem solving to how we should go about teaching it.

The book, Problem Solving 101 (originally publishing in Japan as Problem Solving Kids), spread through the education community and to a wider general audience. It turned out that adult readers in Japan, from parents and teachers to CEOs of major corporations, had been craving a simple and useful guide to problem-solving techniques.

You can check out some of the problem-solving tool boxes and challenge yourself at www.ProblemSolvingToolBox.com.

It's important to realize that being a problem solver isn't just an ability; it's a whole mind-set, one that drives people to bring out the best in themselves and to shape the world in a positive way. Rather than accepting the status quo, true problem solvers are constantly trying to proactively shape their environment. Imagine how different our world would be if leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, and Steve Jobs lacked this attitude.

Now I'm focusing on helping kids put that attitude into practice. The experience kids get from having an idea, taking initiative, and learning from both their successes and their failures is invaluable. So I'm creating more opportunities for them to learn from real-life situations rather than just in the classroom.

When I work with kids, I let them learn the same way Warren Buffett did. Buffett got his first business experience when he was only six years old, buying Coke bottles from his grandfather's store and selling them for a profit. The kids I work with get to run a food and drink business using a 1965 VW van I've renovated for use as a transportable shop. The kids decide what food and drinks to sell, where to sell, and how to compete against other teams by actually selling what they have cooked or prepared. They learn the importance of not just problem solving skills, but also leadership, teamwork, creativity, persistence, charm, and kaizen (continuous improvement) to make their vision come true. Only after this experience do I help them ask the important questions and provide them with the problem-solving tools that could help them with future projects.

As many people have already learned, problem solving is easy when you know how to approach it effectively. My aim is to help people make problem solving into a habit, one that empowers them to solve not only their own problems, but the challenges of their schools, businesses, communities -- and maybe even the world.