The Lean Office Blog

Problem Solving – Just Like Riding a Bike

Today’s post provides five lessons in teaching your team skills for effective problem solving.

This summer, I taught my oldest son how to ride a bike without training wheels. I used to think learning to ride a bike was frightening . . . now I realize watching your child learn to do it is much worse! He caught on in one evening, and it was a learning experience for both he and I. Being the Lean nerd that I am, I couldn’t help comparing this experience to teaching someone how to become an effective problem solver. Below are five lessons I learned that evening with my son, but I think they apply for Lean managers as well.

Lesson #1. Provide a Safe Space


The first decision I had to make in teaching him to ride was – where do we go to learn? Grass is great for absorbing the impact of a fall, but terrible for getting up to speed and avoiding bumps. Asphalt and concrete are super-smooth, but also produce skinned knees (or worse). My wife had the great idea of heading over to a local baseball field to learn to ride on the dirt infield. It provided a unique combination of flat, bump-free ground that also didn’t hurt to land on when he crashed.

When teaching someone how to problem solve, it is just as important to provide a safe space for her/him to make some mistakes. Don’t turn a new problem solver loose on fixing a quality issue with your largest customer, for example. Instead, focus on things that can be contained and have minimal impact on the overall process. The goal at this stage is more to learn the process of problem solving.

Lesson #2. Holding on Slows down the Learning

The first two laps around the ball field were made with my son pedaling and steering, and me running awkwardly behind, holding on to the back of the seat (I’m happy to report no video exists of this part of the process). Near the end of the second lap, I realized I wasn’t actually doing anything but keeping the bike steady, preventing it from falling over. I had essentially replaced the training wheels with my own hand, and no real learning was taking place.

In a traditional company culture, managers are the experts. They are relied upon to know everything, to provide all of the good ideas, and certainly expected to solve all of the problems. In a Lean culture, however, employees are the experts. The job of supervisors is to get out of the way and engage the employees in solving problems. The only way to achieve this is to “take your hands off the seat” and let employees drive the discussion. I’ve been a part of problem solving exercises with new employees where I’ve grown impatient to the point of wanting to scream, “The answer is right in front of you!” Obviously, if this is your management style, be prepared to do a lot of jogging awkwardly along behind your employees as they try to solve problems with your “help.” The alternative approach is to let them go, coach them through the process, and realize . . .

Lesson #3. It’s OK to Fall Down

At the end of that second lap, I did something completely counter-intuitive. I told my son I was letting go, and I actually did it. He let out a scream, “Dad, what?!” and immediately fell down. It took him a second to realize he wasn’t hurt, then several more seconds to stop glaring at me, and after a brief discussion about how falling down on dirt doesn’t hurt, he got back on the bike. That was the first of probably 30 falls that evening, but it was an extremely helpful lesson for both of us.

“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.”

– George E. Woodberry

When problem solving, it’s important to remember that fear can wreak havoc on our ability to solve problems: What if our solution doesn’t work? What if we change the process, and things actually get worse? What will people think of me? What other problems could my solution cause?  It isn’t bad to consider these questions, but it is bad to let questions like these prevent you from trying to solve a problem. The best lesson I’ve observed for folks learning to problem solve is having a spectacular failure. They change the process around, and the result is truly disastrous. We wanted less defects, and we produced more, less lead time, and we doubled it, etc. The person will usually say something along the lines of, “Well, that was a terrible idea,” often accompanied with laughter. Then, guess what they do? Try something else. Once we experience the worst of what we fear, we come to realize that “falling down” isn’t that bad, after all. *For this lesson, make sure and remember #1 above: falling down is less painful in a safe space.

Lesson #4. Build Skills One at a Time

After getting the hang of pedaling in a large circle, I showed my son how to stop without falling down. Up until that point, he had used the unconventional “crash landing” approach to stopping the bike. I worked with him on how to slow down, lean a bit to one side, and put that foot down on the ground. He worked on that skill a dozen times, and then I got greedy. I tried to teach him to push off on his own and how to steer around the bases at the same time. He did good enough getting started, but when he saw the base directly in his path, he froze, and hit it head-on. He hadn’t even remembered how to stop correctly!

Problem solving has several steps and tools, and none should be overlooked. It is often tempting to get ahead of ourselves and expose people to things like fishbone diagrams, 5-Why, and pareto charts in one introductory lesson. However, focusing on mastery of the basics is critical for long-term success. For instance, spending an entire lesson on defining the problem statement helps people learn how to clearly see the problem, and also demonstrates how important that lesson is in the overall skill of problem solving. The same goes for identifying root cause, countermeasures, etc.

Lesson #5. Practice is the Essential Ingredient

While I would like to take credit for my son’s success in bike riding, the truth is he did it in spite of my assistance. We spent that evening learning new skills, brushing the dirt off his clothes, and making countless laps around that ball field. By the end of the night, he even took a ride on the sidewalk next to the field. Since then, he’s completed hundreds of laps around our court, and is comfortable taking longer rides around our neighborhood. Every once in awhile a bump in the sidewalk will get him, but his “bike riding defects” are falling at an incredible rate.

practice-problem-solvingThe most important part of teaching problem solving skills to your team is practice. A true problem solving culture is one in which employees feel empowered and capable of solving problems on their own. Every time I’ve seen this culture in action, I can tell they’ve solved a lot of problems. People tell me stories of successes and failures, and also can’t help mentioning what they’re working on next. As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” In the case of problem solving, and bike riding, I definitely agree.


Whether bike riding or teaching problem solving, the absolute best part of the process is being there to witness the magic moment when someone “gets it.” The joy you feel from this experience is truly remarkable, and anyone who has spent time in a Lean culture knows exactly what I’m talking about. Lean managers can’t solve all of the problems, but they can be intentional about creating better problem solvers. And the best news? Problem solving is a hard skill to forget, just like riding a bike.

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