Apparent Problems More Profitable Than Actual Problems

It is common knowledge that the biggest management consulting businesses go from company to company “solving” the same problems using the same or similar “solutions” whose trade names change over time. The long-lived success of top tier consulting’s business model is significantly aided by the short-lived tenure of CEOs who think the problems they face are new and unique. I put the words solving and solutions in quotes because it is never in a management consulting company’s interest to solve problems at the root causes. To survive as a business, they must focus on apparent problems because only that will assure a never-ending stream of income.


The same thing commonly exists in Lean-world, with consultants, trainers, and the like. Their business model also relies on “solving” problems using the “solutions” that address apparent problems whose trade names change over time. Of course, you might recognize a contradiction in here between the advice given on how to solve problems — separate the actual problem from the apparent problem, identify the root cause, and implement countermeasures (the familiar 8-step problem-solving process) — and how consultants and trainers engage their clients. While flying the banner of TPS, Toyota Way, or Lean, they fail to address the underlying preconceptions, traditions, and habits that govern top leaders’ thinking and decision-making. In my past work as an executive trainer in Lean leadership, I too focused on the apparent problem for some 15 years with my Lean Behaviors® training.

Going back to the basics, Taiichi Ohno said that “Value-added work means some kind of processing — changing the shape or character of a product or assembly” (T. Ohno, Toyota Production System, p. 57) must take place. So, for consultants and trainers to do value-added work, they must change the shape or character of their product, people — specifically, top leaders, as it is their preconceptions, traditions, and habits rooted in classical management that retard progress. Masterclasses on Lean leadership, Toyota Way, and the like invariably address only the apparent problem, yet they can have some low level of effectiveness at raising awareness in some individual participants of the need to change the shape or character of their preconceptions, traditions, and habits. But, they rarely have this effect on entire leadership teams (of say 15 people) because their preconceptions, traditions, and habits are so deeply rooted. The result is an intellectually stimulating training that gets very high scores, but little or no significant action is taken by top leaders towards doing the things that the training intended to achieve, such as rethinking leadership, redefining business models, rethinking processes, and optimizing operations, engaging employees in problem-solving, etc. To change the shape or character of a leader, they must also get their hands dirty and learn by doing, which nearly all senior leadership teams abhor.

Instead, the most common outcome of these consulting and training engagements is an improvement in performative leadership, not actual leadership. Performative leadership means the appearance of leadership or appearance of being a leader (deftly delivering the talk and executing the rituals, but no fundamental change in agenda), but doing little new in terms of how a leader should think or what a leader should do. Actual leadership means to change the shape or character of one’s thinking and doing. That means challenging one’s underlying preconceptions, traditions, and habits, as well as for all members of the senior leadership team.

Taiichi Ohno presciently said: “We are doomed to failure if we do not initiate a daily destruction of our various preconceptions.” (Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow, T. Ohno with S. Mito, Productivity Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988, p. xii). Mr. Ohno said that in relation to creating the Toyota production system, but it applies equally to the work of Lean consultants and trainers. An outcome of improving performative leadership is failure, total failure. Success is actual leadership — leaders who lead change by changing the shape or character of their thinking and doing.

Too much TPS and Lean consulting and training violates it own edict with respect to problem-solving, which is jumping to solutions before understanding the problem — the actual problem, not the apparent problem. Because the Toyota Way or Lean management are so attractive to us, we jump to them as solutions to these fundamental leadership and management problems:

  • Why do leaders lead similarly and thus prefer the status quo?
  • Why do new or refined business models retain the preconceptions, traditions, and habits of prior business models?
  • Why don’t leaders rethink processes?
  • Why are operations rarely “optimized.” What prevents that from happening?
  • Why aren’t employees engaged in problem-solving?

If we do not answer these questions, leaders remain stuck in their nonproductivity trap, which is bad for business and bad for people. Fortunately, these and dozens of related questions pertaining to the persistent favorability of classical management and its associated preconceptions, traditions, and habits have been answered in these three books:

TPS and Lean consultants and trainers will likely avoid these works because they predict it will threaten their never-ending stream of income, or they will have difficulty incorporating the many new findings into their services, or the facts are too unpleasant (politically sensitive) to share with delicate customers. So much for 8-step problem-solving, customer first, challenge, and “never stop trying.” By challenging my own preconceptions, traditions, and habits, I have changed my approach to leadership development such that it is now focused on actual problems, not apparent problems. Will it satisfy a need? Perhaps not, as the market for apparent problem-solving overwhelms the market for actual problem-solving. But I am fulfilled by having gotten to the root of the problem and what I now offer is now aligned with that.

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