An Interview with Ken Watanabe: Problem Solving
By Michael F. Shaughnessy – May 13, 2009
1) Ken, first of all, tell us about yourself- and your education and experience.
I have studied and worked both in Japan and the US. I was educated in Japan up until middle school, and then studied at Yale University for undergraduate and Harvard Business School for graduate school. I worked at McKinsey & Company in Tokyo and in New York for 6 years pre and post business school. Two years ago, I started up Delta Studio as I published “Problem Solving 101” in Japan.
2) Now tell us about this book on Problem Solving. When did you write it and why?
I wrote the Japanese edition 2 years ago with the hope for Japanese education to shift from “memorization-focused education” to “problem-solving-focused education.” I hoped that this book would serve as a textbook and also help convince parents and teachers to better teach our children how to tackle/solve real-life problems.
3) Some individuals have real difficulty solving problems that they have never encountered before- why is this?
I believe it is natural for us to feel difficulty when we encounter new problems.
We have to make decisions with imperfect information and there is no cookie cutter solution to problems we face in this world. However, no matter what problem we face, we always have to try to identify the root cause, come up with wide-range of options as solutions, and evaluate and select the best option — “Problem Solving 101” offers toolboxes to help people do this better.
4) What about math problems or story problems- does your book deal with this?
The book applies simple math (addition, subtraction, and multiplication) to solve real-life problems, however teaching math is not the purpose of the book, nor does it play a huge role in every toolbox.
5) I used to work in a restaurant and found my co-workers unable to solve problems because they did not seem able to see options and alternatives. Why is it that some people don’t see these options and alternatives or is it that they can’t or won’t think outside of the box?
We all tend to get stuck with options that first come up to our mind, I guess all we can do is to force ourselves to create a habit to ask two question every time we make a decision. “Are there other alternatives?” and “is my option, really the best option? why?” Furthermore, you don’t have to solve everything on your own, it is also valuable to ask others “am I missing any viable options?”
6) How is problem solving different than creative thinking?
The way I define “problem solving” is different from “creative thinking”. “Creative thinking” is just one of the tools you need to solve real-life problems effectively. You need “logical thinking”, “creative thinking”, “execution”, “leadership”, “teamwork”, “passion” etc to solve real-life problems effectively.
7) Do the schools do enough to promote good problem solving skills?
Japanese school have started to promote and teach problem solving, however I believe they can do more. When I teach problem solving to children, I don’t start by teaching the skills from Problem Solving 101 in classroom.
Instead, I let them learn the same way Warren Buffet did. Buffet 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. The kids learn the importance of not just problem soling 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.
I believe this is the type of experience we need to let students have more.
8) What question have I neglected to ask?
These were great questions. Anyone who wants to learn more about the book and problem-solving should visit www.ProblemSolvingToolBox.com – you can find sample challenges and a multimedia description of some useful toolboxes
A rebuttal by Barry Garelick who addresses the issue of problem solving in his article on discovery learning:
I have found a belief, primarily in ed school that there is a difference between problem solving and exercises. This view holds that “exercises” are what students do when applying algorithms or routines they know and the term can apply even to word problems. Problem solving, which is preferred, occurs when students are not able to apply a mechanical, memorized response, but rather have to figure out what to do in a new situation. Moreover, we future teachers are told that students’ difficulty in solving problems in new contexts is evidence that the use of “mere exercises” or “procedures” is ineffective and they are overused in classrooms.
I believe that students’ difficulty in solving new problems is more likely to be because they do not have the requisite knowledge and/or mastery of skills—not because they were given explicit instruction and homework exercises. The cited article discusses this in more detail.
To set this in context, it is important to understand an underlying belief espoused in my school of education: i.e., there is a difference between problem solving and exercises. This view holds that “exercises” are what students do when applying algorithms or routines they know and the term can apply even to word problems. Problem solving, which is preferred, occurs when students are not able to apply a mechanical, memorized response, but rather have to figure out what to do in a new situation. Moreover, we future teachers are told that students’ difficulty in solving problems in new contexts is evidence that the use of “mere exercises” or “procedures” is ineffective and they are overused in classrooms.
As someone who learned math largely though mere exercises and who now creatively applies math at work, I have to question this thinking. I believe that students’ difficulty in solving new problems is more likely to be because they do not have the requisite knowledge and/or mastery of skills—not because they were given explicit instruction and homework exercises.
Problem Solving 101: A Review NY: Portfolio (the Penguin Group) 2009
David W. Kirkpatrick – May 19, 2009
This slim book by Ken Watanabe, (111 pages, made even slimmer for reading by the use of numerous “useful diagrams and quirky drawings”), is subtitled A Simple Book for Smart People, all of which may give you cause to read it. The author says on the first page that “One of my missions in writing this book was to show everyone a simple way to deal with the problems they face in their everyday lives.” More specifically, he says “This is a book about kids solving problems.”
But problem solving “isn’t just an ability; it’s a whole mind set…Rather than accepting the status quo, true problem solvers are constantly trying to proactively shape their environment.” While he maintains most, or at least more, people can do this, children as well as adults, that doesn’t mean they (you?) will.
But he has more than rhetoric to suggest there is some merit to his viewpoint.
The author spent six years as a consultant for McKinsey & Company, a well-known global management consulting firm. Then, in 2007, Japan’s prime minister placed education at the top of his agenda. Although that nation has long received kudos for the quality of its K-12 school system it had also been criticized for being to focused on memorization at expense of problem-solving. Yet there had not yet been a solid proposal for “a concrete and effective way to make this happen.”
Immodestly, or boldly, depending on your viewpoint, Watanabe decided to take a shot at it and, daringly, left his job to write this book and to teach kids how to think like problem solvers. This, although he says of himself that he doesn’t claim to be an education expert. At the same time he did have valuable experience with techniques used at McKinsey which he thought could be presented in a fun and approachable way that would show kids what they could accomplish.
The advantage to readers of this issue of Problem Solving 101 is that it is not the first edition. That was issued in Japan where, in 2007, it was the nation’s business best seller. From there its success and influence moved on to both the education community and the general public. And his focus moved on to helping kids put his ideas into practice. And practice meant just that – being practical.
And what could be more practical than the experience of billionaire Warren Buffett. When he was six years old, Buffett bought Coke bottles from his grandfather’s store and resold them at a profit. As a variation of this, Watanabe used a 1965 VW van (which, you might note, was more than 40 years old by 2007) which he renovated as a portable shop for a food and drink business.
Beyond this basic idea, however, the kids decided where and what food and drinks to sell, to cook and prepare the food and drinks themselves and to do so in competition against other teams. This necessitated developing not only problem solving skills but qualities of leadership, teamwork, creativity, persistence, charm, and the importance of continuous improvement. Only then does he “help them ask the important questions and provide them with the problem-solving tools that could help them with future projects.”
And only then, after considerable experience and success did he decide to publish this volume so English-reading audiences could derive the benefits as did the Japanese youngsters and readers
Most of the book is devoted to three case studies:
“The Mushroom Lovers, a new bands trying to improve their concert attendance numbers
John Octopus, a bright young man with aspirations of becoming a computer graphics animator who needs to buy his first computer
Kiwi, an aspiring soccer player looking for the best training school in Brazil.”
Finally, a few pages on the down side.
There are those who give up before they start, saying, “I can’t do that;” the critic, who says, “That will never work;” and the dreamer who’s going to do this, that, or the other thing.”
Finally, the Go-Getter who can’t wait to get started. And that’s the problem, he can’t take time to think.
All of us are probably guilty of these on occasion.