Solve It!
Problem Solving 101

Solve It!

Ken Watanabe’s problem-solving primer for kids became an international bestseller due to its wide-ranging, effective strategies for tackling problems.

Former McKinsey & Company management consultant Ken Watanabe is CEO of Delta Studio, an education, entertainment and media company. His 2007 book on problem-solving for children became a Japanese bestseller, and then an international hit. Businesspeople worldwide found it to be a useful, succinct primer.

Watanabe demonstrates that problem-solving isn’t mysterious. Establish a definite goal, he says, determine the best way to reach it, and implement your plan. Monitor your progress and make any necessary changes. This process will become a valuable, sustaining habit and, with it, you will become an effective problem solver.


Watanabe recommends taking a four-step approach to solving problems: First, figure out precisely what you are up against. Second, determine the problem’s root cause. Third, come up with a solid action plan. Fourth, execute your plan. Modify it as needed. Don’t stop until you solve your problem. This four-step approach works for problems large and small.

Remember to monitor your progress and revise your plan as necessary.Ken Watanabe

Break down a larger, complex problem into a series of smaller problems. Apply the four-step process to each problem. Solve them one by one. Establish milestones by asking, “What should I do this year, or in the next three months, or today?” This may sound simple and obvious, but when people try to solve problems, they often embrace the least obvious or most complicated actions.

A Sound Plan

Watanabe explains that problem-solving kids focus on what’s in front of them, develop action plans and execute them. They audit their activities and quickly adjust direction. When kids solve problems, they treat their mistakes as learning experiences. They look for root causes before they act to solve a problem, as doctors do when caring for patients. Doctors ask questions, investigate their patients’ family medical histories, take blood work and authorize X-rays to discover the root causes of their patients’ problems. Similarly, problem-solving kids scope out root causes and set definite goals. They remain positive, optimistic and forward-looking.

If you never take action, you’ll never get any feedback on your attempts, and without feedback, you’ll never grow as a problem-solving kid.Ken Watanabe

As you attack a problem, write down all of its possible root causes. Create a hypothesis about the most probable root cause. Figure out precisely what you are up against. Find the best information you can to test your hypothesis and thus uncover the root cause.


Problem-solving requires firm goals, Watanabe asserts. Establish a definitive goal. Uncover the gap between your goal and the situation you now face. Create a hypothesis about how you will eliminate the differences between where you are now and where you want to be.

While others get nowhere or head in the wrong direction, the problem-solving kids have already reached that first goal and are heading for the next one.Ken Watanabe

To create a strategy, detail all your ideas and options. Choose the best option or idea as your hypothesis. To check your hypothesis, figure out the information you need to evaluate it. Determine if your hypothesis makes sense. If it doesn’t, revise it.Based on information, analyze a potential action plan and develop it fully.

Logic Tree

Break down your problem into logical categories. Include all relevant information. Don’t omit or forget anything. Many of the categories will have subcategories; subcategories will have sub-subcategories, and so on. Create a logic tree to organize everything logically. Creating a drawing of your problem to render your logic tree.

Putting your plan down on paper will…clarify your thoughts.Ken Watanabe

Using a yes/no tree helps you target root causes. Imagine that you often oversleep. This makes you late for work. If you don’t solve this problem, you’ll lose your job. Now, make your yes/no tree. Your first question is this: “Did the alarm clock ring?” If yes, note that you turned it off and went back to sleep. You have found your root cause, just like that! You must discipline yourself to get up when the alarm sounds.

If your answer is no, your next question is this: “Is the clock ticking?” If yes, your next question is: “Did I set the alarm, and did I turn it on?” If not, there’s your root cause. Next time, turn on the alarm.

Consider, “Is the clock ticking?” If your answer is no, ask if you installed the battery properly. If yes, ask, “Does it have the right charge?” If no, you found another root cause: Install a fully charged battery.

This yes/no structure – which, for clarity’s sake, you should always lay out graphically on paper – can direct you to the potential root causes of any problem. Once you know the root cause, you can fix your problem.


Everyone holds preconceptions, and they may not always be realistic. Challenging them is essential for sound problem-solving and for being open to alternatives. Problem-solving requires careful preparation. Be ready to act when preparation and opportunity collide. 


Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.Seneca (Roman stoic philosopher)

Don’t invest energy into worrying. Focus instead on the actions you can take to fix your problem and get as close to your goals as possible. Fresh perspectives are useful. Ask others for their ideas and advice. Question your thinking and judgments; consider every conclusion. Are all your pros truly pros, and are your cons truly cons? Carefully assess and weigh each factor. Question the validity of your evaluation. Base your analysis on solid information. Finally, consider all your options. You can take specific actions to make your available options more attractive. Carefully weigh these actions. Then take the actions that will best solve your problem.

Step by Step

Watanabe wrote his problem-solving treatise for kids, so his sentence structure is simple and direct. He writes in a friendly, engaging tone; he never talks down to his readers; and, by necessity, he repeats himself often. All these attributes help make this an indispensable, efficient guide to problem-solving, no matter your age. Watanabe structures his advice like stepping stones: Each step leads logically to the next. And each step gives you confidence to take the next. And, as with all the best advice, Watanabe offers strategies that keep you from getting in your own way.

Ken Watanabe also wrote No Problem! An Easy Guide to Getting What You Want.

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