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Problem Solving 101 Summary

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Quick Summary: “Problem Solving 101,” in essence, is a decision-making book; however, it is not (like other books on the subject) a theoretical examination of our decision-making biases, but a simple and highly practical step-by-step guide to use when you need to make a decision or tackle an everyday challenge: the problem-solving primer of your dreams.

Problem Solving 101 Summary

Who Should Read “Problem Solving 101”? And Why?

Everyone has problems; and everyone wants to solve them.

Consequently, everyone needs to learn techniques to solve his/her problems; especially if these are proven to work and are as neatly described and explained as in Ken Watanabe’s Problem Solving 101.

A great book for both kids and adults, realists and dreamers, students and business owners, followers and leaders.

Problem Solving 101 Summary

We all have to make decisions.

And that is true regardless of who you are: a kid, a student, a businessman or the President of the United States.

The only thing that varies is the type of the problem.

For some, it is how to pass a math class, for others a decision on where to live, and for yet a third person devising a plan on how to improve his/her company’s bottom line; or, maybe, simply you want to lose some weight or get better at golf.

Now, whether the issue is big or small, says Ken Watanabe in Problem Solving 101, “there’s a fundamental approach to solving these real-life problems, one that can consistently lead you to effective and satisfying solutions.”

If you need that sentence rephrased, here it is: problem-solving is a skill, and just like riding a bike – can be learned.

And that’s exactly what this book is all about.

Originally written for Japanese schoolchildren, Problem Solving 101 quickly gained popularity far beyond its target group, becoming not only Japan’s number one business best-seller in 2007 but also an international hit.

Hence, the English edition and its subtitle: “a simple book for smart people.”

The Case Studies

Problem Solving 101 not only introduces its readers to the basics of the problem-solving approach, but it also offers “a full toolbox of proven problem-solving techniques, the same techniques used by successful problem-solving people and companies all over the world.”

To illustrate how the steps work in practice, Watanabe uses three case studies:

• The Mushroom Lovers, a new band 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.

Now, we don’t have enough space in our summary to go over each of these case studies, so we genuinely advise you to buy the book as soon as possible and read them in their entirety. Coupled with some quirky illustrations and an abundance of graphics, Problem Solving 101 is really a joy to read, own and share.

But, back to our job.

The Four Steps of Problem Solving

In its essence, problem-solving is a process that can be broken down into four steps: (1) understand the current situation; (2) identify the root cause of the problem; (3) develop an effective action plan; and (4) execute until the problem is solved, making modifications as necessary.

“These steps come as a package,” warns Watanabe, before he goes on to clarify:

“Before you can solve anything, you first need to realize that there’s a problem. Once you do, identifying the root cause of the problem isn’t enough. You have to think through how you could fix the problem, and then actually take the actions required to fix it.”

“Problem solving is a combination of thinking and acting,” he concludes. “Just doing one or the other won’t get you anywhere.”

So, let’s have a look at each of the four steps of problem-solving in full.

Step #1: Understand the Current Situation

The first step of solving a problem is understanding it; though it sounds simple – and, in a way, it is simple – it is actually something most people do wrong (“The catch is that we often don’t do what seems simple and obvious,” writes Watanabe.)

So, let’s just say that you are a soccer player who wants to improve your soccer skills; you spend more and more time on the field to do that and, in the meantime, your math grades decline.

If you (like 99% of the people) simply say “I have to quit the soccer team, so I have more time to study math,” you haven’t really understood the situation.

As a consequence, there’s a good chance that even after this drastic action, your math grades would remain bad.


Because to understand the situation, you need to go much deeper than this.

Do other kids play soccer as well? Are their grades as bad as yours? If not – i.e., if there are at least a few kids who train with you and whose grades haven’t deteriorated – then is soccer really the problem?

Step #2: Identify the Root Cause of the Problem

Which brings us to step #2: identifying the root cause of the problem. Of course, to do that, you first need to list all the possible problems.

Let’s simplify the problem by eliminating soccer practice from the equation; or let’s just say that you don’t want to give up soccer or that your math grades have been bad from the start.

To identify the root cause of your problem, you need to break down the problem to its elementary parts. A good way to do this is by asking yourself the simple question: ““What types of math problems am I getting wrong?”

Now, it’s time to break the questions into categories – like algebra, fractions, and geometry – and compare the scores between categories.

Who knows what you’ll discover now?

It could be that your scores in fractions and algebra are flat, but it is your geometry scores that are giving the impression that math is not your cup of tea. In other words,

just looking at the average trend of the math grades as a whole won’t help you see what is really happening.

This will because you can break down the categories even further, going from geometry problems to problems with area and volume.

Do this until you reach the atomic parts of your problem.

And then move on to the next step.

Step #3: Develop an Effective Action Plan

The first two steps of the problem-solving approach will take you from “My math grades are going down, and I should quit soccer and study more math” to “My math grades are going down because I am not doing well in three topics: trapezoid area, cylinder volume, and Pythagorean theorem application.”

Needless to say, this latter formulation makes all the difference. Now, you are ready to develop an effective action plan, the result of which will be significantly different.

Because once you identify the root cause of the problem, the solution writes itself. “I need to study more math” is not an action plan; however, I need to revise the lessons about cylinder volume on Monday and solve a few Pythagorean theorem equations on Tuesday is.

As you can see, in this second-case scenario, you’ll know not only what to study, but how much time you’ll need to study it.

Suddenly, it becomes more than clear that soccer practice was never really the problem.

Step #4: Execute Until the Problem Is Solved

But the problem-solving process doesn’t end there; of course, once you devise an action plan, it’s only natural that you need to start executing it.

Would you just start waking up half an hour earlier or go to sleep half an hour later every day to practice the types of problems pointed above?

It’s up to you!

But once you start doing that, you’ll start seeing the results of your action plan as well.

And you know what?

They may not mean better grades.

This calls for modifications: maybe half an hour is not enough; or maybe you need some help from your parents, your teacher, or your friends; modify as necessary until you have something to work with.

And when you don’t have that anymore – start the process once again from Step #1.

Maybe you didn’t understand the situation well enough; even more probably, you may have not guessed the root cause of your problems. Maybe it wasn’t a string of geometry problems, but your inability to understand abstract concepts; or maybe it was your outdated or complex textbook.

But you know what?

After you’ve gone through the problem-solving process once, the second time you’re less likely to make a mistake – both with your identification and, consequently, your action plan.

Problem-Solving Tool Box

To ease your way around the problem-solving process, Ken Watanabe offers a toolbox of problem-solving methods which can help you identify the root cause of your problems and/or devise an appropriate and efficient action plan to eliminate it.

Logic Tree

Watanabe defines a logic tree as “a visual tool that helps when you are trying to identify all the potential root causes of a problem and generate a wide variety of solutions.”

And it is exactly what you think it is: a branched-out tree which helps you visualize the subclasses – all of them – of your main problem.

Why should you do that?

Because, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noticed a century ago, language is not precise enough; also, it prevents you from seeing the whole image.

You already know how a logic tree looks like, but just to remind you: the trunk of math is branched into algebra, fractions, and geometry, the branch of geometry further into the branches of area and volume, and the branch of volume into cylinder volume, etc. etc.

Now, go make one for your problem!

Yes/No Tree

A yes/no tree is basically a specific kind of a logic tree.

“A yes/no tree,” writes Watanabe, “groups people or objects into buckets based on the answers to yes/no questions. By assigning everyone and everything involved to a bucket, you can more clearly see what the core issue is.”

By creating a yes/no tree, you structure the problem into all of its possible outcomes and generate a complete overview.

And that makes things a lot easier.

Problem-Solving Design Plan

The logic tree and the yes/no tree should help you a lot to understand your situation and identify all of the probable causes for your problems.

However, in order to identify your root cause and devise an action plan, you need to use the third device in Ken Watanabe’s magical toolbox: problem-solving design plan.

It is basically a table with five columns.

In the first you list all of the possible issues; in the second one, your hypothesis as to why these issues exist; in the third column insert a rationale for each issue; the fourth column is reserved for analysis/activities; the fifth one is optional: here you can put an information source (like a survey or an interview).

With a problem-solving design plan, you’ll spend less time guessing, and more time doing things.

Hypothesis Pyramid

“The hypothesis pyramid is a great tool for structuring your argument,” writes Watanabe.

“Using it to clarify your conclusion and rationale before diving into data collection and analysis will improve your productivity dramatically. It’s also useful for communicating your hypothesis to others.”

 The basic structure of a hypothesis pyramid is simple.

It places the conclusion/main message at the top and lists all the supporting rationales below, like the supporting bricks of a pyramid.

It’s basically each of the rows in a problem-design solving plan broken down further.

Pros and Cons

There are two tools that are very helpful when you need to evaluate multiple options and select the best one.

The first one is the one Ross uses to choose between Julie and Rachel: the pros and cons list.

To make one, you just need to follow these four simple steps:

#1. List all the options.
#2. List the pros and cons of each of the options.
#3. Weight each of the positive and negative points you listed. (Put, say, three pluses if it is a very attractive pro, and three minuses if it is very unattractive; and distribute the pros and cons between these two extremes; you can use a five-star rating as well, or a grading system from 0 to 5).
#4. Select the most attractive option.

Criteria and Evaluation

You can use the criteria and emulation tool “to clarify which criteria, or qualifications, you should use to evaluate your options, decide the importance of each set of criteria, and effectively evaluate your options.”

The steps are:

#1. List all the options.
#2. List the evaluation criteria. (For example, if you’re a soccer player choosing a school: a) quality of education; b) strength of the soccer team; c) distance to school; d) friends, etc.)
#3. Decide the degree of importance of each criterion. (Use three levels: from low to high).
#4. Evaluate each option based on the weighted criteria. (See #3 above.)
#5. Select the most attractive option.

Key Lessons from “Problem Solving 101”

1.      Problem Solving Is a Skill – and It Can Be Learned
2.      Problem Solving Is a 4-Step Process
3.      Use These Instruments from Watanabe’s Problem-Solving Tool Box!

Problem Solving Is a Skill – and It Can Be Learned

“Problem solving isn’t a talent limited to the lucky few,” writes Ken Watanabe at the beginning of the book’s first chapter. “It’s actually a skill and a habit that you can learn.”

If your question is “then why don’t we learn this skill at school” – well, congratulations: you’ve just discovered the reason why Watanabe wrote this book in the first place.

He writes:

“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.”

Problem Solving 101 is Watanabe’s attempt.

And based on the reaction (of both Japan and the world) – it works.

Problem Solving Is a 4-Step Process

To master problem-solving, you just need to master these four steps:

#1. Understand the current situation;
#2. Identify the root cause of the problem;
#3. Develop an effective action plan; and
#4. Execute until the problem is solved, making modifications as necessary.

Use These Instruments from Watanabe’s Problem-Solving Tool Box!

And to master the four steps of Watanabe’s problem-solving approach, you need no more than these six problem-solving instruments:

#1. Logic tree;
#2. Yes/No tree;
#3. Problem-solving design plan;
#4. Hypothesis pyramid;
#5. Pros and cons list;
#6. Criteria and evaluation table.

Use them, and any decision will seem easier in the future.

Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.

Problem Solving 101 Quotes

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. Click To Tweet Problem-solving kids aren’t like most people – even though most people should be more like them. Click To Tweet Once you learn this simple way to solve the personal challenges you face every day, you just might see that your bigger dreams and accomplishments are also within your reach. Click To Tweet Problem-solving kids have a real flair for setting goals and getting things accomplished. Click To Tweet The problem-solving kids achieve their goal more quickly and directly than the others. Click To Tweet

Final Notes

For reasons stated in the introduction, Problem Solving 101 is written in a way that makes it easy for a child to understand it; and it’s only 100 pages long – illustrations included.

But make no mistake: this is exactly why it is such a gem of a book! It is our feeling that you’ll live a much happier life if, whenever you’re faced with a problem or a big decision, you use the knowledge packed in this book.

“This book made me angry,” wrote Seth Godin in his review of Watanabe’s book. “It made me angry because there are so many people in this country who need to read it, who should read it, who will benefit enormously from reading it . . . and won’t. They’ll watch a reality show on TV instead. If everyone made decisions like Ken Watanabe, the world would be a better place.”

Well, it’s your turn now: buy this book, use its techniques, and make the world a better place.

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