ALBERT Einstein’s secretary once asked him to explain to her the theory of relativity. He replied in the best, simple way possible: “Two hours with a beautiful woman seems like two minutes. While two minutes on a hot stove seems like two hours. That’s relativity.”
Since time immemorial, I took an immediate liking to many humorous quotable quotes from Einstein, because they offer many insights that I mix with my Japanese management orientation. For instance, when he defined the term “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results,” I would always think he was referring to kaizen (Japanese for continuous improvement).
Throughout my adult corporate life, I’ve described myself as a “management problem-solver,” which is how the average Filipino employees would also interpret as “fault-finding.” But in Japan, problem-solving (or fault-finding) has become a status symbol, particularly if you treat it as an opportunity to create new products, if not improve on existing ones.
Take the case of a plastic keeper that prevents your banana snack from being squished inside your bag. Cynics among us would exclaim: “That’s big deal.” But wait until you discover another exciting product in the form of a mute karaoke microphone designed not to disturb one’s neighbors and the dictionary desk pillow perfect for a siesta.
Log on to http://mashable.com/2013/07/05/10-weird-japanese-products-that-are-actually-kind-of-useful/ for entertaining examples of these Japanese products.
But more than considering problem-solving as a chance to improve on things, the Japanese are known to classify the source of everyday problems into 4K—kitsui (hard or dark), kitanai (dirty), kiken (dangerous), and kusai (smells bad). Bunji Tozawa and Norman Bodek in The Idea Generator (2001) tell us that with 4K “you can always find things to improve, always.” To do just that, they advise to consider 4K as “improvement themes” alongside with the 5S good housekeeping.
If you hate the Japanese mumbo-jumbo, then let me offer to you 4K’s English equivalent to 4D—dirty, difficult, dangerous, and damaging. That’s logic for you. Einstein said that, “With logic, you can go from Point A to Point B. But with imagination, you can go anywhere.” The trouble is that excessive imagination can lead you to fear, if not bring you to its wrong use. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen when we try to introduce new ideas.
Take the case of one medical rep, while driving on a lonely rural road one dark and rainy night, he had a flat tire. He opened the trunk. There was no wrench. He looked around and saw through the rain a dimly lit farm house. Surely the farmer would have a lug wrench he could borrow, and so he thought.
Of course, it was late at night. The farmer would be asleep in his warm, dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. The salesman picking his way blindly in the dark stumbled on. His clothing was dirty soaked. Even if the farmer did answer his knock, he would probably shout something like: “What’s the big idea waking me up at this hour?”
This thought made the salesman angry. What right did that farmer have to refuse lending a wrench to a man in an emergency? After all, here he was stranded in the middle of nowhere, soaked to the skin and clearly under the condition of 4K. The farmer was a selfish clod—no doubt about that! The salesman finally reached the house and knocked at the farmer’s door.
A light went on inside, and a window opened above. A voice called out: “Who is it?”
Immediately, the salesman’s face was white with anger and disappointment that he replied angrily: “You know very well who it is. It’s me! And you can keep your blasted wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now even if you had the last one earth!”
That’s the trouble with imagination. You tend to exaggerate. Going to church doesn’t make anybody a Christian in the same manner than taking a wheelbarrow into a garage makes it an automobile.
If you don’t know how to define a problem, then the best way for you is to take the 4D route. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to succeed at innovation. My two decades of working with companies, entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations has led me to a strong personal conviction that there’s a tremendous creative energy within every individual, regardless of his economic status or educational orientation.
You can create bright ideas if you can only identify the 4D in your location. It could be a problem that has been nagging you for years. It could be big or small. It could be something at home or in the office. It’s only a matter of removing your blinders to discover all of these.
You may not realize it. The biggest opportunity is lost when you’re seated comfortably.
Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook or LinkedIn for his random management thoughts.