Problems First
Illustration: Phil Couzens

Problems First

By Charlie Badenhop

Do you find it hard to feel satisfied with who you are and what you've accomplished so far? If so, please consider adopting the following perspective.

Toyota is one of the most successful auto makers on the planet—a fact that's painfully obvious to its competitors.

There's a phrase used in Toyota that helps them stay focused on striving to be the best they can be. The phrase is "Problems First" and it leads them to look for what can be improved upon in the future, rather than being satisfied with what they've already accomplished.

Such a phrase could quickly lead one to feel negative and unappreciated if not framed in the right context. At Toyota they have three suppositions that help to flesh out their credo and give it a positively oriented meaning:

• The hard work and good intentions of everyone in the company is highly appreciated, and each and every worker is meant to be treated with respect.

• No matter what stage of development they're currently involved in, they realize the concepts of "success" and "achievement" are "moving targets" that will change as the day to day success and achievements of the company continue to evolve.

• They freely acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes.
These suppositions extend up to the CEO, and down to the person emptying the waste bins. Once you really "get" these three suppositions, you can stop trying to make believe you're "unnaturally perfect," and instead, acknowledge and appreciate who you are.

Rather than striving to be perfect, at Toyota they share a communal aspiration of "always being capable of improvement." This is a goal everyone can approach every single day of their life with humility and dignity. It's also a goal they'll never be able to say they've fully accomplished, and that makes it all the more fulfilling to pursue.

The quality of your work life will significantly improve once the "I have to be perfect" monkey is off your back. You'll be free to ask for help, and no longer need to cover up your mistakes and the imperfections you mistakenly perceive yourself as having. Rather than yearning or pretending to be someone else, you can free yourself to simply be perfectly imperfect YOU! Isn't this the work life you yearn for?

At Toyota, instead of striving to achieve lofty yearly targets, they prefer to set their sights on humble daily and monthly goals they're likely to accomplish. They set "small" goals that they regularly achieve, and build upon these small successes the very next day. Rather than having their eye on the future, they are focused on today. You can do the same in your own life.

In actuality, if you look closely at what they're doing at Toyota you'll understand that "Quality Control" and "Improved Efficiency" are not really goals, but rather idealistic pursuits with no beginning or ending. You never sit back and bask in yesterday's achievements, as this would only make you fall behind in reaching the goals you've set for today. You don't try to improve because you think something is "wrong." Instead, you strive to improve simply because you know improvement is something you're capable of. Holding yourself to high standards can be very gratifying when you start from a place of already appreciating and respecting yourself and your accomplishments.

If you don't value yourself as you are now, then whatever form of self improvement you undertake in the future you'll inevitably miss the mark. You won't find long term fulfillment by striving to be perfect and never making mistakes. You can though discover a deep sense of satisfaction by striving day by day to fulfill your infinite potential.

In the process, you'll find it paradoxically reassuring to know you'll never achieve your goal!

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Charlie Badenhop is a native New Yorker and has been living in Japan for the past 25 years. He is also an Aikido instructor and the founder of Seishindo (www.seishindo.org) a system that helps people manage stress, relationships, and communication.


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