Global Economics

A Business Best Seller in Japan


The World's Easiest Problem-Solving Class, written by a former McKinsey consultant, is a runaway success in the author's home country

What do you get when you combine a guitar-playing eggplant with McKinsey-style reasoning? In Japan, a best-selling business book. Titled The World's Easiest Problem-Solving Class, it aims to teach consultant-style analysis to middle and high schoolers in a country where test-taking and rote memorization are second nature to kids at an early age. But since its June release the book has been snapped up by adults, rising as high as No. 2 on Amazon (AMZN) Japan, where it currently ranks No. 26 with 250,000 copies in print.

Author Kensuke Watanabe, a Japanese national who was educated in the U.S. and Japan and worked as a McKinsey & Co. consultant for nearly six years, says he wants to teach Japanese kids to "use critical thinking skills more and be more proactive in shaping the world."

"The biggest issue with Japanese education is the lack of logic-based decision making and initiative-taking," he says. As an antidote, the 117-page paperback presents two case studies: a kids' band looking to increase concert attendance and a teenage boy saving to buy a computer. Both use explanatory graphics such as logic trees and nine-box matrixes to identify problems and outline solutions. The straightforward approach emphasizes dividing projects into steps that can be tackled one at a time.

The first case study applies "issue analysis" to determine the root of the band's problem—that people aren't familiar with its music. It then maps out strategies such as piping songs through the school radio system to attract fans.

Youthful Yet Sophisticated

The second example employs logic trees to analyze how a boy can raise money to buy a computer. Solutions range from walking three dogs instead of one (more lucrative) and sharing manga comics with friends instead of buying individual copies (a money saver).

Cute drawings peek out amid the diagrams. The motley cast of characters, which includes talking vegetables and humans, reinforces the playful tone.

Publisher Diamond says it had hoped adults and professionals would flock to the book, despite the youthful details. Editor Hiromi Maesawa says she took care to keep the content sophisticated enough for business readers.

One convert is Daisuke Tanaka, who oversees the business section at the Tokyo flagship store of the Maruzen bookstore chain. "There are plenty of books about problem-solving," he says, "Most are written in technical language." In contrast, this book "opened up this complex field to the general reader…anyone can read it through and grasp the basics quickly."

Tapping the Education Culture

Tanaka says the book topped his store's charts in mid-August and continues to sell briskly, perhaps because parents who initially bought the book for themselves later purchased copies for their children (or vice versa), doubling sales.

Editor Maesawa says the book also benefited from tapping into Japan's "education-minded culture" and, perhaps, a societal desire for new ways of thinking. "Japan is currently facing issues [such as a decreasing birthrate and aging population]…that cannot be solved by following established rules or knowledge," she says.

Watanabe dreamed up the book three years ago while employed by McKinsey and wrote it while on staff. The company has not officially endorsed it, noting that he worked on it "in a personal and private capacity." (McKinsey is mentioned by name only briefly in the book's preface; elsewhere, it's described as "the world's leading consulting firm.")

The Message Becomes a Mission

"We have many talented people who write on a wide range of subjects," says Patricia Welch, head of external relations for McKinsey in Asia. "We were delighted to hear of the success of Ken's book and wish him all the best."

Since leaving McKinsey in June, Watanabe sees the book's message as both a mission and a livelihood. He has started his own company in Tokyo, Delta Studio, and envisions building a problem-solving franchise with, possibly, an educational TV show and a "brain game" for the Nintendo (NTDOY) DS handheld. Foreign editions of the book are slated for China, Taiwan, and Korea, and he is on the hunt for a U.S. publisher.

Amazon Reviews Roll In

While he chases commercial prospects, Watanabe says he still hopes to reform Japanese education. He has begun holding small problem-solving classes in his Tokyo home and says he will teach the book's methods at elite Keio High School starting in April. Corporate programs are also in the works.

Can this brand of management theory support a cultural movement? One gauge is the book's Amazon Japan page, which currently contains 29 reviews. Most rate the book between three and five stars. One raves, "…it's a book that I would want to keep handy to use at work in a bind." But the book is not for everyone, and natural problem-solving whizzes might be less impressed. "The only thing I got was a self-esteem boost from knowing that I naturally think this way," says another writer, who claimed to be a student.

Woyke is a journalist in New York. Hall is a BusinessWeek correspondent in Tokyo

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