A3 is a technique that applies “Lean thinking” to problem solving. One of the most compelling aspects of A3 Problem Solving is the concise, one-page report that is a key outcome from using the technique (to impress your friends the next time you play trivia, fitting this report on a single page is a primary reason for this technique being called “A3” – because A3 is a common paper size in Europe, and in others parts of the world).
Another thing that many people find appealing is that the A3 Report itself tends to have a standard format, which makes it easy for the trained eye to find information of interest. By standardizing and making visible a process which can help us identify problems and formulate solutions, organizations can execute to their ideal state.
The notion of focusing on activities that create the most value, while eliminating those that create waste, have been hallmarks of Lean thinking for decades. A3 Problem Solving adds the dimension of making the problem-solving process transparent and visible.
To use an analogy, suppose that an organization follows a cumbersome, labor-intensive process to share information about organizational strategy and tactics, and areas for potential improvement. What A3 Problem Solving can help with is moving from the problem to the solution, and depicting that via words, pictures, and diagrams, to help get from the current state to a desired future state. A3 helps illustrate the thought process to get from a problem to a recommendation, rather than just sharing a transcript of the conversation, which tends to be harder to process, and rapidly fades from memory.
By revealing the thought process via A3, two things tend to happen:
A3 is best applied in situations where people are open to exploring multiple problem-solving options. If the problem-solving options are narrow and controlled, then opening up and exploring the thought process and assumptions associated with the problem is less productive. A3 can be used for more tactical problems, such as “how did <issue/error/bug> get introduced error into <application/service>?, to addressing more strategic challenges, such as delving into the reasons behind market share dropping.
A3 has even been used as a continuous improvement mechanism at the individual level. Let’s say an employee made a mistake that resulted in some kind of production outage or other anomaly – A3 can be used to work with them to think through the error and figure out how to fix it. That is, “counseling A3” shifts the emphasis away from blame, process improvement and learning.
A3 can also work well with other techniques, such as Ishikawa (aka “fishbone”) Diagrams.
Who attends an A3 Problem Solving session depends on the context of the problem space. In general, the following people need to be present:
To successfully facilitate an A3 Problem Solving session:
Problem solving is a skill that we tend to take for granted, because we have been practicing it for the entirety of our lives. However, it’s important to recognize that we tend to learn how to solve problems through a process of trial and error, and eventually, we tend to treat any problem solving approach that has worked for us, even if only some of the time, as a form of tacit knowledge—as something we take for granted as being true. A challenge with tacit knowledge, in any form, is we tend to not reexamine it often enough, and indeed, we often apply it without even thinking about it. Thus it becomes difficult to improve if and when we are acting based on a particular set of long-held assumptions.
Admitting to ourselves that we might need to take a fresh approach to problem solving might seem at first like acknowledging that we need to rethink how we brush our teeth, something we’ve been doing for as long as we can remember.
What A3 does is provide a simple construct that helps us question basic assumptions we’re making and leverage the wisdom of our group to first align on what problem we need to solve, ultimately arriving at a set of actionable steps to help us get there. Thus the thought process looks something like this:
The following things should be avoided when using A3 Problem Solving:
Thinking of A3 as a form, rather than as a problem solving tool
Although there is some appeal in having a standard report format, the focus should not be on the form. If we simply view the form as a template, we tend to regress into solving problems in much the same way that we have in the past, and simply pushing those outcomes into the template.
Thinking of A3 as a linear process that has to be followed to the letter
It’s important to be willing to reassess the work as the conversation progresses; for instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of changing our original problem statement as the conversation progresses.
There is the potential to realize significant benefits by agreeing to streamline and simplify the approach we take to problem-solving. Part of the power of A3 is the nature of the output from it—where all of the essential, need-to-know information is shared in a format that is easy to parse and to disseminate to others.
The core of A3 comes down to following a though process that flows through these quadrants:
It would be an understatement to say that there is huge potential value in using a problem-solving approach that is reasonably consistent, which is easy for any member of a team to apply in their own context. And, thanks to its flexibility, A3 is essentially a container for our problem-solving efforts, rather than being a prescriptive method. That is, the starting point for A3 is to treat it as a learning tool, and learning process begins with the problem statement.
Consider the potential impact if, because of a slightly different understanding of a problem statement, one or more people go off on different trajectories that reflect their differing understanding of the problem. Even if they are only off by 5 degrees (to use a geometry metaphor), as time goes by, they get further and further apart. Thus it is the problem statement that establishes our trajectory, and it’s important that we all set off in the same direction.
To help us get off to a good start, it is important to write the words down, whether in virtual or physical form, to generate conversation. And, ensure there is willingness to change the problem statement to reflect new information as the conversation continues.
Doing something as simple as checking in with a question such as “do we have the right problem statement?” at various times during the conversation can be a helpful approach.
It is a reality in just about every organization that there is insufficient understanding of its own current context. Max DePree, the former CEO of Herman Miller Inc., put it this way:
“the first responsibility of a leader is to define current reality.”
As a case in point, we can consider various surveys that we come in contact with. We have a tendency to be overly generous in terms of how we place ourselves and our organization, relative to a baseline. Many of us try hard to find the positive in everything, and that can be helpful in many situations, however, it’s less helpful when it comes to realistically evaluating how we’re doing at any moment in time.
Many organizations embark on one form or another of organizational improvement, without first taking the time to make sure they understand their current state. If we embark on an improvement journey with insufficient insight into where we are now, a couple of things tend to happen:
A target condition is, quite simply, what we want to achieve—something that is tangible, which we can describe. It is more than just a statement of a desired result; it informs how we want things to work differently, and how we can see the difference.
If we were writing a target condition for a problem statement that “the lines are too long when people enter our store,” the target condition might be something like “a customer is engaged by an associate within 15 seconds of entering the door.”
Thus the target condition describes what we want to see, feel or experience; it tells us what “good enough” looks like. Many of us prefer visuals, and the target vector, or improvement vector, as shown in Figure 5, helps illustrate the thought process behind articulating a target condition.
To address the problem we are trying to solve, we need to move to a new target position. Once we understand where we want to be, we need to spend time under our target condition. To do that, we need to be able to create and communicate what good would look like. Once we have envisioned what we are heading towards, then and only can we articulate the solution steps.
And now we get to where the rubber really meets the road – articulating an action plan. Turning ideas and conversations into crisp, focused action plans is something we all need to be able to do.
Assuming that we have taken the time in the preceding steps to get to the heart of the current reality and target condition, that thought process drives our actions. We can then turn our attention to specific barriers which can potentially stop us from achieving the target condition. If we aren’t clear on the barriers and how to overcome them, any achievement of the target condition will be temporary at best. Consider how many times we might have walked out of a meeting, expecting a certain set of actions based on what we (perceived to be) agreement among those who were present, only to observe that the actions being taken differed from what we were expecting?
A good place from which to ground the conversation regarding the action plan is to start with Who? What? When? That is, ask “Who is going to do what by when?”