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Should I use an A3 report to kick off a problem-solving effort?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Should I use an A3 report to kick off a problem? I encourage my managers to tell me about their problems on the shop floor. They always pull something out of the air and say ‘lets work on this…’ What I would really like is for them to create some kind of A3 report that explains why this problem is happening. Any advice?

Are you pulling?

In other words, my advice is not to bother with A3 until you have a leveled pull system in place. That said, your question is actually quite complex. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m worried by how you’ve phrased that question. You shouldn’t have to get your managers to tell you about their problems on the shop floor. You should be on the shop floor with them pointing out what you consider is a problem. There are three aspects to this:

  1. Gemba leadership: what is the manager’s role on the shop floor?
  2. Problem finding: how can you tell what is a problem and what is not?
  3. Problem solving: how to support people in solving their own problems?

In traditional management, problems are reported up, considered at the executive level and then either dismissed as something that frontline management should deal with; or “solved” on high, with the execution of said solution prescribed down the line at the workplace.

The Gemba Is Not Enough

Lean’s approach is radically different, as executives go to the Gemba to see for themselves, spot issues and then get frontline managers and workers to agree on what the problem really is. Executives fire off kaizen topics to further clarify the problem through action until it is fully understood and shared, by which time shop-floor teams usually have a pretty good handle on the countermeasure they should implement. Management remains involved, to sign off in case investments are needed, and to study carefully the effects of whatever action is taken by frontline managers and their teams.

The first skill of Gemba leadership is therefore to be able to see problems without having to be told, or without asking for explanations. As Taichi Ohno reportedly said, “There is a secret to the shop-floor just as there is a secret to a magic trick. Let me tell you what it is. To get rid of muda you have to cultivate the ability to see muda. And you have to think about how to get rid of the muda you’ve seen. You jut repeat this — always, everywhere, tirelessly and relentlessly.” (quoted in Satoshi Hino’s great book Inside the Mind of Toyota).

Should you take Ohno’s advice seriously and follow it, a large part of your question resolves itself: it’s about confronting your vision of what is a problem and what your managers consider to be a problem. Sharing and debating both perspectives will lead you all to more observation together, and to progressively agree on problems – no A3 needed at that stage. Please, please, please, do not think of using A3 as a reporting tool so that they present what they consider a problem to you in an office!

Yet, going to the Gemba is not enough – if not, Managing By Walking Around would have won the day back then. The question is: how can we tell what is a problem and what is not? Certainly, there are some glaring problems, usually around safety or delivery – but how do we go beyond the obvious?

Bear with me as we detour slightly via cognitive psychology. Nobel Prize Daniel Kahneman has shown that when faced with a complex problem we all tend to answer with a substitute problem that we know how to solve. Say I ask you what are the three most populous cities in the world? You can’t stop your mind from saying what pops into it such as Mexico, Tokyo, and Shanghai (or whatever). You’ve actually substituted the question “large cities I remember” to the original problem “most populous cities.” The real answer is more complex. In terms of cities proper (without suburbs), Wikipedia says: Shanghai, Istanbul, Karachi. Metro areas would be, according to Wikipedia again: Ahmenabad, Atlanta, Bangalore – not at all what I’d have thought.

The trouble is that not only do we substitute, but, to make matters worse, this substitution is unconscious and leads to what cognitive psychologists call “frame blindness” – the blindness to the fact that our point of view is just a point of view and not reality itself. Hence people become attached to their answers, feeling that they have solved the problem (at least partly), when they have in fact answered a completely different problem. As a result of frame blindness, it’s easy to solve the wrong problem, ignore promising options, and or lose sight of important objectives – while feeling all the time we are absolutely correct.

No A3 Needed

I’ve learned the hard way on the shop floor to suspend judgment on what the problem really is until they’ve set up a working pull system. The pull system, with its truck preparation area, leveling board, shop stocks and kanban cards will visualize the “lake and the rocks” and show where the problem occurs and when – often very different from what we’d agreed on previously.

Amazingly, this work with quality as well. Not at first, unfortunately, but as cells start working in one piece flow, each part is now examined by operators at each step of the process, and they shout out when something is not right. In doing so, we finally discover what is really wrong with the parts and what can be done to improve quality. Without one-piece-flow visualization, many quality issues stubbornly remain on Pareto charts because no one can actually see where and when they occur.

A good visual management system quickly indicates the difference between OK and Not-OK, normal and abnormal. Without it, problem finding is subject to normal cognitive biases such as problem substitution and frame blindness without recourse. With visual management, problem finding is steered by the tools on the shop floor, like a large pointer in a video game. Once the pull system is in place, it becomes very easy to get everybody to agree on problems as we can all see the pull system fail over right there, and start investigating why. Still no A3 required. And, actually, experience shows A3 or 5 Why on the wrong problem can badly lead you astray as we can see every other day in A3 reviews. Recently, I saw a complex A3 about how to make labor flexible enough to move operators more easily from one cell to another when a look at the leveling plan showed that the issue was with the lack of flexibility of the cells – not at all the same problem.

What about A3s then? Well, when you’re on the Gemba, your pull system is showing you where the problem is, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the typical problem is and what kind of countermeasure you expect, THEN A3 is a very powerful tool to develop your frontline managers’ Problem solving skill. Rather than give them the answer, you’ll ask them to write an A3 to work with them on what the problem is (and what standard/indicator to follow), how to frame the problem (and how to grasp the situation with alternative factors), how to formulate the problem (which factor is confirmed and where to start the 5 Whys?), how to consider alternative strategies (and evaluate several options), how to follow through the implementations and what lessons to take away from the experience. A3 is a wonderful coaching tool so that people can be developed without having to give them the answer. But, you need to be clear about the problem first, even though your initial diagnosis might be changed by what they discover in the process of doing the A3.

To sum up, starting an A3 report is a very good way to kick-off a problem IF you’re experienced on the Gemba, have established the visual management of a leveled pull system, and have some generic idea of what the problem is in the first place. In these conditions, the A3 will allow your managers to solve the problem by themselves under your guidance and without losing themselves on the way. On the other hand, asking your managers to draw A3s to tell you about their problems is definitely not such as good idea – A3 is no substitute to reporting – and you’d be better off in going to the Gemba and practicing good observation and good discussion instead.

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