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What do you think about a new boss who wants us to use A3s to solve problems rigorously?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

My new boss wants us to use A3s to “teach us how to solve problems rigorously” – her words. I find the process cumbersome, it goes against everything I know about creative problem solving and, personally, I resent the idea that my boss wants to teach me how to think. What’s your take on this?

Oh dear. Does your boss also want to standardize every piece of work? Sadly, control freaks tend to interpret lean tools in even greater control rather than opening up space to think. After Taylorizing operations they find in A3 a way to Taylorize minds.

A3 most emphatically is not about teaching you how to think. It’s a tool to make your thinking explicit to colleagues so they can see what is on your mind, discuss it, and follow your path to your conclusions.

The eight boxes of the standard “A3” are a relatively recent U.S. invention – what Toyota called its “business practices”:

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. Break down the problem
  3. Set a target
  4. Analyze the root cause
  5. Develop countermeasures
  6. See countermeasures through
  7. Monitor both results and processes
  8. Standardize successful processes

Years ago, when I first came across A3 sheets for problem solving, the sequence of steps was far from universal – the emphasis was not on the sequence, but the content.

A3, I was taught, was about making choices clear because in complex situations, it was important to communicate both what one had chosen as a relevant feature, and what was ignored. Let’s examine an A3 sequence and content:

Clarify the Problem

Out of all the possible ways to frame the problem, what is the key measure chosen to best represent it and visualize the gap with the standard. This is far from easy because there usually are many ways of measuring a problem, and each one frames the issue in a different light. The trick is to find the right output measure to represent an outcome – a goal.

Any Gemba is a Gemba, and on my latest train ride on the Thalys train, two friends were discussing (rather loudly) their anxiety about feeling so tired when the alarm wakes you up in the morning. The conversations went back and forth, of course, but let me try to capture the gist of one’s argument in A3 form.

The goal represented by an ideal situation: feeling chirpy at wake-up. It is, however, very hard to measure, and so is the feeling of tiredness at wake-up. One of them brought into the discussion the fact read in a magazine that sleeping less than six hours a night took literally years off your lifespan, so let’s consider this their standard: six hours of sleep a night. We can therefore choose to express the problem in: at least six hours’ sleep at night. This is not the same problem as not feeling washed up at wake up – but it’s a way into the problem.

By tracking how many hours of sleep you get at night and showing this on the first box, highlighting the nights you get less than six hours, you can now share with others how you choose to get into the “feeling tired in the morning” problem – and this is most definitely a choice, as you’ve ignored other measurement methods, such as a mood indicator, your wife’s opinion, and how long it takes to get up after the alarm rings, and so on.

Breakdown the Problem

Once you’ve chosen to frame the problem in terms of hours of sleep, we now have to list the factors which can prevent you from reaching the target of at least six hours every night (which the two friends compiled after discussion):

  • Early start
  • Arrive home late
  • Watch a movie or a TV show (shorter)
  • Start answering e-mails
  • Can’t get to sleep
  • Wake up early and can’t get back to sleep,
  • Etc.

These are difficult lifestyle issues. Our instinct is to tackle them all at the same time: we’ll be careful to go to bed early when we have an early start, we’ll make sure not to start doing e-mails when we get home late, and so forth. This won’t help you solve the problem because you won’t be able to pinpoint a clear cause of your problem. So you need to choose a dominant factor by going to the Gemba and measuring how often the relative factors occur.

Say that, to your surprise, you might find that watching TV shows occurs more often than you thought because (1) you get into binge watching series and (2) being shorter than films, it’s tempting to think “this won’t take long.” You’ve now identified TV shows as the dominant factor. Again, this might not be the right factor, but writing this on the A3 helps someone else understand our thinking:

  • We’ve selected watching TV series and discarded the other factors – which nonetheless occur, but with less frequency;
  • We’ve selected TV shows on the basis of measuring occurrences (for instance, rather than how often this gets you to sleep late, you could have picked as a test method, how late this gets you to sleep, and then movies would have appeared up the list).

Set a Target

Now that we understand that watching TV series two nights a week on average explains two thirds of late nights, with e-mails the remaining third, and the factors appearing very occasionally, you can set a target. If you eliminate going to sleep late because of TV, you can reduce late nights by half.

This target is visible enough to test your first hypothesis that short nights account for feeling grumpy in the morning. The thinking here is that cutting short nights by half, a sizable result, will be enough to feel more or less rested at wake up – it’s a visible result, so a worthwhile target. Again, maybe it’s the wrong target, but we’ve made it explicit.

Analyze the Root Cause

This brings us to the root cause:

  • Why do TV series make you go to bed late? Because you start watching too late
  • Why do you start watching too late? Because so much stuff to do, such as answering e-mails across time zones
  • Why do you watch TV series at all? Because you feel you need to wind down before going to bed
  • Why do you need to wind down?  Because all the stuff, and in particularly e-mails, get your mind a-buzzing before going to bed
  • Why don’t you sleep well? Because although you feel that it makes you wind down, TV series still don’t calm you before going to bed.

The root causes that appear through careful consideration of watching TV late and asking why at each instance, reveals two root causes:

  • A misconception: TV series actually don’t help you unwind because they fill it with images that keep your mind distracted but active.
  • A constraint: Working across time zones means work e-mails arrive late, often demanding attention and reaction.
  • A cumulative effect: After arriving late, putting the kids to bed, doing late e-mails, the temptation to watch a TV show to wind down is much higher, which also explains why TV shows tend to eat into sleep time – you watch them precisely when you’re already late and harassed on the evening schedule.

Here again, my root cause analysis doesn’t have to be that brilliant, or indeed even correct, but by explicating it out loud you can share my reasoning with others – they understand how you move from one step to the next, and can see my conclusion and evaluate the logic of my thinking.

Develop Countermeasures

The idea is to develop as many countermeasures as possible and make explicit the choice criteria in order to explain which countermeasure is chosen and on what basis:






No more TV series watching on week days





Check more carefully the time it runs before watching





No TV series after a certain hour





Switch TV for meditation session





Again – and this is critically important – none of these strategies are particularly brilliant. But they do get a bit creative. For instance, in the friend’s conversation in the train, the meditation angle came up out of the blue, and then they went off to discuss meditation. It felt like meditation, although not a direct answer to watching TV shows, was the most exciting answer nonetheless – go figure!

Once more, we see that the A3 doesn’t help us get the right answer, but explains the choices and makes preferences visible.

See Countermeasures Through

The next step is about deciding how to switch to meditation? The plan is:

  • Find guided meditation tapes
  • Commit to 10 minutes meditation before going to bed
  • Try to transfer the cue “I’ll watch a TV series” to “I’ll sit down to meditate.”

This plan can then be tracked in its implementation: how quickly do you find the meditation tapes, how often do you meditate before jumping into bed, how often you’re successful at not watching the TV and rather sitting on the meditation cushion.

When you spell it out like this, you can immediately anticipate some heavy-duty obstacles. This plan assumes simultaneously (1) learning a new practice and (2) changing a habit response. This is not going to happen without a struggle, and even so the outcome is uncertain – I certainly wouldn’t bet on success. Still, writing down the plan and facing the obstacles remain the best bet to succeeding at it.

By tracking progress and sharing it we can also get support from other people and react when something is going awry, again, increasing our chances of success in then end.

Monitor Both Results and Processes

The target was to not go to bed too late half the time during a week. The unexpected countermeasure was to switch to meditation instead of watching TV series. You can therefore evaluate:

  1. Did it work? Do you have less late nights?
  2. Is it the right way of doing it? Is meditation the answer?

And then, beyond the output results, you can ask yourself about outcome again – do you feel less tired in the mornings, which was the original intent.

Fighting habits is hard, so the odds are your success will have been so-so. Still, you will have discovered new challenges that hinder your ultimate goal in the process of switching from watching TV to meditating. These challenges are interesting in their own right and can be shared on the A3. What we’re really after here is our “model” of success or failure: clarifying our understanding of the factors that lead towards success or failure.

Standardize Successful Processes

Okay, so what did you conclude? Do you stick with meditation, or do you drop the idea and try something else? Again, choices. Should you choose to stick with meditation, you might want to think about creating the right conditions to make meditation in the evening easy – the right cushion, bells, a list of guided meditation tapes, who knows. Standardizing the process of switching TV for meditation opens up many other questions such as:

  • Kaizen: What is my next step to deepen my meditation practice?
  • Yokoten: Is this the way to deal with late e-mails as well? Should I switch the habit of answering e-mails late with another practice?

After my fanciful discussion of a simple, day-to-day, problem, let’s go back to your question. I’ve tried to show with this example that following the sequence of A3 steps does in no way guarantee the right solution – why should it? My personal solution for an easier wake up is a dawn simulator that wakes you up gently without the brutality of the alarm, and it works very well particularly with early wake up times. The two friends never even thought of it.

Writing up the A3 creates a clear narrative of how we solve the problem (it used to be called a QC Story in the old days), that highlights the choices we make in the course of solving the problem. This allows us to discuss these choices, challenge them, and think more deeply about the situation.

You are absolutely correct in the fact that creative problem solving is messy. I’m willing to bet that the two friends on the train would never have made the intuitive jump to meditation by formally following the A3 step-by-step process. They would probably have concluded for “greater discipline in a standard hour of going to bed.” To solve problems, the mind needs to roam freely and muddle around. A3 items, not their sequence, are there to spur the mind in thinking around the problem in larger, then smaller circle.

Those who believe that the sequence of steps on the A3 support “rigorous” reasoning are simply applying Taylorist thinking to … thinking. That ain’t gonna work. A3’s however are brilliant to explicate, explain, and share thinking so that the team can look deeper into the problem and learn from iterative experiments to solve real problems in real life. The benefit in the A3 format is to (1) enable you, the problem solver, to clarify your thinking and check the choices you’re making and (2) share this with others so that they understand your thought process before they start arguing for or against the solutions you’ve come up with.

I can’t encourage you strongly enough to take up A3 as a practical tool – and to hang on tight to your intuition that ticking the boxes will not solve problems better. Both are true. If you continue to solve problems the way you always did (go back to the Gemba, watch a bit longer, talk to experts) and then frame your thinking into an A3 you will immediately see how A3s can leverage your thinking, both in checking your own reasoning and involving others in helping you succeed.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Breston April 28, 2016

Concise discussion on A3, thank you Michael

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