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What Exactly Is The Problem You Are Trying To Address?


In my last column I reflected on questions that can help you start your A3. Now here’s another key question to explore: What exactly is the problem or need you are trying to address? On the surface this question seems easy to answer. You know what the problem is because you’ve seen or heard about it. You may have looked into it or have data to show it’s occurring. You can describe it to your satisfaction. You know what you believe is happening. So what’s so difficult about this question?

The difficulty comes when you describe it to others. The words that mean something specific to you don’t necessarily communicate an image of the same clarity to someone else who hasn’t seen or heard what you have. It is one thing to say you think there is a communication problem between your team and the next group in the project work flow that is creating delays. It is another thing to say your team has to redo of lot the data analysis charts it prepares for the next group because it is not clear how they are going to use the data in their reports.  But when we call attention to a problem we will often say only there is a breakdown in communication between the two teams.

It is a basic fact of human communication. The more general a statement is the more open to interpretation it is. And the wider the range of possible interpretations, the greater the likelihood you will get ones you don’t want. In a problem solving or proposal A3 the aim of the description of the problem condition is to help others see what you see and know as clearly as possible. That means using words that show rather than just name and using data, charts, graphs, tables and visuals wherever possible. The path to the least resistance in an A3 is to avoid assuming that others will see what you see, know what you know, and most important, that what makes sense to you will automatically make sense to others.  If you err in identifying a problem, err in the direction of showing too much.

Which brings us to Key Question number four: What do you actually know about what is happening in the problem situation? The key words in that question are “actually” and “happening.”  Yes, you think there is a problem but what do you actually know as fact and what are you assuming about what is occurring? It is easy for us to assume we know the conditions in a situation or what happened in an event based on previous experience or secondhand knowledge or recognizing similarities to other situations or events and seeing patterns in data or reports. 

We hear about an incident and assume it is similar to others we have seen and thus we know what we need to know about this example. We see a problem, hear there are others like it and assume there is a pattern. Or we look at error or defect data and assume that every error or defect in a category is the same. But every individual situation or event is a unique set of facts about a specific condition or occurrence. And the knowledge we assume we have based on prior experience or perceived similarities is seldom if ever sufficient to assume we know the nature of a specific problem, what is causing and what will fix it.  

There is too much information and data out there for us to be able to handle it all and we have to lump similar pieces together into categories and types. That is fine for data analysis but does not serve lean/CI/A3 problem solving as well.  It puts us in the position of operating on the basis of patterns and trends we see and things we infer from them but do not actually know as specific facts.  And when we are in that position we can see an entire A3 story lose credibility when others can show our facts are not consistent with actual conditions or we are missing critical details unique to the problem situation. 

The key to not finding yourself out on the end of A3 limb is having “questioning mind.”  Questioning mind is like a self-check or error-proofing device. It is the habit of asking yourself a couple of critical questions when you start assuming you know something.

The first is, ask not only what do you know but how do you know. That challenges you to look beneath what you think is an accurate picture of the facts of a situation and ask what is that impression or conclusion based on. In other words how do you know your interpretation is fact and not assumption?  You have put the brakes on our human tendency to rush to conclusion and then solution. Then you can do the second self-check of asking what do you need to know to be sure your impression or interpretation is based on fact and how do you learn what you need to know. 

An A3 lays the entire story of your problem solving – the conditions you claim exist, the conclusions you have reached about those conditions, and the actions you are suggesting need to be taken – out there for everybody to see. If you don’t check your impressions and your thinking against the actual facts and conditions of the problem situation someone will know something you don’t and use it as a basis for questioning the actions you propose and the reasons you propose them.

Questioning mind and the habit of asking yourself simple questions such as those suggested here can help you prepare a sound and effective A3. The A3 format is a problem-solving tool but it cannot do your problem solving thinking for you. The A3 format is based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. PDCA itself is essentially a scientific process of experimental learning. A famous scientist said that “fortune favors the prepared mind.”  In the case of creating an A3 the mind that prepares itself by being sure it is thinking and speaking from the facts is better able to tell a sound and engaging A3 story.

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