Despite years of A3 work, many folks still approach the A3 as a series of boxes to fill out. Whenever I come across this, I try to help people see how this powerful tool is in fact much more than a tool—it’s a way of thinking with deeper benefits, a process based on the PDCA (plan, do, check, adjust) cycle designed to “share wisdom” with the rest of the organization as my Japanese trainers taught me.
First, think about purpose. Your purpose is why you’re solving this problem. To go a step deeper, identify what key performance indicator(s) (KPI’s) your problem-solving addresses. Whether this is quality, safety, productivity, cost, or human resources, getting clear on purpose will ensure you are doing value-added work. It will also give you and others an individual line of sight to company goals.
Once you understand your purpose, clarify the problem by asking: what problem am I trying to solve? You may think you know, but upon more careful consideration, discover it’s actually something else. The problem you want to address is the gap between the current state and your ideal state. I ask myself two questions in order understand this gap:
- What is the current situation? (make it measureable by $, % , #)
- What is the ideal situation or the standard? (make it measureable by $, %, #)
This should, by default, give you the gap, or the quantifiable problem. This is considered a “caused gap” problem, meaning you see a measureable difference between the current situation and the ideal or new standard situation. (A created gap would be more strategic in nature. For example: to create a Lean culture through all functional areas of my organization.)
I often see people neglect measurability altogether at this caused gap step, instead stating just an opinion or assumption they have about their current state: “This is the problem and it happens due to X, Y, and Z reasons.” This may be how you understand your current state, but if you don’t focus on something you can measure, you’re only going to cover up symptoms and place band-aids on problems.
Once your problem is clarified, break it down into manageable pieces. A lot of people try to tackle a huge problem in a single A3, like world hunger, but that’s not what A3 thinking is for. Trying to tackle too complex a problem or too many problems at once, with too many root causes, will only cause frustration. (For those really big problems your organization is facing, you don’t want to use an A3 for that, you’ll want to use hoshin kanri.) So up front, you want to ask the 4 W’s: what, who, when, and where. This will help you narrow the scope of your problem and make sure you are only trying to solve one.
I like to use the analogy of a pie or pizza. If I try to eat the whole thing at once, I won’t feel great. Same goes for A3 thinking! If I try to solve a huge problem all in one sitting, it’s not going to end well. Getting clear on the 4 W’s is similar to using a pareto chart to give us the focus item first. We usually call this the “prioritized problem.” No one is saying the other pieces (problems) of the pizza aren’t important! We just need to eat one slice at a time. Think of it this way: you can’t map a process, find the point of occurrence of an error, or identify where a discrepancy is if you’re trying to do too many things at once.
Once you identify the point of occurrences in the process, do root cause analysis (through asking why), until you narrow down your problem to 2-3 potential root causes. Remember: you are not trying to solve world hunger. Identify a manageable set of potential countermeasures. Be sure they are measurable. If, for example, my ideal state for processing insurance claims is 10 days, and my claims are currently being processed in 20, I have a clearly defined gap: 10 days. With each change to the process, I can track how much of the 10-day gap has been eliminated. Again, use very specific measures to track effectiveness.
Selecting the proper countermeasure is a difficult and crucial step. Many organizations, including Toyota, use a criteria or evaluation matrix to select the most effective countermeasure. You might consider such criteria as effectiveness, feasibility, cost, impact, and risk.
Once you select your countermeasure, involve all stakeholders in implementing the countermeasure and track its effectiveness. Ask these primary process owners “why” things are happening at the gemba. If issues arise, resolve them by asking questions of yourself and your team members in order to build everyone’s problem solving capabilities. If your countermeasure takes care of the problem, it’s still important to track its effectiveness for a period of time to ensure sustainability. Once you have this, then you can consider this countermeasure part of the work process and create a new standard for the process.
Then what, right? Your problem is solved, and you’ve got a new standard! Well, yes and no… Once you’ve successfully implemented a countermeasure to one problem, it’s time to move on to the next. Go back to the analysis step and select the next prioritized problem on the list. You want to continue to chew away at the gap, one measured problem at a time.
If you use this type of disciplined thinking in creating your A3, you’ll quickly see it’s so much more than a tool. Only a good thinking process (supported by doing) will give you a good A3, a piece of paper that actually tells you something and helps improve the work of the business. Soon enough, you’ll forget you ever felt eager to “fill in boxes.” You’ll find yourself taking your time, making sure the left side of your A3 is as accurate as possible, indeed each step is as accurate as possible, before moving on.
As my trainers used to remind me, a good process will give you the results you desire, not the other way around. It’s not easy to do, but you have to put process before results!