Are you having trouble getting started solving problems using you’re the A3 problem-solving process? When I teach workshops on A3 thinking, creation, and use, this comes up as one of the most challenging parts of executing the A3 process. So if you find yourself looking at a blank sheet of 11-by-17 paper wondering where to start, here are some thoughts from what I’ve learned doing and teaching the A3 problem-solving methodology for years, which I believe may help you.
The first lesson is simple if counterintuitive. When people ask, “Where do I start to ‘write an A3?’” I reply, “Don’t start with writing.” They generally respond by asking, “Then where do I start?” And my answer is always: “Start with the thinking.”
Resolving issues using the A3 methodology should involve lots of asking, listening, and communicating …
There are two key points to keep in mind here. First, the A3 report, or storyboard (the written document), is the result of A3 thinking, not the process of A3 thinking itself. So, the A3 is a way to capture and organize your plan-do-check-act (PDCA) problem-solving thinking, but completing it does not automatically lead to valid A3 thinking.
Second, A3 thinking is a way to work systematically through how to address a problem or need. Getting to that result involves understanding the problem or need at a concrete level, understanding the factors in the situation that are barriers to moving to desired conditions, and determining the best options for making changes in the direction you want. And resolving issues using the A3 methodology should involve lots of asking, listening, and communicating throughout to be sure you are getting the knowledge, thinking, concurrence, and support of others who have a stake in the situation.
That’s a lot of work and thinking. And it can’t be accomplished by simply starting to fill in the boxes in the A3.
Use the A3 as a Guide
When starting an A3 problem-solving initiative, you should consider the blank A3 merely as a guide leading you through the problem-solving process, one “box,” or step, at a time. But at each stage, you must first think about and investigate the problem situation and only then record your thinking.
However, do not expect to complete the process sequentially. As you work through the A3 methodology and complete the storyboard, you will continue learning about your problem situation. So, be prepared to go back and revise what you wrote earlier as you get deeper into the problem.
The A3 process and the storyboard that results must also tell a problem-solving story that is convincing to others …
Understanding and following these guidelines are crucial to a successful A3 problem-solving because the A3 process must do more than identify a resolution to the problem. The A3 process and the storyboard that results must also tell a problem-solving story that is convincing to others — that brings them along in a thinking process and demonstrates the actions you are recommending make sense. Gaining this buy-in requires getting as many facts as possible in a reasonable time and having the right facts to support your conclusions. Unfortunately, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to create such a convincing story using “fast thinking.”
Why ‘Slow Thinking’ is Vital to A3 Thinking
The difference between “Fast Thinking” and “Slow Thinking” and the importance of the difference between the two is described in a book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his behavioral research on human judgment. The book summarizes 25 years of research, by Kahneman and others, on the basic patterns in how humans solve problems and make decisions. He contends that our brains have two different thinking systems, one that works fast and one that is slow.
- System 1, our fast-thinking system, houses our emotions and intuition, and it processes information and makes decisions automatically. “What you see is what there is” basically describes our minds jumping to conclusions, drawing simply on what is in front of us without looking for further evidence or data.
- System 2, the slow-thinking system, describes the part of the brain that gets engaged in rational, logical thought, concentration, and fact-based judgments. It saves us from many of the runaway knee-jerk reactions of System 1. However, its influence on our problem-solving and decision-making habits is limited because of our automatic reliance on System 1.
If Kahneman’s claim is valid — and he makes a pretty good case for it with the research — it contains a couple of important messages for anyone thinking about putting themselves on the line as the owner of an A3. First, go-fast, jump-to-solution (or action), take-what-you-see-and-run-with-it thinking seems to be our default problem-solving and decision-making process. That means we have to be excellent at seeing and 100% accurate in our impressions, assumptions, and intuitions to hit the mark with our solutions and decisions.
Second, the alternative of slow, systematic, getting-the-facts-and-knowing-the-actual conditions reasoning is not a natural act for most of us. That means we must make an effort to slow down when we start work on an A3 because our preferred thinking style is unlikely to produce a problem-solving story that will stand up to scrutiny when we make claims about what action should be taken based on it.I have had the experience of being out there on an A3 limb making claims without the facts to support them, and it’s not fun — unless you just like pain and embarrassment. That is why I advise anyone needing to do an A3 to prepare for the work ahead by trying to activate the slow-thinking system in their brain.
Editor’s Note: This Lean Post is an updated version of an article published July 18, 2012, one of the most popular posts about this vital lean practice.
Managing to Learn
An Introduction to A3 Leadership and Problem-Solving.