Dear Gemba Coach,
We’ve been teaching A3 problem solving to all our managers, but so far I fail to see any clear improvement of our problem solving ability. Is there a right way to teach A3?
First of all, allow me to be blunt: A3 is a technique to present reports, not to solve problems. A3s are not specific to lean or Toyota, and they’ve been used in Japanese companies where they co-evolved with fax machines during the 1980s, largely because it’s faster to handwrite than to type kanji characters. A3s were the largest pieces of paper one could fax, and the idea was to fit a full report on one faxed page.
At the time that these reports emerged, 8D problem solving (Plan; use a team; define and describe the problem; develop and verify an interim containment plan; determine, identify and verify root cause; choose and verify permanent corrective actions; implement and validate permanent corrective actions; prevent recurrence; congratulate your team) was popular in quality assurance and in automotive in particular. So before long 8D-structured A3-sized reports started appearing back then.
Now don’t get me wrong: presenting a report in an A3 page, and a structured format reflecting plan-do-check-act (PDCA) in various forms is a hugely useful skill, and one with many positive impacts for a company where doing so is widespread. It helps the people preparing the report to think clearly and sort their ideas, and it helps to communicate what they think to others. This is a clear and powerful way to help people understand what others have in mind. My father’s criteria for a good A3 report are that it should be read and understood in less than one minute.
Good Teacher, Good A3
If A3 is just a report presentation tool, why is it so often confused with a problem-solving tool? The confusion is easy to make because the structure and format of A3 is a great teaching tool for training someone to solve a problem. As John Shook has brilliantly illustrated in Managing to Learn, when you want to coach someone on problem solving, the A3 format is a great tool. The story in this book shows the path—one path—of what goes through the mind of both the learner (who is creating the report) and the teacher (his manager providing coaching.) The manager’s main problem can be summed up in terms of: “how many times can I ask this guy to rewrite this box until he either gets it right or gives up?”
One enormous benefit of the A3 format is the way it takes someone through the steps of solving the problem rigorously, thereby avoiding loose and vague generalizations. Unfortunately, this only works if the teacher has a pretty good generic idea of what the problem really is, and what kind of solution they’re looking for (and is open minded enough to be ready to be surprised by a creative solution). In effect, in order to correctly use an A3 as a training tool, the coach needs to already know how to solve the problem (not necessarily in detail) and be able to specify both the problem definition space (this is not a machine problem but a materials issue) and the acceptable solution space (less reground I the mix). Rather than lecture, he or she will steer the learner to discovering answers by themselves.
Does the A3 format and structure help to solve problems without expert guidance? Unfortunately, not that much. Even so, I recommend that you put your thinking in an A3 format as you struggle with a difficult problem. This will help you to:
- Clarify your own thinking and,
- Share it with others to hear what they’ve got to say.
Just remember that the format itself in no way guarantees that:
- The problem is well understood and astutely framed and,
- The proposed solution addresses the problem and is clever enough to be easily implementable at the lowest cost.
Problem-solving is a skill in itself which needs to be honed independently of formats and structure, through old fashioned experience. It really comes down to a thinking process that can be stimulated through any number of useful tools. Here are the essential components of knowing how to solve a problem.
Probably the most important part of solving any problem is like in any crime novel investigation: powers of observation. Reality is messy, and the primary difficulty with problem solving is distinguishing what is relevant and what is not. The deeper you look into a problem the more you will see aspects that appear to be not quite right (parameters not in standard conditions). A few have a huge impact; most are inconsequential at best. As one gains experience, one learns to focus on the really important features of the problem and ignore the more distracting though superficial aspects. For instance, in most work problems, other people’s moods and attitudes tend to be seen as major drivers of the issues where in fact they are side-effect of the problem itself, and, as such a distracting irritant, but certainly not a cause.
Learning to observe is a skill in itself. It means looking at a situation for hours, going through several cycles, and picking up what is right and what is not. In practice, it’s very hard to do one one’s own, without a more expert hand to point and guide. If you’re serious in teaching problem solving, the first step is to go back to the gemba and spend hours teaching people to distinguish normal conditions from abnormal situations – and their impact.
2. A Library of Typical Cases
Diagnosis is essentially the skill of drawing from one’s observation, and knowing the right “typical case” – essentially putting the right label on the right problem. To be able to diagnose correctly, one needs to have seen hundreds of different cases, and be able to sort through them in typical schemes. For instance, there are many different kinds of lead-time situations: directly to customer line, through a distributor, high runners, promotions, one-offs, seasonal demands, etc. If one is setting up a pull system, each of these different forms of lead-time corresponds to a typical material and information flow, which is necessary to know to complete the lead-time analysis. If not, one risks lumping it all together and fundamentally diagnosing the wrong situation.
Beyond observation, problem solving requires a deep knowledge and understanding of what the typical situations are, what their boundary conditions are (symptoms that either fit or not) and how to correctly sort the current situation in one of these cases. This might not be the whole diagnostic, but it’s certainly the starting point. Without this step, messy situation remains incomprehensible, regardless of the number of Pareto charts one builds time over time.
3. Self-Monitoring And Self-Checking
Finally, effective problem solving requires constant monitoring and checking from the problem solver himself or herself: am I making the correct diagnosis, am I picking the right solution? How can I verify this? Lean tradition insists on confirmation at all steps, but that’s neither intuitive nor easy to do. We’re usually all eager to prove the first solution that comes to mind is the right one and implement it right away.
What I come across more often at the gemba is problem solving sessions where people rush to quick solutions. Once they’ve identified the “problem”, people find a way to completely change the process so that this problem doesn’t occur anymore. Left to implement such “solutions” they discover that their bright idea is in fact creating other unanticipated problems, and often the original problem is not even solved. Problem solving is about solving problems without changing the process first. If, through the problem solving, a case can be made to change the process later on, so much the better. But that’s improvement, not problem solving. Experienced problem solvers know that they’re just as tempted as anyone else to jump to conclusions and fall in love with their own solutions and they know enough to be watchful and critical of their own path of least resistance reactions.
The key challenge here is suspension: not considering the problem understood or solved until either diagnosis or solution has been confirmed. This is probably the most demanding aspect of problem solving, as it requires rigor, and an open mind.
In my experience, teaching problem solving hasn’t much to do with teaching A3s. It’s all about:
- Observing, observing and then observing some more: observing can be just watching, or being active such as counting bad parts.
- Separating cases: Manpower, Machine, Material, Method has to be one of the most underestimated problem solving methods in the lean toolbox. Just clarifying whether the issue is more one M than the others forces problem solving in different directions (notice that Milieu is kept separate because it’s all about environment variables and not so useful in problem solving – if need be first attack milieu through 5S, and then go back to 4M).
- Find a domain expert to discuss your findings with: an expert might not be able to identify the problem or solve it, but will certainly teach you a lot by reacting to your own observations and assumptions. In this, A3 reports are a huge help because they can explain clearly and succinctly your thinking to others with relevant experience.
- Think of two or three distinct solutions to the same problem: the discipline of coming up with alternative solutions is both a test of creativity and a good check of understanding of the problem. Distinct and valid solutions demonstrate the problem space has been thoroughly understood and explored, and make it easier for others to get on board with the proposed countermeasures.
Don’t read me wrong, I’m all for A3 training. I believe that knowing how to write A3 reports is an essential skill for all managerial ranks. Much like the Internet IP protocols, formatting the information in a common, synthetic format is of enormous benefit to the information flow in the business, and will eventually lead to better decisions and better solutions. However, your observation is essentially correct: don’t expect an immediate improvement in problem solving skills by mass training to A3s.
Writing an A3 report is a great tool when coaching someone to solve their own problems. But the problem solving skills essentially rest with observation skills, a memory for specific cases and the experience to correctly categorize, and the ability to confirm one’s assumptions by discussing with domain experts or testing ideas through local experiments. If I’d have to pick a problem solving teaching tool, I believe I’d choose Ohno’s circle (stand and watch, just a bit longer), and 4M analysis, again and again.