Does every problem require an A3?
Here are some thoughts that may help you if you have just begun your journey with A3 thinking and problem-solving. During my time at Toyota I didn’t have a particular matrix or set standard that we followed. Our people and culture, however, shared a way of thinking that applied to different types of problems that could arise on a daily basis at many different levels. Here is how those problems were categorized in my experience.
This type of problem does not require someone to write a formal A3 report, but it’s important to recognize the importance of the thinking approach one takes nonetheless. In most instances a team member/associate can handle this problem on their own. The root cause is often apparent, and minimal resources are needed to implement a countermeasure. The value of A3 thinking here is to detail the actual work or process that the individual does. The individual can then identify the “problem” because they can see a discrepancy (even if there isn’t a standard defined necessarily).
Problems at this level can be immediately tested/solved, without necessarily producing a formal A3. Companies can track these problems with something like a tic-mark sheet, counter or some other visible indicator. Above all it’s important to see that these types of problems are not just things to be “fixed”, but opportunities to develop a way of thinking. These types of problems challenge associates to think constantly about when they are out of standard (and they should also force leaders to develop standards with them if none exist!) Interestingly, this is the level where most of the team members were at Toyota. They did a lot on their own and also participated in Quality Circles. The company culture empowered the associate to “think.”
My experience is that 60-70% of the problems will/should fall into this category. For this to happen, of course, the PDCA practice of asking the right questions must be practiced through the leadership. And remember one principle that is the foundation for this practice: establish standards, because this is the best way to make problems visible.
These problems require an A3; or at the very least, detailed documentation that shares the learning with others (developing associates) as well as developing the ones responsible (supervisors). Remember, developing the correct thinking of PDCA is always the underlying priority behind the A3 process. And as I’ve been told, an A3 is only as strong as the dialogue that creates it. So the questions we ask to produce the facts and the countermeasures must be made clear to everyone.
So you may end up with a Level 2 problem when Level 1 problems resurface. The reason could be that the associate did not get to the correct root cause or ask enough “whys”. This could be a recurring problem that no one understands the root cause of. At the prior level, people may have only diagnosed the symptom and missed the deeper facts and chain of events.
Problems at this level may require stronger support and coaching, possibly from the next level of supervisor. They could require resources like maintenance, engineering, tool and die, and higher-level decision making authority. This level is more than likely affecting the key performance indicators (KPIs) of the company in some way.
At this level a deeper look into how the problem was defined is necessary. This means a disciplined analysis of the true “pain to the organization” caused by this problem. For example, we sometimes frame problems in the sense of “productivity issues”, but the bigger problem may be “scrap rate”. Decreasing the scrap rate would in turn improve productivity/efficiency.
And so Level 2 problems are mainly for line supervisors/group leaders and above, with the support of their associates. The supervisor would be responsible for the documentation of the 8-step problem-solving process. My experience is that 15-20% of the problems are Level 2.
This is when a problem/defect may “flow out” to the customer (internal or external), creating downtime, quality, or safety issues for the customer which in turn can affect your own company indicators. This activity should engage a higher-level manager, who is responsible for the documentation of the A3, and also for getting support and buy-in from the line supervisors and associates. Engaging the plant manager/high level leadership should create the accountability at that level to be responsible for his/her production floor as well as developing their people to understand how this happened. Again, this process reminds us of the fundamental role of setting standards, which establish how things should be done, and enable everyone to better understand what has gone wrong.
Any defect that got past an area/department and made it to the customer is unacceptable, and should trigger an immediate countermeasure to stop the bleeding and ensure that no other defective product flows out. This should also prompt the finding of a permanent countermeasure using the 8-step process by the plant manager. This individual must take the initiative, gathering the necessary resources necessary, involving their people to ensure this will not happen again, and overseeing the process so that everyone learns from it for the next A3.
Problems at this level could also be related to potential recalls, external customer complaints, missed orders etc. Also there could be situations in-house where there may be a major breakdown that shuts your customer down in turn. There could be an internal safety incident where someone was severely injured.
Problems of this level must be addressed by management. Their ability to lead responsibly is crucial. Remember the associate’s capability is only as strong as their leader’s capabilities. My experience is that 5-10% of the problems are Level 3.
This level of problem solving is more of the “raising the bar,” proactive problem solving. Some call this exercise purposely creating a gap. This approach ties into the process of DAMI (define-achieve-maintain-and improve.) Working on these problems helps one raise the bar from maintain to improve. I faced such a problem when a trainer of mine saw waste in my processes and told me to go from 10 team members to 9 team members. He was raising the bar on me, changing my current standard.
This is sometimes called a Jishuken event, or management driven continuous improvement event. I was involved with several of those at Toyota where we improved our productivity/efficiency by rebalancing manpower, and not hiring new people as a result. This is a practice in seeing waste, and asking the right questions. What should be happening vs. what is happening? Is this standard acceptable? Can we raise the bar to improve our company? It gets the people who are practicing level 1 problems to see deeper, think deeper and see how what they are doing is contributing to the company/business indicators.
Going back to problems is another way of defining job security. Doing so allows people to assist in the other levels of problem solving, and developing a better problem awareness, which can in turn prevent many Level 2 or 3 type problems from occurring in the first place. Jishuken should be part of your culture, not deemed as a “special activity”. Unfortunately most companies are always putting out fires. And so this level of problem, where companies actually create gaps on purpose, is a very LOW percentage. Less than five percent and closer to zero. Companies think it is crazy to purposely create a problem. Yet over the long term, those that don’t will end up far less sane…