Problem Solving with A3 Thinking

Category: Common Practices

Written by: Francesco Attanasio

Lean thinking can be summarized in 5 principles: precisely specify value by specific product, identify the value-stream for each product, make the value flow without interruptions, let the customer pull value from the producer, and pursue perfection. — J. Womack &D. Jones, Lean Thinking

Some sprints ago, my team and I started experimenting with A3 Thinking, an improvement process that applies Lean Thinking to problem solving.

Starting from that experiment I began to appreciate the meaning of what I read some months ago in the Toyota Way book: “How you arrive at a decision is just as important as the quality of the decision”.

The elements that have to be considered in decision making are:

- Find out what’s really going on

- 5 Whys; understand underlying causes of surface appearances

- Consider alternative solutions and find a rationale for the preferred solution

- Build consensus within the team, including internal and external partners

5-Whys analysis is a part of a seven-step process called “practical problem solving”. Before you perform the analysis it is important that you thoroughly understand the problem or you have to “grasp the situation”. This starts with an open minded observation of the situation and a comparison to the standard. It is important to go to where the problem is (genchi genbutsu).

Targets for improvements should be set and then attempt to identify the Point Of Cause (POC). The final objective is to find a minimum set of countermeasures to prevent the problem from reoccurrence. The seventh step is to set a new standard. Standardization and learning go hand in hand and are prerequisites for continuous improvements.

The famous Toyota’s practical problem-solving process is reported in the figure below:

Fig.1 Toyota’s practical problem-solving process

The A3 is first and foremost a tool for identifying root causes to deep challenges and achieving consensus on what exactly those problems are and how to remedy them. The process was pioneered by Toyota to document problems with their production process. Anyone at Toyota can initiate the process and they do it for almost all problems they encounter. To capture their analysis, they often use the largest sheet of paper that fit into a copy machine, the A3 or Tabloid (two 8.5x11 sheets side-by-side.).

Creating visible thinking is what is unique about the A3 process.

The A3 process is based on the PDSA Cycle (aka the Deming Cycle).

Plan: Create a solid plan for solving the problem. This should include creating a deep understanding of the situation, defining the problem, setting goals, identifying the root cause(s) and possible countermeasures.
Do: The plan must be implemented.
Study: Poor problem solvers stop after the “Do” step. Good problem solvers study to see if the solution they put in place really worked.
Adjust: When you identify an area where the “Do” step fell short, you have to consider actions to take based on what you learned.
The A3 process is a specific, structured method of problem solving. While the A3 report is the visible centerpiece of the process, it is actually more of a result of the process than the actual process itself. The A3 report is simply a concise, communication tool. Because of the recognizable format, individuals can rapidly share ideas and have confidence in what they are talking about.

A3 reports are a waste-free way for report writing and communication. The important point is that the basic building blocks of an A3 report provide a nice little template for lean thinking. Thus, this tool can be helpful to anyone who wants to learn and apply lean thinking to problem solving, project management and a host of other improvement processes.

A great example of A3 report, by C. Perrone, is reported in figure below:

Fig.2 A3 report example (by C. Perrone)

The title should be easy to remember and to refer to, considering that often is reviewed during the A3 report development, when the real nature of the problem emerges. The owner is the person who is responsible for ushering the process through to its end and the mentor is the person who can help implementing the actions that result from the process.

Often, the problem owner starts by writing a description of the background of the problem. It is important that all stakeholders are involved in this phase, even if it is not necessarily a group activity, so everyone has a clear idea of what the problem is. The A3 is a process, so even if the problem is obvious, it is important to discuss it and make sure everyone is literally on the same page.
With the background established, the discussion moves on to establishing the current conditions. This will be a list of symptoms like decreased velocity or bad morale. It is important to make sure that the team is able to include some metrics at this stage. Loss of revenue is always helpful because it gets management’s attention but any number of metrics will do. The important thing is that they are reasonably accurate and measurable.

Next, the team should decide on what the conditions will be if the problem is solved. The target conditions are similar to an Acceptance Test or Definition of Done for a Product Backlog Item. Metrics are helpful here as well. The idea is to provide a somewhat objective condition in which all stakeholders could feel the problem was solved. It is important to have a well-defined target condition because it will help align all stakeholders around a common vision.

The root cause analysis is the core of the A3. Establishing the problem and what life will be like after the problem is solved is relatively easy, the act of discovering the root causes may bring to the surface some uncomfortable truths.

It sounds very light minded, but good root cause analysis actually requires channeling your inner five-year old. The technique used is called the Five Whys. Basically, the team needs to start with the most obvious manifestation of the problem and ask why.

The point of the exercise is to get at least five layers deep into any problem. Five layers is a general rule of thumb. Root causes can be found three or seven layers deep. It is really important to invest a lot of time here and test every level, if there is any reasonable doubt. Often the stakeholders think they have arrived at a few root causes only to have to repeat the process later.

There are other root cause analysis techniques. A variety can be found here.

Root causes must be actionable, meaning that the team will have an idea how to solve or address the specific challenge.

Once the root causes have been discovered, the stakeholders can start to develop solutions. The team can choose to prioritize the root causes and their countermeasures and work their way down the list one at a time.
Implemented countermeasures must be enough allowing to reach the target.
Given the nature of complex-adaptive systems, a change to one part of the system could ripple throughout the organization, changing the overall issue. If it turns out the countermeasure doesn’t work, or does work and doesn’t change the problem, the team can move onto the next root cause and its countermeasure. Or, it may be that solving the first root cause reveals that the problem resides in another part of the organization. The A3 is a living document so the team should continually update it as conditions change.

It’s critical that when working through the countermeasures the team treats each one like a small science experiment.
A root cause is a fact.
A countermeasure is an hypothesis, namely the expectation, that implementing it (alone or in combination with other countermeasures), you can extirpate the problem to reach the stated target.
Often stakeholders go through the entire A3 process, implement a countermeasure and then assume that the countermeasure has worked. It’s important to confirm that the countermeasure had the desired effect. In order to know how or if the countermeasure worked, it’s nice to have some objective criteria to judge it against.
The clearer your measurable target, the better your A3.

If the countermeasure worked, great, it had an effect on the current conditions and moved the team closer to the target condition. In some cases multiple countermeasures could be necessary to achieve the target condition. If there is no effect move on to the next countermeasure, for that root cause, or move onto the next root cause and try its countermeasure.

Take everything learned in the “Study” phase, identify differences between what is, and where you’d like to be, and determine where to make changes that will move you closer to your target.
The follow-up section may indicate what remains to be done, lesson learned, steps to ensure that the gains are sustained, how to communicate and share results, what to standardize and so on.

The A3 process is a structured method that can be used for problem solving and also to develop the critical thinking skills of people. While the A3 report is the visible centerpiece of the process, it is actually more of a result of the process than the actual process itself. The A3 report is simply a concise, communication tool. Because of the recognizable format, individuals can rapidly share ideas and have confidence in what they are talking about.

When implemented properly, the approach pushes the organization toward system-wide rather than local optimization as the problem-solver seeks input and ultimately consensus from all parties affected by the proposed change. In taking as many system issues into consideration as possible, the problem-solver attempts to propose countermeasures that help the organization move one step closer toward ideal.

While the A3 report can be a powerful tool for promoting effective process improvement, it is not a magic wand. Implementing the tool requires conscious effort, and numerous obstacles must be overcome. Perhaps the most common issue we’ve encountered is simply making the time to do the problem solving.
As problems are addressed and processes are streamlined, time spent on wasteful activities is freed up for problem solving.

References & Further Reading
Bodek, N.: The Idea Generator
Flinchbaugh, J. : A3 Problem Solving
Imai, M.: Gemba Kaizen
Liker, JK, 2004, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer
Perrone, C. :
Perrone, C. :
Spear, S. and H.K. Bowen, 1999, “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System,” Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct., 77(5), 97-106.
Womack, J., D.T. Jones, and D. Roos, 1990, The Machine that Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production, HarperPerennial, New York.
Womack, J.: Gemba Walk