Problem solving is a core part of continuous improvement and lean management. The so-called A3 problem solving method has become mainstream popular. I’m often asked to recommend a template by the people I coach. I’m reluctant to provide A3 templates without first understanding why people are asking for it. Why do they think they need it? What problem does having a template solve?
Too often the request comes from a desire for a quick, color-by-numbers problem solving format that misses the need for hard thinking. People may think they can learn by following a template but sadly templates are not self-explanatory. A template is like a sentence full of acronyms and abbreviations – useless to the uninitiated. If people don’t have the curiosity to really learn what’s behind the A3 template, that is a problem. If we think we don’t have time to learn it, an A3 template shortcut isn’t going to help solve problems quicker.
Tracey Richardson dropped a gem of an A3 template on LinkedIn. The photo to the top and left is an old Toyota Problem Report Format. Toyota put these reports on A3-size paper. Academics who saw and wrote about it in English coined the term “A3 thinking” and “A3 problem solving” and the hunt for the perfect template was on. If you ask me for an A3 template, I recommend the Toyota Problem Report Format from Tracey.
For more about Tracey, her experience and the work she does here is a Gemba Academy podcast with Tracey and Ernie Richardson, where they share their great insights on teaching lean the Toyota way.
Let’s take a quick stroll through this problem report format.
Theme: This is where you write down in a few words a general description of the problem you are trying to solve, such as “lack of ideas for weekly blog posts” or “deer eating plants in garden” or “A3 template proliferation.” It is more of a unique identifier than a detailing of the problem.
Name, Date, Section: This adds another level of unique identification to the specific problem report through date, name of report creator and her department, unit or location within the organization. I have never seen the problem of two A3 reports created on the same date by people with same name in the same section, so this feature seems to work well.
Problem situation: Here we get into the meat of the problem. There are discrete questions to answer such as what is the Standard? What is the Current situation regarding the standard or process in question? What is the Discrepancy or gap between aforementioned standard and the current condition? To what Extent does this gap exist, i.e. how bad and for how long and affecting how many customers? The nuance of the word Rationale can be misleading, as very often people begin explaining root causes in this problem situation section, which one should never do. I would have challenged Toyota to rename this “logical basis” or “reasoning” or even “assumptions” because in giving the rationale, we are not explaining how the problem happened, merely our understanding of the problem per the answers to the questions above.
Here I would like to pause and invite the reader to ask, “Which of these points do we leave out from our A3 template and/or A3 process? Why? How is our template better or worse because of it?”
Let’s continue our stroll.
Goal: In this section of the template, the report creator defines to what degree they wish to close the gap, by answering Do what, How much, and By when? This “set and commit to a target” section is often left out or move to later in the template by problem solvers whose leaders are unenlightened and believe that firmly holding people to early commitments regardless of new information and changing conditions helps keep people accountable (it creates fear and sandbagging) and delivers results (only by luck, or because sandbagging). Strongly recommend leaders study why this box exits where it does and how to use it.
Cause analysis: Root cause analysis is not all about five why questions, fishbone diagrams and Pareto charts. It begins with identifying Potential causes through brainstorming and go see activities, narrowing down to the Most likely causes and then probing from Problem > to > root cause, reporting the Results of investigation to review with the problem solving coach. This box could be bigger than in the template above.
Countermeasures: The experiments, solutions, Short-term and Long-term measures to address the causes are documented here. The question of Why recommended? is a good one to answer both how the proposed actions link back to the root causes in the preceding analysis, and how the particular actions were prioritized and selected. The answer should be rational, and in the form of cause-and-effect logic rather than, “Because I like solution very much”.
Implementation: This box is the action plan detailing the What, Where, Who, and When.
Follow-up: This is where the effectiveness is evaluated, describing “How check” or the method of checking as well as “When check” or the timing and frequency of checking. A visual such as a graph of expected (dotted line) versus actual is a common and useful visual control.
And there you have it, a recommended A3 template with an explanation in brief of each section. For more on the thinking behind A3 and practical problem solving, check out our six-part discussion podcast.