Tips for Lean Managers

The Importance of “So What?” in A3 Kaizen

By Jon Miller Updated on May 29th, 2017

One of the things that makes Toyota-style problem solving so effective is the insistence on true root cause analysis and countermeasures. In simple terms this is known as “asking why 5 times” or “5 why”. Instead of 5W1H (what, where, when, who, why how) which may be good for journalism, but Toyota-style problem solving focuses on finding problems through direct observation and asking “Why?” until the root causes is identified.
Another one of the things that makes Toyota-style problem solving so effective is the persistence in taking action, checking the results, and making improvements until the problem is solved and the root cause is truly eliminated beyond the possibility of recurrence. This is akin looking at the facts and asking “So what?” Like Starsky and Hutch, the Lone Ranger and Tonto or Sonny and Cher, Why and So What make a great problem solving team.
Problem? Why? Action! So What? This is PDCA problem solving in a nutshell. The A3 report, named after the size of paper, is a convenient way to practice problem solving. The series below helps demonstrate the importance of “So what?” in A3 kaizen or problem solving activities.
Take a problem, a piece of 11 inch x 17 inch or A3 size paper and start at the top left. What is the problem? Describe the current condition, along with supporting facts and data.
Proceed to the Analysis section to use Ishikawa diagrams (cause and effect diagrams) and other tools to organize your 5 why analysis.
Once you have found some root causes, you can set up some hypotheses to test. Try some countermeasures. This is the action plan, including what, who and when.
Once action is taken, you will want to see whether it was effective, so this is to document the where, the when, the who and how of the “check” step of verification.
So what? Results of your countermeasures may have been good or they may have been bad. This is the first step in checking. If a particular countermeasure was effective, it should be monitored, controlled, and expanded as a standard to other areas. Effective or not, we ask “so what?” again.
If a particular countermeasure was not effective, we need to review whether this was because it was insufficient in addressing a root cause or whether the cause being addressed was not the true root cause.
The root cause was not identified and addressed. So what? Go back to finding the root cause. Or perhaps the root cause was addressed. So what? If the root cause was addressed, does the data show that the countermeasure was deep enough?
The data does not show improvement, even though the countermeasure addressed the root cause. So what? The measurement method, tool or the measurement itself may be the problem. This is where six sigma applications can come in handy. The data shows improvement. So what? Has the actual condition improved? Are we getting observably closer to the ideal condition?
The teaming of “so what” as a checking mechanism helps to test all assumptions back to the beginning, and to make sure implementation of the countermeasures was thorough enough. In our rush to solve problems there are factors (often human) that are missed, and only detected when problems recur.
The 5 why analysis helps you question deeply to find the root cause for a particular problem. The So What question helps you question whether your investigations were broad enough, and whether countermeasures were on the mark.
Kent Blumberg has a good example of the value of “so what?” on his blog from last December, demonstrating a test for true root cause by following a series of “therefore” statements backwards up through the 5 why analysis.
So what…problems will you solve with this approach?

  1. Rob

    July 29, 2007 - 1:59 am

    This is one of the best posts I’ve seen on A3. A3, for some reason, seems to be a confusing subject when I try to explain it to Engineers. I think they are so used to writing huge reports, pumped full of analysis from Minitab, that the concept is just to hard to understand. I think I’ll send this URL around via email. THANKS!!

  2. Jon

    July 29, 2007 - 12:05 pm

    Thanks Rob.
    The three points that I’ve found to be most useful in helping engineers understand the use of A3 reports are:
    1) Present with “so what”, defend with data. We still need the analysis to be done via Minitab, etc. and to have the back up data to prove that our countermeasure is effective, but only the “so what?” parts of this information should be part of the A3 story itself.
    2) One person owns one A3. The actions may be assigned to various people, but one person should be responsible for insuring that the problem description and data on that A3 is correct, and that countermeasures are completed and verified.
    3) It’s a family affair. For large and complex projects or problems you start with what is called a “parent” or “mother” A3, in that it spawns many “child” A3s. This allows you to stick with point 2 above, and also allows you to keep the focus of root cause analysis and problem solving more specific and actionable.

  3. steedman

    July 31, 2007 - 11:50 pm

    hi jon,
    this is helpful.
    is there anyway to provide links to printable version, with larger A3 graphics? it would help to solidify my understanding if i could read the text associated with each image.

  4. Nelson

    August 6, 2007 - 4:28 pm

    The 5 why’s in getting the root cause of the problem is by asking 5 why to the hypothesis or solution of the problem. Let us take a simple example.
    Problem: I have a terrible headache.
    Why? I skipped lunch today
    Why? I have many pending jobs that must meet the deadline
    Why? It piled up
    Why? I was not able to follow my timetable
    Why? I relax on my job.
    So the solution to the problem is not only to take a medicine because if you do so, it will just keep on re-occurring. The root cause of the problem is that you have relaxed on your job that gives you a headache. It is giving a solution first to your attitude or to your work habit and that is to finish our job on time.

  5. Jim Lamprecht

    March 2, 2009 - 9:25 pm

    I don’t understand the excitement about this so-called A3 thinking. Root cause analysis has been around for decades, so has five whys (at least since the very early 1980s.) As for hypothesis testing it is well over 80 years old. PDCA goes back to Deming who modified it from Shewhart who developed it in the 1930s, I’ll grant you that the simplicity of the A3 form is good but then again many of us have been using a simple format to solve problems for a very long time. I guess if you are relatively new at this A3 must seem like an innovation. All in all, nothing more than the use of a different jargon to solve problems the old-fashioned way. Still a good post and I certainly agree with the one post that mentioned the problem with Minitab and the generation of tables upon tables of analysis.

  6. Jallenrule

    March 12, 2009 - 1:40 pm

    To problem solve why an engineer is having problems using the A3 process to problem solve, use the following 5-why example to determine the root cause of the engineer’s problem:
    Why? Engineer can’t complete his A3 project
    Why? Ran out of room to write down all the steps
    Why? The paper is too small
    Why? It only provides 187 sq. in. worth of writing space
    Why? 11″ x 17″ = 187 sq. in.
    Solution: change the standard size of an inch so it’s bigger.

  7. Jon Miller

    March 12, 2009 - 2:16 pm

    Hi Jallenrule,
    Very interesting! We could dig even deeper after the 5th why, asking “Why was 187 sq. in. not sufficient?” and conclude things such as A) inadequate use of pictures to express ideas more concisely than words, B) problem breakdown resulted in multiple issues which required several “child” A3s, or C) using more words than necessary.
    Of course it doesn’t hurt to use a bigger piece of paper, so long as we don’t take it too far.

  8. Dan

    October 29, 2009 - 2:34 am

    Dear Jon,
    Do you if the name “A3” comes original from the paper size DIN A3? I asked, because I´m not sure, if Japanese use our western standard?

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