Tips for Lean Managers

A3 Problem Solving as a People Development Process

By Jon Miller Updated on April 2nd, 2021

Too many organizations today have no effective, simple and formalized method of developing front-line leaders. The typical new supervisor or manager is lucky to be given instruction in how their job is done properly, and why. Most often the instruction stops at what to do.

And many companies don’t even get the “what” quite right. What is the role of front line supervision in a Lean organization? At Toyota the job of the shop floor leader seems to make sure standard work is being maintained to meet safety, quality, delivery and cost targets, and to lead problem solving when this is not happening.

The one-page report called the A3 is the primary problem solving document. It is not a report to summarize the action after the fact and file it away, but almost like a chalk board where the student must do the math over and over again until the teacher is satisfied that they understand how to solve a particular problem. At Toyota, I am told, it can take months to work through a single A3 problem solving document to the satisfaction of the manager who is coaching a developing shop floor leader.

The three key competencies that are taught to people through this A3 problem solving are:

1. Problem definition. There are really three different skills that make up this competency: finding the problem, developing proper problem statements and building consensus on the issue.

2. Root cause analysis. The two important habits here are getting the facts on the gemba through what is called “genchi genbutsu” and conducting root cause analysis based on the 5 why process.

3. Kaizen. This means making a plan to test various countermeasures, trying it out repeatedly to eliminate ideas that don’t work, and standardizing to the most practical countermeasure in terms of quality, safety, cost and speed.

Of course there are other skills and problem solving competencies needed for a shop floor or front line leader such as summarizing results and planning for future action based on what was learned. There are also a myriad of other tasks needed for management and supervision. Toyota may have processes for teaching people the skills needed for other such supervisory admin or HR work, but the use of A3 problem solving as a people development process is pretty brilliant.

  1. Cory Boisoneau

    November 16, 2007 - 9:03 am

    This looks like a great process. I am concerned about the root cause analysis part however. Toyota seems to have their problem solving very intricately laid out, and then they use the 5 whys for RCA? The problem here is that the 5 whys is a linear process that is being used to analyze a non-linear event. Therefor you will not document all of the causes and may miss out on a variety of effective solutions. I would recommend looking into a more robust RCA method, such as Apollo.

  2. Jon Miller

    November 16, 2007 - 9:58 am

    Perhaps I oversimplified the RCA part. The root cause analysis through 5 why is not linear, in fact the Ishikawa diagram (cause & effect diagram) encourages multiple lines of inquiry.
    I am somewhat familiar with the Apollo approach, and would say that there is much in common with the approach used in A3 problem solving.
    The branching of the so-called fishbone diagram represents pursuing various points of cause and possible root causes, using the 5 why process to dig deeper. Then experiments are used to test various countermeasures.
    A3 / PDCA is a great closed-loop system for problem solving but as with any system, the results depend on proper understanding and use.

  3. Brian Cocolicchio

    January 31, 2008 - 7:25 pm

    I like using the Kepner-Tregoe Problem analysis method to perform root cause analysis. Do you think it can be used as part of an A3 report?

  4. Ann Hamon

    July 31, 2021 - 10:33 am

    This process seem to look like it would work. I have heard of the Apollo but don’t know much about..

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