A3 Problem Solving


A defining element of Lean transformation is the aspect of continuous improvement – all areas of the business, every day, seeking ways to make things better, easier, less frustrating, more effective. Essentially, this improvement is achieved through solving problems; continuous improvement consequently means continuously solving problems…reflecting on this, if we want to be good at continuous improvement we better get good at this problem solving stuff!

Lest you get worn down by the prospect of needing to solve all these problems consider the Toyota perspective – they “celebrate” problems; indeed they have a saying that “Problems are Jewels”!  What they observe is that they need to continuously identify problems to show them the way forward.  When you stop fixing problems you are not improving, you’re standing still…and that’s not a good place to be. Another good Toyota quote: “No problem is problem”.  A boss I had some years back used to describe the “orchards of opportunity” that surrounded us…he clearly would appreciate Toyota’s perception of problems as “jewels”. If we’re to embrace continuous improvement we could do worse than to start with that outlook.

So how do we get good at tackling these problems? To assist, there are a myriad of models, frameworks, methodologies and approaches about, with different emphases and strengths – PDCA, Kepner-Tregoe, GROW, DMAIC, Triz, 8 step, 7 step (and I’ll bet there’s a 6 step). Some businesses even develop their own ways of looking at problems. Whatever you use, one thing’s for sure – it helps to have a structured approach – this is more efficient, aids clarity and consistency, provides a vocabulary for collaborating on problems and is likely to yield a more effective and richer outcome.

Complementing these methods, a different frontier on problem solving was opened for me many years ago with Rother & Shook’s book “Learning to see”(1999) describing the A3 thinking process which originated in Toyota. This method of working completely through a problem on one A3 size sheet seems deceptively simple, but put into practice can be a game changer. While at the surface it deals with the problem at hand, a very significant emphasis on the process and thinking behind the problem solving activity is added.

A typical A3 structure is illustrated in the graphic above.

It’s only a page – what could be simpler? One of the trains of thought behind the A3 is that precisely because you are limited to just one page, it demands you refine down to just the information that describes the essence of the problem. You also have to use data rather than description, summary of conclusions as opposed to background information, pictures rather than words. There’s an element of “if you can’t get the information onto one page, you’ve a surplus of information” and you need to develop your thinking further to get to the real heart of the matter.  This then begins to reveal your thinking about the situation as opposed to just providing data on the problem. The problem solver finds himself refining his thinking about the problem and clarifying how he needs to work through it; in this way it assists the development of problem solving skills.

While an in-depth study of A3 is not possible in this piece here are 4 key steps I use to coach A3 problem solvers. Using these as reference points encourages A3 owners to practice thinking clearly about problems and the process for addressing them.

1.The “Pain”

With any good problem solving approach you need to start with a forensic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve or opportunity you’re trying to realise. This should be understood at the level of “Pain” i.e. “What pain to the business will this work alleviate”.  You should ideally be able to write this down in one sentence, if you can’t you may not be clear enough on the problem. The sentence should contain “pain words” eg “downtime”, “rejects”, “defects”, “absenteeism”, “cost”, “time on hold” “attrition”, “scrap”, yield loss”, “late delivery” etc.,. When you’ve figured this out you can complete the first box of the A3.

2. “The Gap”

When you’re crystal clear on the “pain”, the focus is then on establishing the “gap” i.e the difference between the Current Condition (where things stand today)of that pain, and the Target Condition (where you need to get to). Current condition may include performance measures & process description including issues. The target condition describes the destination – again measures and process condition. The gap is what you need to understand, articulate and address – you now begin to expose the issues and obstacles that you need to address.  If you’ve completed the Current and Target condition boxes of the A3 adequately, the “Gap” should jump off the page at you.

3. “The Root Cause”

Once you’ve clarified the “Gap” above the emphasis is on establishing the “root causes”. These root causes now relate specifically and exclusively to the Gap you have established above. With any good problem solving approach, identifying and addressing the root cause is the difference between mere fire-fighting and real problem solving and so is at the heart of A3 progression. You use here whatever data analysis, fishbone, brainstorm or other root causing methods that suit, but the A3 “Analyse box is just interested in the conclusion of all this analysis – “what root causes of the gap have you uncovered? Will addressing these root causes eliminate the “gap”?”. When you’re confident the answers to this are in the positive, fill in the Analyse Box.

4. “The Countermeasures”

At the outset we tend to worry most about solutions, actions or countermeasures (what will we do?!!!) …actually, if you’ve followed the above steps you’ll find that the countermeasures tend to “jump into your lap”.  The choices are usually limited and often obvious. Each root cause will demand and suggest a set of countermeasures. These are the activities that will address “the Root Cause”, which will close “the Gap”, which will eliminate “the Pain”.  Each step is consequent on the previous one - keeping these 4 tightly linked will really assist in clearly thinking your way through an A3.

The process leads not only to a problem being solved but develops the thinking and skills of the problem solver. When we need to continuously improve and solve problems this is invaluable and helps explain why A3 as an approach is spreading so rapidly in the world of problem solving. If you haven’t tried this approach I really can’t recommend it highly enough – hopefully it will help you find some “jewels”!


Eddie is a Lean and Six Sigma Practitioner, Coach, and leader in the provision of Lean and Continuous improvement training & education with LBS Partners. LBS Partners is a provider to ManagementWorks on our Lean Business programme.