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A3 Problem Solving | Introduction…

A3 is a Lean Problem Solving methodology. The A3 deploys a structured approach to define the problem, understand the current condition and root causes of the problem before proposing and prioritising actions for implementation – crucially the activity is followed up to ascertain what improvement is made. In this sense it is similar to the DMAIC approach of Six-Sigma but relies less on the statistical approach that DMAIC deploys.

The term A3 simple refers to the fact that it tells the ‘story’ of the problem and its elimination on a single A3 sized sheet of paper. The intention is to be succinct and develop the ‘story’ in such a way that anybody can understand, you shouldn’t need to be an expert in the process being examined. To aid this approach it is encouraged that the A3 is supported by visuals.

As with most problem solving approaches the A3 should be completed as a group exercise and if necessary call on expert resources as you transition from step to step.

An A3 requires users to “go to the Gemba” (the place where the work actually happens) to see and understand problems first hand and provides a structure to ask good questions.

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Tip!

Be visual. The A3 should be easy to understand even by those who do not know the process. The visual nature of graphs, process maps and control charts will help to tell the story. Those with more visuals are also more engaging for the team and make the information easier to digest.

The A3 Steps

A3 Step 1Background

The Background is the first step of the A3 Problem Solving methodology. We must ensure we are clear on what problem we are looking to solve. To achieve this there are two key purposes of this section:

  1. Define the problem area – through a Problem Statement
  2. Define the scope (product/service, organisation, teams) – and if necessary what is not in scope

This should give the audience a clear view as to why we are talking about this issue, why it is important and what the high level voice of the customer (VoC) and Voice of the business (VoB) is.

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A3 Background questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is the problem we are looking to solve in-line with the organisations strategic objectives?
    1. If no, then there is no rationale to undertake the improvement
  2. Does this project represent a priority area for the business?
    1. If no, then should you be doing it? or should you be doing it now?
  3. Is the A3 the right methodology to use?
    1. If the solution is clear and obvious (genuinely clear and obvious) then the A3 is not the right tool.

A3 Step 2 – Current Condition

The Current Condition is all about understanding where we are today. One of our favourite sayings is “if we don’t know where we are, we can’t know we we’ve got to get to”. To get us to this point we do the following:

  1. Understand in detail the Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Business
  2. Map the processes, procedures, systems and resources
  3. Define measures and collect data

On completing the above we will know where we are – the size of the problem – supported by data and we will have a baseline to measure ourselves against later on. The measures which the improvement will be based upon.

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A3 Current Condition questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is the current condition clearly defined?
  2. Could the current condition be understood by those who do not understand the process?
  3. Is the actual problem clear within the current condition?
  4. Is the current condition based on facts and data rather than opinions and hearsay?
  5. Has sufficient data been collected to baseline the current performance?
  6. Has the data been quality checked for errors and bias?
  7. Have you been to ‘Gemba’ (the workplace) to see what is really happening?

A3 Step 3 – Goal

The Goal step of the A3 is about defining where we want to get to. We need to ensure the Goal we set is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound – so the goal is SMART.  The Goal is critical to guiding our actions and having an ambition to get behind, it is more than just a statement. We consider the following for our Goal:

  1. What does the project aim to achieve? What is the target?
    1. We need to be stretching and aspirational whilst also grounded in reality
  2. What is the change that needs to occur?
  3. Make these objectives SMART

Now that we have our Goal we can be focused on delivering the improvement to achieve it.

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A3 Goal questions to ask yourself:

  1. First and foremost is the goal SMART?

Then beyond SMART requirements focus on:

  1. Is the goal statement/targets clearly aligned to the problem, and the current condition?
  2. How will this goal be measured or evaluated?

A3 Step 4 – Root-Cause Analysis

The Root-Cause Analysis step of the A3 is critical to ensure we solve the actual problem. This is a step that is often skipped in many business improvements or indeed operationally led improvements. Resist the temptation to jump this step or you my well find that your improvement project puts a plaster over the problem. In this step we:

  1. Brainstorm what could be the cause of the problem
  2. Identify the real issues causing the problem to occur. This is verified through data
  3. Identify the waste
  4. Demonstrate the cause and effect

Now that we have understood the root-causes of the problem we are able to prepare for their elimination.

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A3 Root-Cause Analysis questions to ask yourself:

  1. Have you visited the workplace where the process is being carried out?
  2. Is the analysis:
    1. Detailed enough?
    2. Does it probe deeply enough?
    3. Is it proven by data?
  3. Is the cause and effect identified (not just coincidental)?
  4. Are all the relevant factors considered (Man/Woman, machine, material, method, mother-nature, measurement, etc)?
  5. Is there consensus on the root causes?

A3 Step 5 – Proposed Countermeasures 

The Proposed Countermeasures step of the A3 ensures we identify and then select the optimum solutions, for tackling our root causes of the problem. Optimum not maximum as it ensures we consider prioritisation of benefit and effort. In order to achieve this we:

  1. Brainstorm and generate solutions to tackle the root causes identified earlier that will deliver against the goal
  2. Identify improvement opportunities – whatever they may be – elimination, automation, reduction, efficiency etc
  3. Prioritise potential solutions based on set criteria
  4. Agree on solutions to implement (including tracking and control measures).

This will give us a clear set of deliverables that we can focus in on, safe in the knowledge their deployment will support delivery of our goal (s).

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A3 Proposed Counter Measures questions to ask yourself:

  1. Has robust identification of solutions been undertaken?
  2. Are there different ways of getting the job completed?
  3. Are the countermeasures aligned to the root cause analysis? And are the countermeasures focused on the right items?
  4. Will these action items prevent recurrence of the problem?
  5. Have the countermeasures been robustly prioritised. Have other people had an input on the prioritisation?
  6. How will the countermeasures be measured as delivering results?

A3 Step 6 – Plan

In A3 Step 6 – the plan, we get down to the ‘nittty gritty’ of planning out the actions to deliver. We step out who, where, when and we get on with implementing the changes. We do this by: 

  1. Agreeing the activities required for implementation/pilot
  2. Creating a plan for delivery
  3. Checking the plan for ‘do-ability’ – how realistic is the plan (whilst maintaining challenge)
  4. We manage against that plan and hold ourselves and others to account
  5. We track and report on progress
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A3 Plan questions to ask yourself:

  1. Has a plan been defined?
    1. What’s going to be done?
    2. When is it going to be done by?
    3. Who is going to do it?
  2. Is the plan both realistic and challenging enough to complete the project in the required timescales?
  3. Is a pilot required?
  4. Have you been assigned the necessary resources to complete? – Financial, People, Process?
  5. Are clear roles and responsibilities assigned? see also RA(S)CI
  6. Are all stakeholders aligned to delivery of the plan? And has the plan been communicated?
  7. Are there any internal governance items you need to go through to deliver?
  8. Is the plan synchronised with other events or change activities?

A3 Step 7 Follow-up

The 7th and final step of an A3 is the Follow-up. Effectively we check to see how the A3 change has performed. We do this by:

  1. Reviewing the performance measures we laid out earlier on (we check against the current condition)
  2. Initiating any actions that may be required to get back om track
  3. Recording and confirming the delivery the A3 has achieved
  4. Signing off against the delivery for benefits realisation
  5. Recording our lessons learned

This stage concludes our approach with the A3. Though if we have not achieved the required goal we may need to restart the cycle.

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A3 Follow-up questions to ask yourself:

  1. Has actual performance moved in line with the goal statement?
    1. Are the benefits being accurately recorded and ‘cashed’ appropriately?
  2. Is anything else necessary to prevent recurrence of the problem?
  3. Who else needs to be communicated to on the result?
  4. How will you ensure sustainability?
  5. Has the project been signed off by stakeholders?
  6. Are there any outstanding items to be completed?
    1. Does anything need to be handed over to business as usual (BAU)?
  7. Does another A3 cycle need to be undertaken? (perhaps the goal has not quite been achieved, if your goal is stretching enough this will happen from time to time. Do not fret, repeat the exercise and fine-tune your response to the problem. Be sure to take on board the learning from the initial A3)
  8. What would you do differently next time?
    1. Success or failure be sure to gather lessons learned for future projects

Tools and Techniques by A3 Problem Solving Steps

Below is a guide to the Lean Tools and Techniques which apply to each of the A3 Problem Solving Steps:

A3 Problem Solving Step 1 | Background

  1. SIPOC
  2. Stakeholder Management
  3. Developing a Problem Statement
  4. High Level Voice of the Customer / Voice of the Business

A3 Problem Solving Step 2 | Current Condition

  1. Detailed Voice of the Customer / Voice of the Business
  2. Critical to Quality
  3. The 8 Wastes
  4. Process Capture
  5. Process Measurement – Statistical Process Control (SPC)
  6. Routing by Walking About (RBWA)
  7. Data Collection and Sampling
  8. Value Stream Mapping – The Current State
  9. Graphical Analysis
    1. Pareto
    2. Histograms
A3 Problem Solving Step 3 | Goal

  1. SMART Goals
A3 Problem Solving Step 4 | Root-Cause Analysis

  1. Root Cause Analysis
  2. Pareto
  3. The 5 Why’s
  4. Fishbone Diagram (Cause and Effect)
  5. Brainstorming
  6. Affinity Diagrams
  7. Statistical Measurements
  8. Graphical Analysis
    1. Pareto
    2. Histograms
    3. Box Plots
    4. Line Graphs
A3 Problem Solving Step 5 | Proposed Countermeasures

  1. Idea Generation
    1. Brainstorming
  2. Prioritisation
  3. Pugh Matrix
  4. Value Stream Mapping – The Future State
A3 Problem Solving Step 6 | Plan

  1. PDCA (Plan Do Check Act)
  2. Process Change
  3. Piloting Changes
  4. Mistake Proofing
  5. Pilot to roll-out
A3 Problem Solving Step 7 | Follow-up

  1. Statistical Process Control (SPC)
  2. Standard Work
  3. Process Confirmation
  4. Benefits Management
  5. 5s

A3 Problem Solving FAQ’S

What is PDCA?

Lean problem solving is based on PDCA. PDCA stands for:

  1. Plan
  2. Do
  3. Check
  4. Act

PDCA follows a structured methodology. The cycle is sequential to ensure we form a hypothesis for the problem, gather data, analyse the data and experiment and check the outcomes – rather than just jumping to well intended but ill thought out solutions. PDCA is not a one-off excercise rather a cycle which is repeated to drive continuous improvement.

What are the 5 Why's?

The 5 Why’s is a very simple concept, but actually takes a fair bit of practice and coaching to perfect. As a consequence few implement in the way it was meant to be deployed.

The 5 Why’s acts like an interrogation line of enquiry – as a young child does when learning something new asking why over and over again.

5 Why’s starts by asking why did the problem occur and then follows up with subsequent why’s until the root cause is identified (preferably supported by data)

5 is the suggested number if it takes 4 or 7 then that is also ok! the point is to get to the root cause.

Can i just jump to the solution(s)?

NO! – that defeats the object of the A3 problem solving methodology.

It is important to follow the A3 problem solving methodology step by step and not be tempted to jump through the steps. Doing so could lead to the incorrect solutions or worse still the wrong problem being tackled!

Overall, its the process and thinking which is important not the format!

The full | Lean A-Z Glossary

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