A3 thinking is a lean based, structured approach to problem solving with seven distinct stages: problem statement, current state, future goal, root cause, immediate solution, long term solution and action plan.Summary by The World of Work Project
The A3 Thinking problem solving process
There are many different approaches to problem solving, but the A3 thinking approach, which was developed by Toyota, is one of the most helpful.
This seven step model is designed to ensure you focus first on fully understanding the wider situation, where you would like to end up, and the root-causes of your problem before thinking about solutions.
The belief underlying the model is that it is much better to address the real root-cause of the problem than to try and overcome it in any other way. To help make sure you do this, the model is divided into two halves, the first (stages 1-4) focuses on developing understanding, and the second (stages 5-7) focuses on developing a solution.
It’s essential that you don’t jump to solutions when solving problems or working to address opportunities. Whenever you choose a solution too quickly, you close down a myriad of other options that could be far better. You also close down conversations about what the current situation is like and why things are the way they are. These conversations can broaden knowledge and be the base for much more informed and creative solutions. So in short, follow the steps in order and don’t jump to solutions!
The A3 Thinking model can be completed in one problem solving session of about 60-90 minutes when problems are simple. However, when they are complicated you may require two, three or even four sessions of that length to complete the process.
Stage 1: What is the problem? Why is it worth spending time on?
The purpose of this stage is to agree a problem statement. Often each person involved in problem solving starts with a different understanding of what the problem is.
In this stage you go around the attendees and ask each one to define the problem. Capture definitions as you go. Once everyone has spoken, pull the problem statements together until you have a single statement the room agrees on.
You may need to return to this stage several times as you progress through the A3 process.
Stage 2: What is the current state?
The purpose of this stage is to document the current state of the problem and the factors that influence it. You could document your discussions in this stage as a list of bullet points, through diagrams, through process flows, though paragraphs, or whatever you think best. Whatever approach you use, try and ensure a fairly comprehensive summary of the current situation.
Asking questions of the room can be hugely helpful in this section. Questions to consider could include: What happens next? Who’s involved? Where is it? When does it happen? Who inputs? How many failures are there? And whatever other questions you think will help draw out the what is happening in the current state.
Stage 3: Desired future state
Having captured an informed view of the current state of the problem, the next step is to capture an informed view of what a good future state would look like. This should be simple and high level. It could be just a sentence or two long. It’s important that the attendees are agreed on it, and that they feel it addresses the challenges raised in the problem statement.
It’s often advisable to re-validate your problem statement at this stage. In many situations, a deeper understanding of the current situation and the act of framing a future state leads participants to re-assess what the problem actually is.
Stage 4: Root cause analysis
Having understood what the problem is, what the current situation is and what would constitute a good future, it’s time to really dig into the problem and understand why it’s happening. This is the most important part of the A3 thinking process. Two tools most commonly used to support this process are the “5 Whys” and “Fishbone Analysis“.
Start the process by having all attendees silently brainstorm why the problem is happening. What do they think the root causes of the problem are. They should capture each root cause on a separate post it note. For each root case they think of, they should challenge it further through the 5 Whys approach (basically, just keep asking why).
Once all attendees have finished their silent brainstorming, the next stage is to discuss and thematically group all of the identified root causes. One attendee starts the process by reading out one of their root causes and placing it on a wall. The facilitator then asks if anyone else in the room has something similar. Once all the similar post its are placed, begin again with another person reading out a different root cause. The process continues until all root causes have been considered and grouped.
As this stage, the root causes are considered and their grouping assessed. If the room is happy with the grouping, the next activity is to give a name to each of the categories of root causes that have been created. These names might be as high level as “People” or “Systems”. We would expect there to be in the order of 4-8 high level groups of this nature. This grouping exercise can be captured in a “fish-bone template” (AKA Ishikawa template) for later reference.
Understanding and documenting the root causes of the problem is the last stage in the first half of the A3 Thinking problem solving process, the half that focuses on broadening understanding of the problem.
Once this has been completed and everyone has a better understanding of the problem, it’s time to move on to trying to find a solution.
Stage 5: Short term solution
The first step in looking for a solution focuses on solving any urgent issues. If the problem you are working on has resulted in critical operational issues, then you’ll need to develop a short term fix to manage them until you can implement a longer term solution. In many instances though, it’s possible to skip this stage and move directly to stage 6.
If you do need to focus on a short term solution then the participants in the room should work towards that now. Individuals should propose and discuss temporary measures to overcome the problem and the room should consider them to ensure they meet requirements. Their cost and difficulty should also be assessed before the room decides on which one to implement as a short term, immediate fix.
Stage 6: Long term solution
Even if you are implementing a short-term solution to your problem, it’s important to focus on and create a lasting, long-term solution to all problems.
Usually long term solutions will include a range of activities designed to permanently address the different root causes that have been identified. They will typically require a portfolio of activities to ensure that they are comprehensive and sustainable.
In this part of the conversation the participants in the room should propose and discuss longer term solutions. You may wish to ask the participants to think about each of the high level root-cause groups that have been identified. It may be your longer term solution is really a combination of solutions to those higher level root-causes.
Whatever process you adopt here, it’s important to compare your proposed solution or portfolio of solutions to your fish-bone diagram to ensure that the solution addresses all of the identified root causes (or at least enough of them that the problem no longer exists).
Stage 7: Action plan
The last part of the A3 process focuses on translating the solution into a step by step action plan. It’s only once you’ve broken the proposed solution down into the steps required to create it that you have a real pathway toward implementing it.
At this stage the participants should consider the various aspects of the proposed solution and determine the schedule of actions required to implement them. These actions should be sequenced, they should have due-dates assigned to them and each one should also have an owners assigned to it. In short, a project plan should be created to help govern the implementation of the proposed solution.
Implementing your plan
Once you’ve completed your plan it might feel like you’ve nearly solved your problem, but you’re only really at the starting line! The process of delivering on your action plan is hugely important to the actual addressing of your problem.
To ensure you actually implement your solution, you should assign an overall project manager. This may simply be a named person in your team. They should be responsible for ensuring that the individuals who were identified as action owners in stage 7 of the A3 thinking model progress their actions in line with their target dates. To further ensure that the solution is implemented, you should hold weekly problem solving meetings at which you reflect on progress.
One of the most important things to remember when looking to implement a solution like this is time. People need to have time set aside and free of other work to focus on their actions. If they don’t, then your problems won’t get solved.
The World of Work Project View
A huge amount of time and effort is spent ineffectively trying to solve problems within organizations. There are many different reasons for this, but one of the causes is that people don’t know how to solve problems well. This is something the A3 Thinking approach can help overcome.
Based on our experience, we think that this model is effective for a wide range of problems, provided it’s used well. To be used well it usually requires a dedicated facilitator, and it can be helpful if they are experienced.
It’s very possible though to over-complicate the approach to problem solving. While this model is great for use with more complex problems, there are many, simpler problems which should be solved without using it.
Sources and further reading
Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.
The contents of this post have been based on our own experience of delivering A3 Thinking programs in the world of work, but you can learn more about these approaches through the book: “Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor and Lead.“
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