Problem Solving with A3 Thinking

There is a difference between “doing” Lean and “becoming” Lean. While organizations often start by “doing” Lean (a kaizen event or two, some quality circles, a little standard work here and there), an organization only reaps the full benefits of employee engagement and customer satisfaction by “becoming” Lean.

An organization becomes Lean is when its people change the way that they identify, articulate, and solve problems. A Lean organization and a non-Lean organization tend to look at problems differently:

Lean thinking


Non-Lean thinking

Observe and study the problem


Hear about the problem
Ask: what can I learn from the problem?


Ignore the problem, or

Quick, stop the problem!!!

Analyze the root-cause


Rush to solutions
Apply one countermeasure at a time & PDCA


Apply many solutions at once

When encountering a problem, we need to model Lean thinking and behavior. We can start by conditioning ourselves to slow down our thinking, ask good questions that lead us to the root cause, and resist the urge to jump to solutions.

There are five steps to Toyota’s method of problem-solving:

  1. Pick up the problem (problem statement)
  2. Grasp the situation (go see)
  3. Investigate the causes (go see)
  4. Develop and test a countermeasure
  5. Follow up PDCA

Problem Statement Process

Toyota routinely uses A3 reports, a single sheet of A3-sized paper (11×17) that succinctly defines the problem, the root-cause analysis, the corrective actions or countermeasures to be implemented, and the action plan for implementation. While formal A3 reports are particularly useful for complex problems, they can be daunting to use for everyday problems. It is more important to develop the thinking behind the A3 than to master the A3 report.

Like any problem-solving activity, an A3 first requires a problem statement. Let’s use a fictional example from a neighborhood coffee shop: “from January through June 2012 in our flagship store, baristas are taking three minutes to produce a latte. Our target is 90 seconds.” Our problem statement tells us the current condition is that it is taking 180 seconds to make a latte and that the target condition is 90 seconds. The gap, then, is 90 seconds. How can we improve?

Figure 1 shows a modified A3 template (download modified A3 template) that is approachable and still develops the problem-solving rigor that has made Lean organizations so successful. This A3 tool helps us to follow our five step process and to take the problem discussion from vague to focused.

Figure 1: Modified A-3 Template

Modified A-3 Template

It is important to only undertake one or two countermeasures and quickly PDCA them before changing anything else. It is only through this iterative cycle of problem identification, root-cause analysis, and countermeasure experimentation that we all develop the lean thinking muscles necessary to transform our culture.

Next time you are faced with a problem, give A3 thinking a try. Challenge yourself to identify a problem statement, describe the current condition, the target condition, and the gap. Then use the modified A3 template to work through the problem and experiment with countermeasures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s