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A3 problem solving originated with Toyota, where it is used to formulate ways of solving problems the company is currently facing.
The A3 Problem Solving Model: The Key to Toyota’s Success?
“A3” refers to the standard paper size used internationally, much like an 8.5 x 11 inch paper you find here in the States. This procedure’s forms could fit on an A3-sized form and be filled out for later use. Similar methods were popular in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly at Johnson Controls and Ford. It is also gaining ground in the healthcare industry, where saving time can mean saving lives alongside cutting costs. A3 problem solving could be called the business version of the scientific method and can assist your business in coming up resolving issues much more quickly. A3 problem solving is essentially Toyota’s spin on Plan-Do-Check-Act and is primarily concerned with solving many problems quickly and easily before they rage out of control.
The ten steps of A3 problem solving are as follows:
1. Identify a problem or need
2. Research the issue for a better understanding
3. Identify the root cause
4. Develop air-tight countermeasures to remedy these root causes
5. Develop a clear target state
6. Create a plan for implementation
7. Create a follow-up plan with predicted outcomes
8. Discuss your plans with all involved parties
9. Obtain approval to implement your plan, then implement it
10. Assess the results and repeat the process if necessary
Steps 2-7 were normally what was recorded on the A3-sized form, which you can see an example of online. It has the dual benefit of recording an entire series of events from start to finish, making it easier to track what actions were taken to address what problem, why these actions were taken, if the person responsible had permission to implement a procedure and how that procedure was implemented. Since the name of the person responsible was always written on one of these reports, you also knew who was responsible if a failed plan of action caused any significant losses. Below we will briefly go over what each step means in greater detail.
A3 problem solving forces you to learn to take some cues from your employees and customers alike when identifying potential issues. Paying them some attention can tip you off to issues you may not have known about otherwise. It is also helpful to prioritize issues, regardless of size, so that the major issues get taken care of before they spawn even more problems. As you learn new information, also be sure to ask questions about it. Why did John do this? Why did that customer get so upset? Why is this report late? If the issue is a small one, you may be able to solve it in one easy step. Otherwise, these two practices will help set you on the path to figuring out if any hidden issues are holding things up unnecessarily.
Once you know you need something or must clear up an issue, the next step according to the A3 problem solving method is to look into how to do so. If you do not know something, ask someone who does. If the issue involves a certain department, get input from that department’s staff and work with them to find a solution. If there’s a dispute, listen to both sides of the story before coming up with a solution and above all, keep calm even if the problem at hand seems like a big one. Panicking or losing your temper will only make the problem worse and may make the issue unsolvable, at least for you. By gathering information and getting input from the involved parties, you will obtain clues regarding what the underlying cause is, as well as how to resolve it.
Researching the issue should grant some insight into figuring out a root cause and doing something about it. Make a list of the main problems if there are more than one, then try to determine why these problems exist. Asking why will spawn more questions that will need answering and that’s perfectly normal. Some practitioners of A3 problem solving believe that if you haven’t asked why something is at least five times during a series of queries, you likely have not uncovered the root cause just yet. Do not stop your investigation until you are satisfied that you have a firm grasp of the problem and what is causing it. This will ensure the plan you form will fully address what needs to be fixed and the more information you have, the higher chance you have of coming to a conclusion that works best for everyone involved.
Once you uncover the root cause, you then need to come up with ways to deal with this problem, as well as figure out how to keep it from ever happening again. Countermeasures should help the overall process conform to three rules in order to be effective:
11. Establish the outcome, content, sequence and task of a work activity
12. Create clear and direct connections between product or service suppliers and consumers
13. Eliminate exploits or workarounds of any kind
Create a list of potential issues with the solutions you have in mind, then come up with ways you can make your solutions adhere to these three rules. It may not be possible to conform to all of the rules perfectly, but you should try to make the process come as close as possible to fitting all three rules. This ensures that you will not need to keep investigating the same problem repeatedly, thereby wasting time and money. The more your countermeasures account for, the more prepared you will be to deal with the problem quickly if it shows up in the same or another department. If you have at least some kind of action plan in place, you can lessen or prevent the negative effects before they occur.
The target state described in A3 problem solving is when the countermeasures you have devised to address one or several root causes create new ways of getting work done. Target conditions describe how the work will get done with your countermeasures in place. Normally this is illustrated with a diagram showing how the new process will work, even if it consists of a group of stick figures performing different tasks. Countermeasures should be listed and the expected improvement should be expressed quantitatively and in detail, keeping everyone on the team in mind. Do your best to make your diagram easy to read and comprehend quickly, and across multiple skill levels. If you have any access to some kind of mind mapping software, this may provide assistance in creating your diagram.
Based on the information you have gathered up to this point, it’s time to start solving it and in a timely manner. Make a sheet detailing who is doing what, when they need to finish doing it and what should happen as a result. Depending on the issue the plan will address, you can also include additional details such as how much it will cost to perform a certain task or how to perform the task if it is complex in nature. This may be effective for keeping the seven wastes to a minimum as well. Keep all what you have learned during your research in mind as you formulate your plan and do your best to come up with a solution that works well for everyone. If that isn’t possible, come up with a solution that causes the least harm. Everyone involved will appreciate the extra effort.
Do not expect the problem to be solved just because you came up with a plan for solving it, no matter how foolproof it may seem to you. Cover your bases and make a follow-up plan to ensure you truly did understand the problem fully, that the plan was carried out at all and that it achieved the desired outcome. This is the single most important step in A3 problem solving and what sets it apart from other business models. In the example of a delivery company, a follow-up plan would include determining how long and in what condition packages arrived with the study covering, for example, a quarter. If deliveries are up but the condition was unsatisfactory, this would be an area you would need to address immediately. A follow-up plan can save both you and the company a lot of time and money that would have been wasted re-investigating the same issue again.
Inform everyone involved with the issue what your plan involves, how you formulated your plan and why you feel it was the best course of action to take. Don’t just tune out anyone who disagrees with you, either. Your detractors, if any, may point out something you did not consider when you formed your plan and provide insight on improvements you may need to make. This is another key point of A3 problem solving and is vital to the success of both your plan and the process as a whole. Some practitioners go as far as performing this step once before each of the previous steps to ensure they have everyone’s input throughout the entire process.
Always get approval from your superiors before doing anything, especially if it will implement major changes. Make sure your higher-ups are satisfied that you have studied the problem thoroughly and that they accept your solution. Never try to put something into motion on your own. It can have an impact on many people, even if it seems small, and it can get you fired in no time if something goes horribly wrong. Performing this one simple step, especially if you are not a manager, may mean the difference between keeping your job and being fired. Once you have the go-ahead, get the ball rolling and see what happens.
Follow up with those who were involved with the initial problem and make sure everything is as it should be. Was the problem solved? Is everyone satisfied now that changes have taken effect? Is there anything else that needs to be done before you move on to another issue? If not, the process starts over again with research into why the plan failed or was not sufficient to fix the problem. This is also true if the actual results are not what you expected, whether they were better or worse than your predictions. Even if things turned out better than you anticipated, it couldn’t hurt to know why it went over so well. You can use this knowledge and apply it to any similar issues that arise later.
Through its focus on collaboration and relentless efforts to improve itself, Toyota has risen to the top of the automotive industry and its methods should be examined at the very least. A3 problem solving is an invaluable tool for both beginning and existing businesses alike to help them identify and solve problems quickly, efficiently and with an optimal outcome. Toyota is famous for its “story-based” report formats, all of which fit on an A3-sized paper, and some of these reports include the A3 problem solving covered here, for planning and updating projects and for proposing changes to policies. This takes advantage of the fact that people are better able to recall a story than a set of facts and enhances readability at the same time. If you feel you need to change up the way your company approaches problems, the A3 problem solving method is a solid choice that is quick and easy to implement.