When to “A3”? – 3 problem solving tools to match the complexity of your problem

Have you ever wondered: “Does every problem require an A3?”

I’ve been asked this question multiple times by different clients and readers of this blog over the past month and thought that you might have the same question too.

My short answer is no.

My longer answer is that you should match your problem solving process with the level of complexity of the problem at hand.

Three problem solving tools and processes

In this post, I share three different problem solving tools and approaches I’ve used in different organizations based on the level of complexity of the problem:

  • Problem solving A3 for complex problems
  • “Simple” four-box tool and process to support local problem solving
  • “Situation-target-proposal” process for daily kaizen and “just do-its”

Click here to get a copy of the the four-box problem solving tool described in more detail below!

All three tools and processes support the basic problem solving Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and serve the dual purposes of: 1) solving problems and 2) developing problem solving capability in others.

Words of caution: it’s not about the tools, but the processes

I write this post with a some words of caution. If your goal is to create an organization filled with problem solvers, remember that it’s not about the tool(s), but rather the thinking process, the coaching process that supports problem solving, and the learning process the comes out of it.

1. A3 problem solving

Problem solving A3 thinking flow (remember, the template is not what is is important!). Source: "Managing to Learn" by John Shook
Problem solving A3 thinking flow (remember, the template is not what is is important!). Source: “Managing to Learn” by John Shook

When to use a problem solving A3?

A3 problem solving supports root cause analysis and development of a plan to close the gaps between target and actual performance.

A3 problem solving reports are best served for problems that are complex, that cross organizational boundaries, or are ones that “we’ve been working on for years”.

A3s can be strategic in support of strategy deployment (hoshin kanri) or can be focused on a complex organizational problem.

More information

For those of you unfamiliar with what an A3 is, there are many great resources out there to learn about the technical and social aspects of problem solving using the A3 process.

I recommend John Shook’s book “Managing to Learn” as the best overview of the A3 learning and coaching process.

I have written a few blog posts related to A3 thinking including the important social element of A3 coaching such as asking effective questions to support problem solving thinking, and how A3 thinking can also be used to support personal improvement.

However, not every problem requires the level of complex root-cause analysis that a typical problem solving or strategic A3 entails.

Below are two other tools and processes that can be used for less complex problems.

2. Localized PDCA problem solving

You can get a PDF of this problem solving tool by clicking the link in the text to the left.
Click Here to get a PDF of this problem solving tool and users guide.

Using a simplified version of the problem solving A3 flow, such as “four-box” problem solving template on an A4 (letter) size paper, can be of benefit when:

  • a problem is isolated to one working group (in in the direct control of one area)
  • the root cause isn’t obvious
  • and a manager wants to start engaging front line employees problem solving.

I’ve heard different organizations call this “A4 problem solving”, “a simple A3” (even though it isn’t actually on A3 paper), or “four-box” problem solving.

Four-box A4 problem solving flow

This simple template can support problem solving at the frontline.
This simple 4-box template can support problem solving at the frontline.

Front line managers can use the four-box tool to coach their staff through the problem solving steps of:

  1. identifying a measurable gap in performance
  2. root cause analysis
  3. ranking of the root causes in order of significance
  4. putting a plan in place to address root causes, test, and learn

You can get a blank template of the simple four-box problem solving tool by clicking here!

I highlighted how this tool and process can be used in an earlier post about a talk I gave at a Lean conference last year: “Leading Daily Improvement: Creating New Habits and Practices to Support Continuous Improvement“.

Managers coaching front line employees how to solve problems

An important element of using this tool in support of developing problem solving capabilities in an organization is that once a manager learns the basic problem solving process, he or she should not be the one doing the actual problem solving (e.g. the one filling out the tool or collecting the actual data).

Instead, this is an opportunity for a manager to move into a coaching role and support the area staff in doing the thinking by asking effective questions that support their development of problem solving skills.

Real example managers coaching frontline problem solving

The 4-box tool is used at stand-up weekly meetings between a manager and staff to support local problem solving and capability development. It makes the area's thinking visible.
The 4-box tool is used at stand-up weekly meetings between a manager and staff to support local problem solving and capability development. It makes the area’s thinking visible.

For example, at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, we used this tool with great success as a way to teach front line managers how to develop problem solving skills in their staff – while simultaneously solving important organizational problems occurring in their areas.

Managers would choose a metric in which their area was under-performing and ask their staff to help take ownership of collecting data and thinking about root causes and possible countermeasures.

They would display the four-box problem solving tool at their local visibility boards. At weekly (or sometime more frequent) stand-up meetings, managers would ask their staff questions to support their problem solving process across the four boxes.

A benefit was at “gemba rounds” where senior leadership would come to check on the performance status of the area, managers and the staff now had a way to make visible their thinking about how they were closing the gap on important problems, and senior leadership had an opportunity to see how their managers were developing their coaching skills.

A3 versus A4 four-box process

Of course, a regular A3 problem solving process could also be used to address localized problems too, if the manager is the one leading the thinking process.

However, we found that if the goals was for the manager to engage his or her staff in the problem ownership, we found that a more simplified approach of the “four-box” A4 format was an easier way to introduce problem solving / PDCA thinking to the frontline.

3: Just do-its, daily improvement ideas and everyday kaizen

In contrast the the above tools, some problems are “just do its” – the root cause is known and a quick fix can be put into place.

Many times in organizations, people do not come forward with their ideas for small improvements. Using processes and tools to engage everyone, from the front-line to senior leaders, in addressing the small problems that they encounter every day is a fundamental part of creating a “kaizen” culture.

Employee suggestions

Many organizations choose to use employee suggestions or idea forms to address these types of problems. Employees put forward ideas for problems that can be solved with simple solutions, which are then reviewed by the manager and the team.

“Situation-Target-Proposal” tool

An example of what a Situation-Target-Proposal or employee suggestion from can look like.
An example of what a Situation-Target-Proposal or employee suggestion from can look like.

At Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University, where I worked for nearly six years, we used a form called “STP” (which stood for “situation, target, proposal”). It fit onto a A4 (letter) sized paper cut into quarters.

On the form, an employee describes:

  • the “situation” (what is currently happening)
  • the “target” (what should be happening)
  • and the “proposal” (their idea for how to move from current to target condition).

At stand-up meetings, the team, with oversight from leadership, then prioritizes the improvements and support needed to put the ideas into place.

Daily kaizen processes in Japan

12,000 ideas generated last year
12,000 ideas generated last year at Mirai Industries in Japan

The “STP” process is one that looks very similar to daily kaizen and employee suggestion processes that I saw in Lean thinking organizations in Japan over the past two years.

I’ve written about these approaches to daily kaizen in earlier posts, including:

Many of these organizations keep a running tab of the number of suggestions submitted (and implemented) per employee and rewarded that person at the end of the year. They saw this as a process to simulate friendly competition to incentivize (and reward) everyone to engage in daily kaizen.

Remember: It’s not about the tool, it’s about the thinking, the coaching, and the learning

All of the problem solving tools and formats I’ve described above can be of value when they support the development of individuals as problem solvers in the scope of their responsibility.

The actual tool and form is just a way to make visual the problem solving thinking, and a structure to support the rigor of the problem solving process required to deeply understand the problem at hand.

Match the tool with the complexity of the problem. And don’t forget, it’s about the coaching and learning that goes behind it.

The social aspect of coaching and developing problem solving thinking of others is the the real leverage deep thinking Lean organizations have developed.

What do you think?

What is your experience in supporting problem solving in your organization? Are there other tools or processes that you have found valuable? Please share your insights, questions and comments in the comments area below.

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 128 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

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  • Great post. I see too many people overcomplicating problem solving by force fitting everything into the full-blown A3 format. This creates bureaucracy and barriers to improvement, when that’s not the intent of the A3 process at all.

    Not everything requires root cause analysis.

    Improvement events, A3s, just do its… it should all be PDSA in mindset and practice.

    Our book “Healthcare Kaizen” is all about the daily Kaizen… essentially that STP process that’s so powerful and sadly ignored by too many health systems. http://hckaizen.com/

  • Also, Pascal Dennis (a former Toyota guy) teaches the four-box model and I’ve seen that be very effective healthcare. All three of these models are effective… the right method for the right type of problem. It’s also interesting that something that might start out with the STP model ends up being an A3 because it turns out simple JDIs didn’t really address the situation. The team didn’t “fail,” they just learned that they did need to search for a root cause in that situation.

  • Thanks for your comments Mark and for the link to your book as another resource for people to learn about daily kaizen!

    I too see the A3 process in practice becoming overly complicated in many organizations. It *is* inherently challenging to do root-cause problem solving on a complex problem, but sometimes organizations start putting too much bureaucracy and over-processing around the process (rigidity of the tool format, for example) that in many ways ends up defeating the original purpose.

  • Pascal teaches the best and most simple way of using A3 thinking to support strategy deployment that I know!

    And to your point, it is the process of starting to try to solve a problem that the actual complexity of the situation can be revealed. Getting started and doing the PDCA is what is most important.

    Thanks for your comments!

  • thulasidoss veerappan

    I feel that whatever the problem let the team chose the A3 PDCA thinking approach irrespective of complexity or size. If there are many templates given to employees , they may get into the discussion of what templates to use or whether we are using right template or not…etc, better the team spend energy on solving / thinking the problem in PDCA way instead of getting distracted.this is my experience to sustain lean in big organization.
    We can limit with templates in 3 categories as below;
    (1) A3 Problem solving
    (2) A3 Project tracking
    (3) A3 Business proposal

  • thulasidoss veerappan

    And another important point that lean is about having standards and improve from standard through CI, if there is freedom to customize(it is required to have team’s engagement) but finally the team needs to standardize one best method/format that could fuel CI ideas…

  • Thulasidoss – thank you for your comments. I agree with your comment that the team and individual should choose what problem solving tool / approach that best supports what they need in that moment.

    I’ve shared three possible tools that teams might choose to use to facilitate and support problem solving. However, as I caution, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the thinking. The most important point is to starting thinking and working towards solving the problem.

    As Mark Graban also points out below, sometimes a seeming simple problem might turn out to be much more complex. And conversely, sometimes we start out thinking a problem is complex only to realize that the root cause is quite obvious. The tool or format for making the thinking visible isn’t what is most important.

  • Yes, having a standard vocabulary and familiar format helps a team focus their brain power on solving the problem at hand, not trying to figure out what each person is saying. Just like any standard, it can be improved upon, but it is helpful to keep constant for a period of time. Thanks for reading and for your comments here (and below). – Katie

  • thulasidoss veerappan

    Ya Right Katie and another point that the tools to be successful and to be used as per the intent, the leadership coaching ties the knot here.

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  • Thanks to the Louisville Lean Coffee group for sharing the 4-box tool with its members and writing about their experience on their latest blog: https://louisvilleleancoffee.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/new-year-new-solutions/

    Here is an excerpt of what they shared:
    “A Lean Coffee attendee previously introduced and used a four box approach he found on Katie Anderson’s blog at his company. The template on Katie’s blog easily leads untrained employees through thinking about a process problem and how to solve it by asking four questions:

    What is the problem?
    What is causing the problem? (5 whys exercise to find root causes)
    Based on data, which root causes are most significant?
    What actions can address each root cause?

    What Lean Coffee liked about the tool is that it is easy for anyone to understand how to use (no lingo needed), implemented one new concept for untrained employees (5 whys), and it provided structure for how employees should solve problems at the company.

    One improvement suggested for this tool when using it to solve complex problems is to add a fifth box or element that links the four box to other four boxes. Doing so will give you the ability to create a map/tree of four boxes that will help leaders understand complex problems, all powered by employees following the simple process.”

    Keep up the experimentation!