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:

  • A3 problem-solving framework and process for complex problems (often cross-functional)
  • “Simple” four-box framework and process for problems localized to one area
  • “Situation-Target-Proposal” framework and process for daily improvements 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 (PDCA) 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. Problem-Solving A3 process for complex problems

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 series of experiments conducted 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 – as show in the image here.

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. Other articles and be found under the tag “A3”.

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: Target, Actual, Gap, Causes, Experiment

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 (isn’t a “just do it”)
  • 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.

The simplicity of this process — and the tool shown here to support the process — is that it focuses on the basics of problem solving:

  • Define the problem: What is the target? What is actually happening? The gap is your problem to solve.
  • Identify possible causes: Investigate what is going on through going to see and using data.
  • Choose which cause to address first:What cause is having the biggest impact on the problem?
  • Conduct experiments: Use quick experiments to learn what is working or not working to address the problem.

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. The problem to solve is the gap between the target and what is actually happening.

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. Conducting basic causal analysis (through data collection and observation)
  3. Ranking of the causes in order of significance or contribution to the gap/problem
  4. Putting a plan in place to address root causes, test, and learn – this is the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) cycle.

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 outlined by the tool, 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, the manager’s role is to set or clarify the target for the group, and then to support their team to work through the problem-solving process.

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, when I was the Director of the Lean Promotion Office 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, clarify the target of what should be happening, and ask their staff to help take ownership of collecting data and thinking about root causes and possible countermeasures.

The team 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, as well ask ask how he or she could support the team’s next steps.

Target-Actual-Gap-Please Explain

To support both problem solving and people development, would ask questions such as “What is the target? What is actually happening? What is your thinking for the reason behind the gap (the problem). Please explain”.

This refrain — “Target. Actual. Gap.” — is now engrained in my head whenever I think through a problem or support others in problem solving and is trigger to ask open-ended questions around all three to support deeper thinking.

Make Thinking Visible

Another benefit of this problem solving tool and process 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 / simple problem-solving 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 for a more complex 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, and that A3s were better used for cross-functional problems.

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” or continuous improvement 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.

Leading to Learn

Learn to be a more intentional, people-centered leader in just 10 weeks, and build a meaningful legacy.

Be part of my chain of learning

If you enjoyed this post and want to continue your learning journey with me, sign up for my periodic newsletter below where you’ll be the first to know about new articles on leadership, coaching, and continuous improvement, more author interviews and giveaways, and other opportunities to deepen your learning.

If you are already a subscriber, thank you!

Get The Latest Updates

Join my "Chain of Learning"!

Register below to sign up for my newsletter and be the first to know about new insights and inspiration to help you become the leader you always knew you could be.

I can’t wait to have you in this leading, learning, and caring world.

Related Posts


Share on linkedin
Share on facebook
Share on twitter