A reader named Vimal from a processing company writes in this week with the following question:
Organizations encounter a number of problems of extremely different variety, importance and scale on a daily basis. However, addressing each of these problems using an A3 approach can be very challenging. How do we determine whether or not a problem demands an A3 approach to solving it?
This is a good question that we receive from time to time from readers and practitioners of A3 reports especially the problem solving variety. Here are two respective points of view from Prof. Durward Sobek and Art Smalley.
Thanks for your question. I would answer your question by saying that A3 thinking should underlie every problem addressed, but the formality and rigor of the problem-solving process will vary based upon the size and importance of the problem, and purpose of the problem-solving activity (for example, you may ask a novice to complete an A3 report on a problem that an experienced person could easily solve informally so that you can teach them good problem-solving approaches or how to effectively use A3 reports).
Clearly, using an A3 report to address every problem or decision would be stifling to say the least. So A3 reports are reserved for the stickier problems. However, I would advise you to not abandon A3 thinking under certain circumstances—that’s the thing you want to ingrain, and that has demonstrated effectiveness across a wide range of problems.
Hope this helps!
Durward K. Sobek II, Ph.D.
Professor and Program Coordinator of Industrial Engineering
Dept. of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering
Montana State University
I receive this question from a lot of curious readers as well and it is a good one. I concur with Prof. Sobek and often explain it this way to my clients. There are easy, medium, and difficult problems in our organizations. The A3 thinking process is universal but we can’t always write a report for each and every problem. There are simply not enough hours in the day and the return on effort is not warranted.
Easy problems can often be solved by observation alone and “5 Why” type of thinking out loud or with a small group. For example oil leaked from a cylinder…the seal was worn. We replaced the seal, inspected other similar units, and adjusted our PM interval or something like that.These might be nice but probably are not going to get into an A3 report all the time.
Medium problems require some structure and tools to solve them. Just observation alone generally does not do the trick and data collection, testing, etc. is in order. Often these are great candidates for A3 reports as you will need to work on the problem for some extended period of time and need to communicate with others as you progress. A3 type reports make a lot of sense in these cases.
Hard cases are often very good for A3’s as well. I am referring to those nagging problems that are chronic or sporadic and require a lot of work and effort to resolve. Communication and methodical attack are paramount on these so something like an A3 is very useful to guide thinking and remember where we are in the process. Of course various attachments to a single page A3 are likely generated in this case. A physics researcher I know just wrote a 57 page problem solving report for a journal. He lamented that few people in his own organization would ever read it though. After seeing an A3 he summarized the contents into a single page A3 type of report and distributed that internally for communication.
Alternatively in more general terms I like to see an A3 written for variety of reasons. Is the situation difficult enough to warrant using an A3 to provide structure? Will there be on-going discussion for some time so the report has communication value? Will a person be well served in terms of development by drafting an A3? Is there a good reason to document and capture the knowledge in some fashion?