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Effective Problem Solving

one way to fix a problem

Don’t bring me solutions, bring me problems!

There are many ways to solve a problem and many times in which the same problem recur. There are also different kinds of problems and certainly different ideas on how to fix these. Some people have one standard way of approaching a problem, almost regardless of what the actual problem is. Other people dive straight into solutions, oblivious of the surrounding elements and conditions that might have caused the issue in the first place and finally, other people just do nothing and hope that the problem eventually fixes itself.

These are all ways of dealing with problems; however as a manager you are now faced with more and probably more complex problems and applying a standard method, shooting solutions and running away or play dead are not very effective ways of fixing these.
You also want to fix the problem in the short-term but you certainly want to create the conditions that will prevent the same problem from occurring again.

While there is not one single solution that fits all situations, there is however a proven approach that can be applied to effectively solve problems.

A3 Problem Solving

A3 Problem Solving Template

A3 is a structured problem solving approach first developed at Toyota. It’s called A3 because of the ISO A3 single sheet paper used to lay-out the problem and all additional information and actions related to identifying, analyzing, fixing the problem and validating the solution.

An A3 guides a person or group of people through a series of logical steps that will ensure a common understanding of the issue determining all subsequent actions until the problem is solved. The paragraphs that comprise an A3 may vary a little as this approach has been widely adopted over the years by several businesses and institutions; however the core structure of an A3 always contains the same fundamental elements.

Background

What is the context surrounding the issue? What background information is necessary for everyone involved to fully understand the situation? The answer to these questions will ensure a common understanding of the situation and align everyone involved in fixing the problem.

Issue

What is the actual issue and why is this an issue? Not only you should be able to describe the issue in a short factual sentence, but you should also be able to articulate why this is an issue in the first place? Why does this particular situation need to be addressed and what would be the consequences of not addressing it?

Next to creating a common understanding of the problem, the answer to these questions also creates the necessary sense of urgency. Rather than expressing emotions over a perceived issue and present an anecdotal case, at this point you want to be as clear and as factual as possible. Use numbers, graphs and facts to describe the issue.

Goal

What do you want to achieve? How would you know that the problem has been fixed?
Targets need to be expressed in identifiable terms and need to be specific and measurable.

Root-Cause Analysis

This is a crucial element in ensuring that a problem will not recur. As long as you work on the symptoms and not what is causing the issue then you have not effectively solved the issue but merely addressed the consequences and found, at best, a workaround but not a solution.

Use the simplest problem analysis tool to identify the root-cause of the issue but ensure that you are in fact dealing with the root-cause.
There are several methods to be used and the simplest of all is probably the 5-Whys method. This is an iterative interrogative technique that explores cause-and-effect underlying a specific issue.

Five iterations of asking why a problem is occurring is generally sufficient to determine the root-cause of a problem, hence the name of 5-Whys method, however, it can take six or seven or more iterations depending on the situation. Again, just ensure that you have identified the root-cause.

A study on the lighting of the Jefferson Memorial has become a classic example that illustrates the 5-Whys method:

Problem – the stone surface of the Jefferson Memorial was deteriorating.

  1. Why was the stone surface of the Memorial deteriorating? It was frequently washed with harsh cleaning agents
  1. Why was it frequently washed with harsh cleaning agents? The amount of bird poop on the stone surface required frequent cleaning with soap that proved to be the most effective
  1. Why was there so much bird poop? There were a lot of birds, attracted to the insects at the Memorial
  1. Why were there so many insects at the Memorial? Insects are attracted to the bright lights
  1. Why are the insects more attracted to the lights at the Memorial than other light sources? The Jefferson Memorial’s lights were turned on first each evening so all the insects in the area headed there at dusk
    Root-Cause identified

Lights at the Jefferson Memorial were then turned on at the same time as all the other lights in the surrounding area and the problem never recurred. The issue was effectively solved by identifying and removing the root-cause.

Proposal

What should be done in order to address the root-cause, solve the issue and reach the goal? Are there any short-term solutions that can be implemented in the meantime? At this point, you are able to determine how to approach the issue.

Plan

After creating a proposal it’s time to add details to the plan: Who will do what and when? Put down a list of Actions that will need to be taken, assign an Owner for each action, agree on a Due date and monitor progress.

A3 Action Plan

A3 Action Plan example

Follow-Up

What follow-up will be needed? Are there any issues or remaining problems that can be anticipated at this point?
Check that the problem is actually solved. If not, repeat the exercise.


These are the typical elements of an A3 Problem Solving template. Depending on the situation you might want to add details or paragraphs, however try to keep an A3 down to essential information. You want to take away what you don’t need, you don’t want to add things.

The goal is to effectively fix a problem not to create complexity in the process. A3’s have been used a lot in manufacturing and warehousing but also in the office environment. In fact, any kind of problem can be approached using an A3.

Happy Problem Solving!