Productivity & Effectiveness

How I use A3 Thinking for problem solving

By 24/02/2021 No Comments

In this blog post and video I’m going to share how I work through problems with clients using A3 Thinking.

A3 Thinking originated at Toyota as a way to solve problems.

The concept is simple, but the execution of it can be tricky. The idea is to get a sheet of A3 paper and divide it into sections. In each section there are specific thinking exercises to do, data to create and plans to define, but we’ll come to that in a minute.

The template I use is different to the original A3 Thinking templates which are widely available on the web. I’ve shared my ideas in this post so you can create your own if it resonates with you.

The power of A3 thinking is that a sheet of A3 paper is just enough real estate to get the essence of the problem captured and next steps defined. It’s not about creating detailed analysis nor complicated, convoluted plans either. It’s about moving quickly and carefully, but not being bogged down with so much thinking that nothing gets done.

It’s rapid, collaborative and very visual, which is why I really like this concept.

I tend to use A3 Thinking for working through specific problems with clients, but also for defining strategies. In the video and photos I have used a specific example of a company losing more customers than they are retaining (a very common problem).

The exercise of using A3 Thinking isn’t overly time consuming, although it may take a while to gather all of the evidence, data and truthful insights. This is the key part of A3 Thinking in my experience. Without hard data of what is actually happening the plan will be weak — so it pays to lean into the problems fully and tease out the facts, not just opinions and wishes and thoughts.

Grab some A3 Paper (here’s the one I’ve recently upgraded to) and a sharpie and let’s go.

The Sections

I use 5 core sections; Introduction, Problem Data, Measures, Plan, Key Dates.

Introduction

The introduction is fairly simple — introduce the goals and problems being investigated. This could be as simple as “We are losing more customers than we are gaining” or “A strategy to overcome barriers to rapid delivery” or “Why do people keep leaving our team?”. It’s a brief introduction to the problem.

This first step is important because you want to define the edges of the problem. Many problems in business are very wide reaching and can sometimes be so broad that the problem data itself is hard to quantify. So think about those edges and how to define the problem. There are no hard and fast rules. Too narrow and you may miss a good solution. Too broad and you could spend forever gathering the data.

I like to make it specific but also realise it could morph and change as you investigate the problem further. The key to being able to solve a problem is to fully understand the problem. As you define problem data (next step) you may find the problem statement itself becomes more defined — that’s certainly my experience.

Problem Data

Here’s where we get data. This could be qualitative data (opinions, ideas, thoughts, observations) or quantitative (numbers, trends, etc). Ideally you’ll have some of both.

This is probably the most important section of the A3 Thinking template so spend time here. Ideally you will capture absolute evidence and facts, not just opinions from loud or influential people. This will require skills, care and great communication skills. It is not a witch hunt, but you are trying to work out what’s causing the problem.

In our example on losing customers we want:

  1. Numbers of customers who leave
  2. How long do they stay a customer?
  3. Why are they leaving?
  4. How much does it cost us to acquire versus life time of customer value?
  5. Are there patterns?
  6. What financial impact are these leavers having on the business?
  7. What do staff think are the main reasons?

Identify as many problem data sets as you can. Try to verify them with data and facts and identify any obvious patterns. This is hard work and will require input from everyone involved in the process. It may take some time to gather this data, but be sure to verify the accuracy, reliability and suitability of the data — it will guide action, so it pays to ensure it’s accurate. After all, we want to be sure we’re solving the right problems.

Measures

As with all work we should be certain it is adding to the business results. Are we adding business value or are we detracting from it? I see so many people doing “busy” work that is adding no value. Wasteful, time consuming work that doesn’t address a problem. Often this is because managers and leaders have not defined the problem well enough, but also because nothing is getting measured.

Initiatives and work are kicked off with no real link to anything measurable. As with all work, we want to understand that when we run a series of experiments or initiatives as part of this A3 Thinking, that we are making a positive difference. It is entirely possible that some ideas may make the situation worse. This is a reality we should lean into and that’s why it’s important to have measures that can give us rapid feedback that this ideas or experiment is not working.

Measures work best when they are trends and real time. We can observe the trends to see whether things are getting better. We can see them in real-time so we get rapid feedback and don’t have to wait weeks or months to see if we’re solving the problem, or making it worse.

It’s hard to find real-time measures, so dig deep to see what is being measured and why. Try to find as many near to real-time measures as possible. In this example we may want to study

  1. What is being sold and is it what is expected?
  2. Real time live issues on the platform or service.
  3. Real time customer service data.
  4. Immediate / real time churn numbers

The data is important to understand how the problem is moving and what impact we are having on it. If there is no data then start measuring it, but if there is not data, how do we know we have a problem? This should be captured in the problem data section. No data, no real evidence of a problem….

The Plan

Once we have the data and measures we can now formulate a plan. The power of A3 Thinking is that there isn’t enough room for a deep, rich, PMO style plan. Good. Problem solving often means moving quickly, so a simple, easy, next-step based plan makes sense.

In this section write down the next steps. It may be to gather more evidence, or to build a more robust plan, but I suspect these types of activities are a form of procrastination. Instead, focus on action. What can you, or the team, do next?

What is the most obvious next step and can it be run quickly and carefully?
How can you run a small experiment to see whether that idea will help to address the problem?

In this example we might:

  1. Set team wide goals to address the problem. After all, it could be we are selling the wrong thing to the wrong people, or the stability of the platform is causing churn.
  2. Communicate this problem and resolutions clearly to the wider company.
  3. Identify key platform stability problems that could be tackled.
  4. Build “battle cards” or clearly product specs for sales and marketing to work from.
  5. Improve customer support problems based on where the problem data indicates improvements can be made.

The plan should likely include two core aspects:

1. What the activity is
2. Who is going to own it

Key Dates

The next step is to define some key dates. There is a bit of a meme going around regarding saying no to deadlines, but deadlines drive a sense of urgency. Not made up, hard to obtain deadlines, but ones grounded in realism. Deadlines allow people to commit to work, they give us milestones to review the work against and they give us a goal to operate within.

Be careful though, made up rushed deadlines will drive the wrong behaviours. So use them carefully, but try not to shy away from using them, after all, there is a problem that needs solving, so it makes sense to get to a resolution speedily.

Conclusion

So there you have it, my A3 Thinking problem solving approach. There are many other ways to solve problem, but A3 Thinking is such a powerful lightweight approach that it makes sense in many situations. I probably use this approach in 99% of my work when solving problems or building strategies.

The hard part is always in gathering the problem data.

Many managers and leaders are responsible for creating the problems in the first place, so a lot of politics comes into play when gathering evidence to solve these problems. Still, this is where the biggest gains are. Instead of shifting the burden of problems, not solving them fully or creating busy work from faulty data, you can blast through this and truly release agility by fixing the very real problems.

Tread carefully though. Some managers and leaders thrive on having problems lying around. It keeps them busy and offers an excuse when things don’t go to plan 🙂

Until next time.

Rob..

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