Why Do Problem-Solving Projects Fail?
Problems are part of business. To fix them, you probably launch or participate in
But how many projects are truly successful, when success means fixing problems:
With the desired results
And sustaining the results
Based on his experience with companies pursuing lean transformations, Eric Ethington,
a fellow at the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), knows that most traditional problem-
solving projects fall far short of expectations. The reason is that the problem-solving
process itself is broken, often beset with such difficulties as:
No agreement among stakeholders on what the problem is
No buy-in among team members
Poor planning What is an A3?
Lack of management support A3 is the international term
Leadership changes for paper that is roughly 11-
Changes in scope by-17 inches
Lack of follow-up A3 planning began in the
A new “fire” erupts 1960s as the quality circle
The solution, Ethington said, is a robust problem- It evolved into a standard
solving process that does two things: (1) gains format for problem-solving,
alignment and agreement about what the proposals, plans, and status
problem is; (2) develops thinking problem- reviews.
solvers. That means developing an A3 problem- It tells a story, laid out from
solving process. upper left to lower right,
which anyone can
“An A3 helps you gain alignment and agreement understand.
by telling a story that is a plan to solve the It lays out an entire plan to
problem,” Ethington told attendees during a solve a problem or make an
breakout session at IndustryWeek’s Best Plants improvement, large or small,
Conference in April 2012. And it develops on one sheet of paper
problem solvers because it encourages initiative
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and reasoning based on the scientific method of plan-do-check-act (PDCA).
The A3 Process
The A3 takes its name from A3 paper, the international term for paper measuring
roughly 11-by-17 inches. (See an A3 template from Managing to Learn by LEI CEO
“What’s not important is the format but the process behind it,” Ethington noted. “It
fosters 360-degree communications among a coach, stakeholders, and project team
members. This builds agreement, engagement, and consensus.”
The A3 problem-solving process also develops problem solvers because it clarifies links
between a problem and possible countermeasures based on facts and data not gut
“We like to jump to conclusions based on gut feelings, but that gut feeling is often
wrong,” said Ethington. He suggested looking at an A3 as “your portable whiteboard,
allowing you to have a discussion around a problem.”
While there is “no magic” in the A3 process, there are steps:
1. What is the “real” problem? Why does it need to be addressed now?
2. Who owns the problem?
3. What is the root cause of the problem?
4. What are some possible countermeasures?
5. How will you choose which countermeasure to propose?
6. How will you get agreement among everyone concerned?
7. What is your implementation plan? What timetable?
8. How will you know if your countermeasure works?
9. What implementation issues can you anticipate?
10. How will you ensure follow up & continuous improvement?
In the following section, Ethington offers some practical tips for completing or coaching
an A3 problem-solving process. There are links to more resources at the end of this
1. Why you are solving this problem?
2. How is it contributing to the company’s business need?
What is currently happening? Describe the process.
What should be happening in performance terms (such as - the bearing should
have lasted 500 hours but failed at 300 hours).
What is your performance gap? (Quantifiable difference between the two bullet
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Breakdown the problem/gap into smaller pieces.
Decide: do you need to prioritize one of the “smaller pieces” to solve first.
Important factors for setting the goal or target:
Use action words like reduce, increase, eliminate.
Keep in mind what portion of the target or goal you are trying to reduce with the
smaller problem selection.
Avoid words like – create, implement, and develop. They indicate solutions.
Always evaluate more than one.
Evaluate them as a team.
Problem Type Possible Countermeasures
Quality Pareto, DOE
Delivery Value-stream map
Cost Pie chart, stacked chart
Productivity Operator balance sheet
Organizational Swim lanes, value-stream map
The tools will always vary from problem to problem
1. Assuming that once you think you have the “best solution,”
Everyone will agree, and
Therefore – problem solved, job done
2. Thinking that defining the solution well is a “plan”
3. Assuming that, once you’ve got a plan, everything will go according to that plan.
Throwing the plan out the window when things go wrong
Trying to stick to the plan no matter what
In other words, not completing the PDCA cycle.
Coaching or Reviewing an A3
Use A3 etiquette:
o Seek first to understand
o Let the A3 author present completely, only stop him or her for clarification if
there is something you don’t understand
Ask yourself if you understand the problem? If not, ask “pure inquiry” questions,
questions that help you understand without suggesting solutions.
Does the presenter understand the problem?
o If yes, then continue.
o If no, then that becomes a problem to solve.
To help the A3 owner with problem solving, consider:
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o Is he or she focused on the real problem?
o Is the reason for addressing the problem now clear?
Continue Learning with These A3 Resources
A3 Dojo – Learn more about using A3s, ask questions, or post your A3 for
comment by Erik or other A3 experts
A3 Templates in Word and PowerPoint Formats for download
Managing to Learn: Use of the A3 Management Process workshop
Managing to Learn workbook by John Shook, reveals the thinking underlying the
A3 management process that is at the heart of lean management and lean
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