The A3 Problem Solving Way: An Introduction

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As service companies dabble with various methods for addressing their business issues, I would urge them to try A3 problem solving. Developed by Toyota, this simple yet rigorous approach not only provides a systematic structure for tackling a problem, but it also has the potential to transform a company by embedding a robust business problem solving culture. Its simplicity and construct proves useful to both people on the shop-floor and top management of a firm.

There are ill-informed individuals who may tell you that the A3 structure only works in manufacturing. This is a completely wrong assumption. The A3 problem solving approach works for all sorts of problems faced by companies across industries. I know because I played an instrumental part in deploying the A3 problem solving approach throughout ICICI Bank — probably the first service company (and more specifically the first financial services company) in Asia to adopt such an approach for resolving business problems. Within a financial services context, ICICI successfully deployed A3 problem solving enterprise-wide in various functions, which included retail branches, operations, legal, treasury, sales, and phone banking. This experience proved to me that the A3 problem solving approach is capable of being fully utilized within a service environment.

So, what is A3 problem solving?

Based on the principles of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act), A3 Problem solving is a simple yet systematic approach for solving problems on a single piece of paper. This one-pager of A3 size, which is dimensionally equal to 11 by 17 inches or 297 millimeters by 420, gives A3 problem solving its name.

Figure 1 shows a typical A3 problem solving structure; figure 2 illustrates an actual A3 sheet. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Figure 1

Figure 2

So what does A3 problem solving bring to the table?

The A3 problem solving approach:

  • Provides a consistent and common approach to solving a problem in an organization
  • Allows for equal usage of right brained thinking and left brained thinking. While the right brain is used for the visualization of the problem, the left brain is used for analyzing the problem’s root cause
  • Shuns long PowerPoint presentations and summarizes the entire project on a single sheet of paper
  • Allows everyone impacted by the issue to see the business problem in the same light
  • Facilitates easy cross-functional and vertical alignment of countermeasures
  • Provides a visual depiction of data and information that allows for easy communication amongst all concerned
  • Forces teams to solve problems in the workplace
  • Ensures that no short-cuts are taken while solving the problem — the process of solving problems is as important as the final result
  • Promotes a systems thinking approach, which considers how the actions taken during the problem solving process impact the other parts of the company

In my next column I shall delve into the steps of A3 problem solving in detail.