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Structured Problem Solving: Modified A3

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Solving problems, complex problems at that, involves not only good problem formulation but also a structured approach to complement it. 

Structured Problem Solving is simply an iterative sequence of framing hypotheses and testing them via controlled experimentation, revamped for the intricacies of the world beyond the laboratory.

Structured Problem Solving is a formal, logical, and methodical approach to organizing individuals’ thinking.

To help us crack a problem in a structured way, our approach—i.e., a logical framework—must disaggregate the problem into smaller and easier-to-solve components.

There are numerous Problem Solving frameworks, such as Root Cause Analysis (RCA), 8 Disciplines (8D), Fishbone (or Ishikawa) Analysis, Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), among others.  Ensuring that a Structured Problem Solving method is used for addressing problems is considerably more significant than thinking about which specific method to use.

Of the several Problem Solving approaches, Toyota’s A3 Form is quite pervasive across varied industries around the globe.  Toyota had created the A3 Form to assist in knowledge-sharing across its factories by consolidating the Structured Problem Solving exercise to a single page.

This form has been modified by a team of consultants, by taking a hybrid approach to Problem Solving, making the method industry-agnostic.  Toyota’s A3 Form has been adapted by a number of organizations to solve problems in environments beyond manufacturing.

This hybrid approach to confronting problems is straightforward as well as effective.  The Modified A3 method takes a 6-step approach to Structured Problem Solving.

  1. Problem Statement
  2. Current Design
  3. Root Causes
  4. Target Design
  5. Goals & Leadership Guidelines
  6. Execution Plan

Each main step subsequently involves a sub-phase.  Even though there may be supporting documentation, confining the project summary to one page compels users to be incredibly clear in their thought process.

Let us delve a little deeper into some of the phases of this approach to Problem Solving.

Problem Statement

Formulating a precise Problem Statement is the initial step in the Modified A3 Structured Problem Solving process.  Provision of background for any problem is extremely important therefore, sufficient information to lucidly connect the Problem Statement to the greater mission and objectives should be provided.

Current Design

The next step in the A3 approach is to record the existing design of the process by seeing in-person, the work being performed.  People in general, and particularly those involved in recurring tasks on automated processes, find it difficult to precisely explain how they perform their tasks and what problem is faced.  It is incumbent on the manager to closely observe the work of such people and try to get to the bottom of the problem, since people themselves are unable to do so.

Root Causes

The 3rd step is to examine root causes and involve Conscious Processing by distinctly connecting the observations to the Problem Statement.  Intention of all Root Cause methodologies is to assist in comprehending how the identified problem is rooted in the Current Design of the work system.

Target Design

The next step is to suggest an updated system to resolve the problem using Target Design section of the A3 Form.  The change to the work system may be fairly simple or may involve a complicated set of steps.  The required changes will hardly ever be a completely new program or initiative.  Changes have to be unambiguous, well-directed alterations emanating from the Root Cause analysis.

Interested in learning more about Structured Problem Solving: Modified A3?  You can download an editable PowerPoint on Structured Problem Solving: Modified A3 here on the Flevy documents marketplace.

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181-slide PowerPoint presentation
The objective of this training module is to introduce you to the A3 Problem Solving Process and provide you and your organization with an effective thought process and approach, as well as the basic tools to identify the underlying root cause(s) of a problem or process performance gap. [read more]

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About Mark Bridges

Mark Bridges is a Senior Director of Strategy at Flevy. Flevy is your go-to resource for best practices in business management, covering management topics from Strategic Planning to Operational Excellence to Digital Transformation (view full list here). Learn how the Fortune 100 and global consulting firms do it. Improve the growth and efficiency of your organization by leveraging Flevy's library of best practice methodologies and templates. Prior to Flevy, Mark worked as an Associate at McKinsey & Co. and holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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