Goldilocks & the A3: How to Get Your Problem Solving “Just Right”

Goldilocks & the A3: How to Get Your Problem Solving "Just Right" -

Goldilocks is a great source for guidance on A3 problem-solving. With the goal of getting the approach “just right” it’s critical to assess the kinds of problems that require A3s.

As with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, some problems are “Papa Bear” sized, with multiple unknown factors to explore. A single A3 won’t do them justice. Other problems are like Mama Bear’s bed—too soft, with only a few knowledge gaps to be filled. These problems are relatively easy to solve so it’s not worth using an A3.

But then there are those problems that our Lean Goldilocks thinker would see as “just right” for an A3. There are dozens of factors that make a problem “right-sized” for A3 problem solving. There are an equal number of great articles on how to determine whether your problem is “right-sized,” but here is one essential factor you should pay attention to—do you need an innovative solution?

Innovative Solutions Require A3s

If you need an innovative solution, then an A3 could be the approach you need. The explorations you will do in defining the problem and seeking countermeasures offer multiple opportunities to use creative thinking and end up with a novel and useful way forward.

Sticking with our Lean Goldilocks for a second, the other aspect to get “just right” is the approach to creativity. Creative thinking means thinking divergently and convergently—deliberately and separately. Why keep the two types of thinking separate? Your brain can only do one at a time!

Start With Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking means creating multiple ideas and options without judgment or evaluation. Some people find this easy, and others struggle to think divergently. That makes divergent thinking a team sport, similar to A3 problem solving. An A3 is a great vehicle to bring an initial set of ideas to other members of your organization and ask them to add to your list.

As an example, let’s say you are starting a Fishbone (Ishikawa) Diagram to seek out root causes of your problem. You might bring your first draft to colleagues and ask,

“What else might you add to this diagram?”

Be aware then when you ask that question, any judgment on your part might dry up your colleague’s input. Write down their input (or let them write it down) without commenting on their thoughts. You’ll have time later to use convergent thinking to select and strengthen the key ideas to take forward.

Move to Convergent Thinking

Once you have all the input, you might feel overwhelmed. How do you sort through all that input? Now is the time to use convergent thinking. Consider clustering the ideas, organizing them in an evaluation matrix, or looking for the most unusual ideas to work on first. This is also a team sport. A deep and thoughtful conversation about the merits, novelty, and issues of ideas or options will lead to better decision making.

Did you know there were guidelines for divergent thinking and convergent thinking? It helps to keep these standards in mind as you are working with others as well as on your own.

4 Rules of Divergent Thinking

When thinking divergently:

  1. Defer Judgment: Just keep your mouth shut (other than saying “Thank you! What else?”). If you hear an idea that sounds great, don’t praise it. If you hear an idea that you “just know won’t work,” don’t kill it. Judgment has the unfortunate effect of dampening the production of ideas. After all, if you knew what the answer was, you wouldn’t be doing an A3 in the first place!
  2. Combine and Build: An idea or option on its own is good. Two ideas combined might be better.
  3. Seek Wild Ideas: You need innovation, right? Let people break the bounds of time and space. You can get realistic later.
  4. Go for Quantity: Going for quantity forces your brain to “go deep.” The idea or option you really need might come after all the easy and obvious ideas have been brought forward. Taking a break after the easy-to-come-up-with ideas have been written down can be helpful. That gives your subconscious time to make connections and drive insights.

5 Rules of Convergent Thinking

When thinking convergently:

  1. Be Deliberate: Don’t rush through this phase. Give your colleagues and your subconscious time to come up with insights.
  2. Check your Objectives: Keep an eye on the goal you are trying to achieve.
  3. Improve your Ideas: Raw ideas always need polishing. What might make them better? A lot of innovation involves novel combinations of ideas—which ideas or options could be combined?
  4. Be Affirmative: Most new ideas have flaws or issues. Talk about how you might address an issue with an idea, not about what is wrong with an idea. Instead of saying, “We can’t do that, it’s too expensive,” ask “How might we make that option more affordable?”
  5. Consider Novelty: Following this guideline is critical! You are using creative thinking because you need innovation. It’s too easy to weed out ideas or options that look “too crazy,” and miss your opportunity for innovation.

Where Should Divergent and Convergent Thinking Take Place with an A3?

When in your A3 problem solving should you use deliberately separated divergent and convergent thinking? It seems obvious that divergent thinking and convergent thinking are useful when you are coming up with countermeasures (potential solutions.) But creative thinking is valuable throughout the problem-solving effort.

Consider creative thinking as a rhythm that plays in the background as you progress through the problem-solving process. Just as you may have several PDCA cycles in each step, you will find many opportunities to use creative thinking in each step. We’ll go through how that works in each segment of an A3.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking Within the A3 Structure

A3 Segment: The Background

Let’s start with the Background section of your A3. You use this section to summarize the history and the context of the problem. Use divergent thinking to develop the story of how the problem came to your attention and why it is important to solve now. Ask questions like:

  • “Who are all the people who can tell me about this problem?”
  • “What are all the ways it has come to be seen as a problem we need to solve?”
  • “What are all the themes I hear in the stories people tell me about this problem?”

Obviously, you can’t put all the answers to these questions in the tiny space allotted for “Background” on your A3. That’s the beauty of an A3! The concise format demands that you perform convergent thinking:

Ask questions like:

  • “Of all the people who have talked about this problem, who are key contributors to understanding it?”
  • “Which parts of the story of the problem will help others understand it best?”
  • “Which themes appear consistently in people’s stories about the problem?”

Conducting both divergent and convergent thinking will prepare you for a richer conversation as you discuss the A3 Background section with your coach or manager.

A3 Segment: Current Conditions

When you are ready to document the Current Conditions, use divergent thinking to ensure that you are looking at the situation broadly and gathering important context.

Ask questions like:

  • “What data is available to document the current condition?”
  • “What might give us data that we haven’t considered before?”

You could look at multiple “voices” who could speak about the problem. You could seek out the Voice of the Customer and the Voice of the Process. What about the “Voice” of your company culture? Or the “Voice” of your procedural documents?

If you are stronger at convergent thinking than divergent thinking, this will feel uncomfortable to you. You don’t want to fall into “paralysis by analysis.” At the same time, be cautious about cutting off your divergent-thinking explorations of the Current State too soon.

When you hear or see the same themes over again, it is time to move to convergent thinking. Through convergent thinking you will select and strengthen the most illuminating insights arising from investigating your Current Conditions. Document these on your A3 since they will become the input for your root cause analysis.

Remember to follow the guidelines for convergent thinking, especially the one about considering novelty. If, per Goldilocks, this is a problem “big enough” for an A3, an oddball insight or unexpected piece of data might hold the key to an effective root cause analysis.

A3 Segment: Goals/Future State

You can use divergent thinking to identify a large set of possible goals—and then use convergent thinking to select the few that will pull the improvement work forward.

Ask questions like these to spur your divergent thinking:

  • “When this problem is solved?”
  • “What are all the ways you will know it is solved?”
  • “What will you see?”
  • “What will you hear?”
  • “What will it feel like when the problem is solved?” (If the problem is a physical problem)
  • “How might you know the problem is solved even if you are not where the work is being done?”

To start the convergent thinking, ask,

  • “Which of these signals are easily measurable?”
  • “If we pick a set of measures, which ones balance each other?”
  • “Which signals are related to our True North or organizational purpose?”
  • “Which are the most meaningful to employees?”

Remember the guideline of being deliberate when thinking convergently. If you are not sure what is meaningful to employees, run a PDCA cycle to find out.


A3 Segment: The Root Cause Analysis

The divergent thinking and convergent thinking you have done while learning about the Background of the problem and the Current State benefit your Root Cause Analysis. The most difficult problems in an organizational system are not the result of a single root cause, but of a combination of causes.

As you explore root cause, pay attention to what kind of thinking is needed, and where you are in the rhythm of creative thinking. For example, if you have narrowed down to a couple of potential root causes, (convergent thinking) employ some divergent thinking to come up with potential ways to test your hypothesis. Then go back to convergent thinking to select one test to run.

Good convergent thinking questions here include:

  • “Which tests will give me reliable information the fastest?”
  • “Which tests are the most cost-effective?”

A3 Segment: Countermeasures

Once you complete your root cause analysis, the results will often suggest a set of Countermeasures to test. If so, you are fortunate. But be careful! It is easy for those folks who like to make quick decisions to select the first Countermeasure that comes to mind. If the problem is a thorny one, the “obvious” Countermeasures might not be enough.

This is when your creative divergent thinking is most valuable. A broad set of potential Countermeasures gives you a better chance of really solving the problem. In that broad set of Countermeasures, you could find:

  • A “Safe” Solution: One that is not innovative but will suffice given time and financial constraints
  • An Elegant Solution: A simple yet innovative Countermeasure
  • A Combination Solution: Two or three Countermeasures that when combined will solve the problem
  • An Interim Solution: Countermeasures that don’t solve the problem completely but will provide valuable knowledge so that you can solve the problem after several cycles of improvement
  • A Future Solution: Countermeasures that might not be right for now, but which could be valuable in the future—don’t lose those ideas!

As you are developing that broad set of Countermeasures, give yourself enough time to gather input from others, and for your subconscious to see connections and develop insights. The best Countermeasure to test might come to mind when you are brushing your teeth or in a conversation with a colleague about a tangential topic.

While you want to be careful not to mix your divergent thinking and your convergent thinking, if you come up with a Countermeasure that appears promising, don’t delay testing it. Simply keep in mind that you are creating a pipeline of potential Countermeasures. If your first Countermeasure experiments don’t succeed, you can take the learning from those experiments and use it to better evaluate the other ideas in your pipeline.

A3 Segment: Planning to Implement

At this point you should reflect on how well you’ve worked through your A3. Have you prepared the ground with lots of opportunities for colleagues, managers, and even customers to contribute to the divergent and convergent thinking? Have you selected and tested your Countermeasures? If so, your path to implementation may look easy.

Nevertheless, there may be barriers to implementation which will require PDCA to address. This is another good opportunity for divergent thinking.

Questions to ask:

  • “What are the barriers to implementation?”
  • “Who might not yet be on board?”
  • “What are all the ways we could communicate the change?”

Then use convergent thinking to select the first PDCA cycles to run as you implement.

A3 Segment: Follow-up

The Follow-up section of the A3 is critically important for the next person tackling a similar problem. It is your gift to them—the knowledge you gained as you worked on the problem. Your learnings will speed their journey and help to enrich their divergent and convergent thinking.
As you reflect on your journey, you will have a long list of learnings that you might wish to share. Here is where well-honed convergent thinking is key. Questions to ask yourself:

  • “What learnings will be most valuable to others?”
  • “What key points must be maintained to make sure this problem stays solved?”

This requires a good pause to deliberate and choose your learning wisely.

Deliberate Practice of Creative Thinking

Creative thinking benefits from practice. Most of us are more comfortable in one of the two main creative thinking styles. If you are an ideator, you will benefit from practicing convergent thinking. In business, many of us are trained to be convergent thinkers, ready to judge, clarify, and make decisions quickly. If that is you, practice your divergent thinking.

It’s your turn to put your Goldilocks hat on to get it “just right.” No matter your preferred style, start by paying attention to how you are thinking. Remember, both divergent and convergent thinking are necessary, and both enhance your problem solving. Grab your A3 and seek opportunities to use them both—separately and deliberately!

Bella Englebach is the President and Lead Consultant at Lean for Humans, Inc., author of Creatively Lean: How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Drive Innovation Throughout Your Organization and is a Certified Professional Coach. She has been applying continuous improvement and lean thinking to operations and R&D for over fifteen years.

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