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How do A3s help you build your problem-solving muscles? Find out how in this 1-hour Introductory Webinar. We will introduce this time-tested tool that helps problem solvers break down process issues and drive positive change!

Webinar Level

  • Introductory


In this 1-hour Introductory Webinar, we will cover the following questions:

  • Defining the A3
  • Discovering why the A3 matters
  • Breaking down the elements of the A3
  • Committing to using the A3

Webinar Transcript

Elisabeth Swan: Hello and welcome to another one of’s webinars. We are happy to have you guys join us today. This webinar series is for you. You are our learner community. And Lean and Six Sigma are the worldwide go-to improvement methods and these webinars are part of our efforts to make it easy for you to use the tools and concepts involved in those methods. So my name is Elisabeth Swan. I’ll be your moderator.

And today’s webinar is Introduction to A3 Problem Solving. Today’s presenter is Tracy O’Rourke. Hello, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: Hey, Elisabeth and everybody.

About Our Presenter

Elisabeth Swan: So Tracy has been involved with Lean Six Sigma process improvement for decades. She got her start way back in 1998 with GE Appliances as a Black Belt. So she has been consulting and training for over 20 years. She is also a Lean Six Sigma trainer at UC San Diego and San Diego State. She is also my co-host of the Just-In-Time Café Podcast and she is co-author of The Problem Solver’s Toolkit. So Tracy is very talented.

Tracy lives in San Diego, California with her husband and two sons. She is a biker, a hiker, and she still plays Gaelic football and sometimes she does all of that in costumes. [Laughter] So before we begin …

Tracy O’Rourke: It’s lively.

How to Interact

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, right. Before we begin, let’s review the GoToWebinar participant windows so all of you know how to be interactive. You can ask us questions throughout the webinar. Just type your question into the question’s area on your – on the GoToMeeting panel. We are going to ask you to participate in some polls and you can ask us questions anytime. If they are technical, our team is going to answer you. If they are content-related then Tracy will probably answer you at the end of the webinar. And if she doesn’t, she is going to post answers to your questions after the webinar. So, all questions get answered. It’s just a matter of when it happens.

Where Are You From?

OK. So here goes our first interactive poll or session with you is to find out where you are from. So we have hundreds of attendees. We have people from all over the world on this webinar. And we want to see how early or late you guys are up in order to make this webinar. So click on Questions and type in where you are from and I’m going to read off where I see.

We’ve got Josette in Midland, Texas, Lynise in Baltimore, Inaf calling in from Ottawa. We’ve got Abby in Halifax and Denise in Vancouver. Hello, Denise. I think I know that Denise. We’ve got Tanya in Pensacola. We’ve got Colin in New Hampshire. We’ve got Julian in Joliet, Illinois. And we’ve got Ibanji in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast of Africa. OK. I think that’s the farthest away right now. So far, that’s the winner.

OK, Tracy, you’ve got a very nice cosmopolitan crew here.

Who Is

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. Very excited to be here as well. And so, I’ll just tell you a little bit about So we really try to make it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem-solving muscles. That is our mission. Our goal is to provide practical, easy to understand, and enjoyable Lean and Six Sigma training and we try to give you as many free resources as possible to make your journey easy too. So we really believe that simplifying complex concepts is very important and that complexity just confuses people.

So, we are bringing you to Bahama Bistro. It’s a relaxing training facility and you get to learn about Lean Six Sigma and enjoy a Bahama Mama smoothie while you’re in training.

We’ve Helped People From…

And guess what? A lot of organizations have agreed with our philosophy and they are using our training. This is just a small smattering of people that are actually using’s online training. So we’ve got brick and mortar companies, we have online companies, there’s healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, state government.

And why is that? Because guess what? Lean Six Sigma is about problem-solving and every organization has problems to solve. Therefore, they need people that are really good at problem-solving. So they are never going to run out of problems to solve and they are always going to need problem-solvers.

Lean Six Sigma is about problem-solving and every organization has problems to solve. Therefore, they need people that are really good at problem-solving. So they are never going to run out of problems to solve and they are always going to need problem-solvers.

So the good thing is this stuff will never be obsolete because it’s just making you a better problem-solver. And so, our goal is to help you build those problem-solving muscles.

Today’s Agenda

So today, we’re going to be working on something specific and it’s about learning about A3s. So we’re going to define the A3. We’re going to discover why the A3 matters. We’re going to break down some of the elements of the A3 for beginners and then what can we do to commit to using the A3. So these are some of the things that we’re going to be talking about today.

What is an A3?

So first of all, what is an A3? So, an A3 is it’s an odd name, I know. People go, “What is that?” And basically, it’s a one-page document if you will or a report. And it’s the international paper size. It’s 11 x 17. And so the idea is that you’re using one piece of paper to actually document your thinking around a problem. And so the thing is, is we have a form. We have a template. It’s online. But it’s not about the form. It’s about the thinking behind the problem-solving and what are you doing to work through these problems.

So, I always say A3s are great because it makes the problem-solving and the thinking visible. And so, that is a great tool. If people know what you’re thinking, if people know how you’re going about solving a problem, that helps you communicate, that helps you gain consensus. There’s a lot of hopefully, buy-in as a part of this process.

Now, what I really love about A3s is when you make the problem-solving and the thinking visible, it helps leaders help problem-solvers. So there are a lot of dynamics around using an A3 not just as a problem-solver but as leaders building problem-solving muscles. So those are all really important things to think about.

A lot of A3s are handwritten and that’s good. It’s encouraged. Thinking is messy sometimes. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be this pretty picture or this pretty graph. If you want to draw stick people on your A3, go for it. If you want to do happy faces or unhappy faces that visualize what customers are going through, we love it. And so, it’s really documenting that thinking.

Thinking is messy sometimes. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be this pretty picture or this pretty graph.

I think having a template is good as a beginner. So because again, you’re learning. It’s a little new and just kind of starting with a blank piece of paper, I think that could be a little overwhelming for beginners so that’s why having a template can be helpful. But the idea is that you know what, problems need different approaches sometimes. So having an inflexible or rigid structure can almost hinder the process. I think this is a good format. But there are lots of organizations using different boxes on their A3.

So, there is background and current conditions. You see four blocks here on the left, target and analysis and then three blocks on the right with countermeasures and implementation plan. And we’re going to talk about all of these pieces today.

But sometimes people just have what we call a 4-block. And they got current state, analysis, countermeasures, and then the implementation. So it really just depends on the flexibility and how are you leveraging and doing the thinking around that.

So, it is a one-page report or document and you’re using it as you solve the problem. You’re not waiting until after.

Why Use an A3?

So, why use an A3?

So I kind of already hit pretty hard that it makes the Lean thinking visible, and that’s really important especially for your own growth as well as communication with others as you’re fixing something as well as leaders helping their people. And so – but it’s also a common approach.

So again, when you’re trying to solve problems, you’re helping your people have a common approach to solving problems. So when people say they’re in the plan phase or the do phase or the step, people can understand what’s happening there.

It is a working document. So again like I said, you don’t fill it out after, which is also a mistake. Some people look at it like, “I’m now going to fill this piece of paper out.” No! That should have been happening as you’re going through the problem-solving. And it’s a great communication tool like I said. I always say A3s need to be socialized. So you socialize the A3 and you communicate with the A3. And it’s a lot easier to just walk around with a piece of paper and show people as opposed to sending it to them via email buried under the 300 emails that they can’t get to and they don’t get a chance to look at it.

So sometimes I love A3 as a communication tool. If you need to do like drive-by office visits, right? You know what I’m talking about. It’s not really a scheduled meeting but you happen to walk by somebody’s office and they’re in it and they don’t look like they are busy and you’re going to go talk to them and now you got your piece of paper right in front of you. So that could be great too. So again, it’s a tool to build that problem-solving muscle for you and for your peers as well as people who are leaders.

Poll #1

So first, I want to ask. I want to see how many people online actually have used an A3 before. So we’re going to launch a poll and we’re going to see how you’ve done with A3s before. So how have you used an A3?

I haven’t used one is A. Use at the end of an improvement to document it is B. Use during all of the PDAC cycle of improvement, C. Or D, other. Maybe you’re using it as a placemat when you go eat your lunch. Hopefully, not.

So go ahead and put in what the poll is. Elisabeth, what have you seen?

Elisabeth Swan: I see it when largely – I see people sort of using it at the end of a project. They’re not really taking advantage of how it can be useful throughout the problem-solving method. So I feel like it’s a miss. It’s just sort of documentation.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, I agree. I have seen it a lot there as well that people feel like it’s supposed to be an accountability thing that they have to fill out to get credit of some kind and they’re not really using it as a development tool or a thinking tool.

Elisabeth Swan: Yup.

Tracy O’Rourke: All right. Let’s close the poll and see what we have.

Elisabeth Swan: OK. So, most of the participants on this webinar have not used one so 63% haven’t used them. Next is 24% used during all of the PDCA cycle, which is great. And then two trailers either they use it at the end which was what I saw and then other, 6%. So it’s either really they either haven’t used it or they used it throughout PDCA.

Tracy O’Rourke: Good. So the one we thought the people on this webinar having that situation as much. Very interesting. OK. Thank you for sharing. So I’m going to go ahead and close this. Hide results. OK.

Scientific Method

So now, let’s talk a little bit about A3s. And really, A3s, you are going through thinking. It’s really supposed to make thinking visible about problem-solving and specifically problem-solving related to process. And so, this slide is really kind of talking about the scientific method because if you do any research at all, you’ll discover that most forms of continuous improvement today are off-shoots of the scientific method. And that was – it has been around since the 16th century and there are lots of modern applications that embody the scientific method including PDCA, Plan, Do, Check, Adjust or Plan, Do, Check, Act, which then became Plan, Do, Study, Adjust, Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, and total quality management. All of these different methodologies have come from the scientific method.

And so, I know that this is going to raise a few eyebrows especially in the Lean community but I think it’s really important to make this connection if you have a mostly Six Sigma background. So A3s, it does follow PDCA and we’re going to get to that in just a minute.

Follows DMAIC Process

But it also, if you do an A3, if you fill out an A3, it also follows DMAIC which is the Six Sigma because guess what? They’re both the scientific method. And so, if you’re familiar with DMAIC, if you’ve done any Green Belt or Black Belt or Yellow Belt training, the A3 does follow DMAIC because again like I said, it follows the scientific like PDCA or PDSA.

Some people might be freaking out right now if they come from the Lean-only side of the world. They might even say this is sacrilegious because I put DMAIC on an A3. What? But guess what? At, we’re not big promoters of which camp is better, the Lean camp or the Six Sigma camp. We are big promoters though of making it easy for people to build their problem-solving muscles and we want to meet people where they are and we want to make connections that people understand to expand their learning. And it is a fact and it is true that A3 follows DMAIC as well as PDCA.

So if you have a Six Sigma background and you’re looking to build your skills around A3, if you follow DMAIC on an A3, you wouldn’t be wrong. So hopefully, that’s going to close the gap for some of you about, “Oh, OK. I am familiar with DMAIC. And now I can see – we’re going to go through this anyways but now I can see where this is helpful for me because I understand DMAIC.”

So I will say this though, in respecting the fact that A3s came from Lean and are heavily promoted and used in Lean, we are going to spend the rest of the webinar following the traditional application of an A3 with PDCA.

Follows the PDCA Cycle

So this is really, if you’re familiar with Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust, here’s an A3 template and you could see that the left side of the A3 is really the P in PDCA, Plan. So all the things on the left you’re doing is part of the plan phase. And then everything on the right is the Do, the Check, and the Adjust part. So that is ultimately the methodology.

We’re going to really be following the Plan, Do, Check, Adjust. And so there’s – at a high level, it’s a very simple methodology in terms of Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust. And for a better understanding of what’s happening in each of these steps, we’re going to look at the Toyota business practice within PDCA and these are steps that are a little bit more detailed around the steps for this practical problem-solving.

Toyota Business Practice Within PDCA

So I’ve done some research on some of these steps and I found that depending on who you’re following, there are different steps. There are different detailed steps. But universally, these are basically the format that it’s being followed and this is most prevalent, the Toyota Business Practice for these steps, for problem-solving.

So as you can see, the first five steps is on the left side of the A3. So you’re clarifying the problem, you’re going to break it down. You’re going to set a target on what you’re going to try to achieve. You’re going to analyze those root causes. And once you find those root causes, you might even develop some countermeasures. So, all of these things are part of plan. And then step six, seven, and eight are the Do, the Check, and the Act or Adjust on the right.


So that’s ultimately what we’re doing here is we clarify that problem or the issue that you need to be addressed which is sometimes the hardest thing is to really say, “What problem am I trying to solve?” I actually find people really struggle with this. We just try to break it down into a problem statement. What is the problem statement that you’re going to be looking to correct? And I’ll talk more about that in just a moment.

We just try to break it down into a problem statement. What is the problem statement that you’re going to be looking to correct?

Then breaking down the problem, how do you get your arms around the current condition and current state and build that profound knowledge of the current state? And this is hard for people too because we often want to just fix something. We want to jump to solution. We want to actually just – we don’t want to spend time analyzing current state. We just want to improve. And that could be a challenge for people too especially beginners. We are rewarded to solve problems. And so, I find that people are trying to solve and implement solutions very quickly on A3s.

Setting a target to achieve. So again, this is typically if you have – if something is taking too long, a process is taking too long, it’s taking too long to process this application, currently taking 18 days and we want to get it to 7 days. So that could be a target. Sometimes we don’t really know if that’s achievable until you know what the root cause really is. But it’s always nice to maybe set a target. And hopefully, you’re thinking about what the customer wants when you set the target. What does the customer really want? When did they want it delivered?

And then we analyze root cause and develop countermeasure. So these are some of the things we’re going to be talking about as part of the methodology.

Important Definitions

But if you’re a beginner, I want to really get clear on some very important definitions and these are going to be really important for you to start practicing because people confuse these definitions all the time. So there’s something very different between a problem, a root cause, and a countermeasure or solution.

And I hear people confusing them all the time. This side comic strip here is exactly what we’re talking about. The problem is that we don’t have a lunch buffet. Well, that’s really a solution. That’s not really the problem. What are you trying to solve by having a lunch buffet? And so, you hear people talk about this all the time. You hear people say, “Well, the problem is we need to hire more people.” That’s not a problem. That’s a solution. What problem are you trying to solve by hiring those people?

And if you start to really pay attention to how people are talking, they do this all the time. And so, getting some clarity around these definitions will help you be more successful in recognizing if you’re doing this as well as other people you work with.

The problem is really the issue or the pain point in that process that may cause dissatisfaction. And the root cause is really the foundational reason the problem exists. If this is solved, the problem will go away.

And then finally, the countermeasures or the solutions are the actions taken to resolve the problem, symptom, or a root cause and it’s typically some – whatever the solution maybe. But ultimately, people confuse these all the time. And we really want to get dialed in on is this really a problem or is this a solution? And often, I see people writing solutions into their problem statement.

So you want to really be careful of that. We’re going to really spend some time talking about some of those pieces because this is really the first element of A3 and problem-solving is we really want to spend time identifying our problem first. What problem are we trying to solve? And we’re going to talk about that in just a moment. And then really getting our arms around the current state.

Left Half of an A3

So often, when I am working with new problem-solvers, I find that they attempt to complete this A3, the whole thing, right away. And so, I see writing on the left. I see writing on the right. And so – and I think it’s natural because I had already said this and you’ve probably heard this too, people do tend to jump to solution. We are rewarded to jump to solutions. We’re not used to just posing with the problem and exploring current state and exploring possible root causes, we are often told, “We don’t have time for that. We just got to implement a solution.”

But you know what? If we’re going to do it again, we never have time to do it right the first time but we always have time to fix it. So I think that’s a quote, Elisabeth, you used in one of your webinars.

Elisabeth Swan: True.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And I often find that they are filling up the whole A3. And so, I started telling them, “Don’t do anything on the right side first.” You need to spend time on the left-hand side of the A3 first. You got to work to understand and clarify the problem. You got to break it down and grasp the situation and you got to socialize the problem and make sure there’s agreement around the problem first.

You got to work to understand and clarify the problem. You got to break it down and grasp the situation and you got to socialize the problem and make sure there’s agreement around the problem first.

So I think the other issue people do is we jump to solution and people don’t even really agree that there’s a problem to be solved and we already have a solution. And so, getting agreement around the problem first and then socializing around the possible root causes of that are really important pieces that should be happening as you build your A3 on the left.

Clarify the Problem

So one of the very first things that we tell people and new problem-solvers is first, let’s clarify what the problem is. And typically, that’s done in some level of a problem statement and that’s a short description of the issue that needs to be addressed. It should not contain blame, it should not contain a root cause, and it should not contain a solution.

And you know what’s funny is people get this fundamentally when we say this like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that makes sense.” And then we tell them to go write a problem statement for a real problem and sure enough, we see a solution or blame or a problem statement. And even they’ve captured it like, “Oh crap! I wrote a solution in there.”

And so, it’s hard. It could be really hard to actually hone in on what the problem is. And so, how do you do that? So what advice can I give to a beginner who is learning to build their problem-solving muscles and their process and improve their processes?

So there are two things I tell people, first of all number one, pick a process you work in. A process is a series of steps that delivers a product or a service. Pick a process. What process do you work in? Because if you work in it, chances are that you have some level of influence in improving the process. So pick a process.

Then you want to pick a problem with that process. And problems with processes, there are two really big buckets. There is the lead time. Something is taking too long, right? I mean that’s probably like 80% of people’s problems is, “You know what? This is taking too long. It shouldn’t take this long.” And so, that’s lead time. We call that lead time. It’s taking too long from the time something enters a process to the time the customer gets it.

And then the other big bucket is quality or defects is often – there are defects coming out of this process or it’s inaccurate. The customer is getting something inaccurate that they didn’t get the right order. They got the wrong color or they got the wrong side dishes or there’s something incomplete. So like they placed an order of five things then they got two. So these are all what we would call quality issues. That’s the bucket of quality.

So I always tell people, I try to give them a lot of specificity. What’s the process and what is the problem? Do you have a lead time issue or do you have a quality issue?

What’s the process and what is the problem? Do you have a lead time issue or do you have a quality issue?

And that is a great gauge for people. If you’re in that vicinity, you’re going to be able to use this methodology really well. And the reason why I’m very specific around those things is because I want people to be successful. I don’t want them to pick something that isn’t a good application of PDCA or DMAIC and then be unsuccessful. So I have found that over the years, directing people that way, pick a process then pick a problem with that process and the problems typically are quality or cycle time. They are going to be able to use all the tools, a lot of the tools in this toolkit to look at a process.

So that’s hopefully helpful. And it’s great in terms of being a beginner. Now, I’m not saying I tell everybody that. But it gives people a good start on using process improvement methodology.

Break Down the Problem

So, you qualify the problem. That’s one of the first steps. Then you really spend time breaking down the problem. And what I mean by that is you really are trying to understand the current situation as best as possible. You’re trying to grasp current situation. And that means you have been tasked with building profound knowledge of the current state because you may not know – you may not have profound knowledge of the current state.

And so, your job is to really understand the process very well. How many times have you been in this situation where someone new came in and they don’t even know the current process and they want to fix the new – they want to change the process? And you’re in the process. You are like, “You don’t even understand the process. Why do you want to change it?” And so, isn’t that frustrating?

And so, we really are trying to avoid that. We want to really have profound knowledge of current state before we make changes because unfortunately, many times people have a lot of assumptions about how a process works and it’s not true or they learned something new that they didn’t know like, “When did change the process to run that way? I didn’t know that.”

We want to really have profound knowledge of current state before we make changes because unfortunately, many times people have a lot of assumptions about how a process works and it’s not true or they learned something new that they didn’t know…

And so, these are all the things we’re trying to confirm or bust in terms of assumptions. So what is the best way to grasp what’s happening in the process? A process walk, actually walking the process. Go to gemba. Walk that process. Observe it. Talk with people that work in the process. Bring those people with you. Collect data. And guess what? When you’re done walking the process, map it together. So these are all things to help every in the process build profound knowledge of the current state, not just one person.

If you want people to change with you, they have to see the process too. I think the biggest mistake people make on process walks is they go by themselves. You really got to go with everybody on the team or people that work in the process otherwise they’re not going to see what needs to be changed. They’re not going to see the current state. And then you’re going to be working hard to try to change their mind, which we already know doesn’t work sometimes.

So process walks, they deserve their own webinar. And guess what? We have one for you. We actually have a plethora of free resources for process walks on our website. Just go to the website. Go to search and type in process walk webinars. We also have a free checklist and interview sheets in our template list.

But ultimately again, your goal is to build profound knowledge of the current state and you want to understand how big the magnitude of the problem really is. And so that means sometimes you need to collect data. How bad is it? And so often what we find is this is great if you can get this even before the process walk because it helps people really focus on the problem and they can observe the process while – and interview people that work in the process because they clearly have an understanding of what the problem is. But sometimes you can’t get this until after. Ideally, you’ve collected some data on how big the problem is and you can graphically display it.

Set a Target to Achieve

So in this example, this is a Bahama Bistro issue with orders. They are taking well beyond 20 minutes and the team needs to reduce that order lead time significantly. So this is telling you, it’s a histogram, and they are just sample size of 100. The average is 28 minutes with some standard deviation. You’ve got a mean and a max and a medium here.

And really what I like about this graph is a lot of people sometimes just put that red line in the average and say this is the average. But in this example, they are showing expected versus actual. So this red line at 20 minutes is the expected. And the green is actual performance of the process. That’s the actual. So in one glance, we can see expected versus actual.

Ideally, if this process were working the way we wanted, all of the green would be to the left of that red line because that is the upper spec limit. We don’t want orders to take longer than 20 minutes, right? And so therefore, if this process were working really well, everything would be to the left to that because then customers would be happy. They are not waiting too long. But clearly, that is not what is happening here.

So I love these kinds of charts where it shows expected versus actual in one glance and you can really – you don’t have to ask, so is this good or bad? Because often in graphs, when I see graphs, I don’t know if it’s good or bad. What is this telling me? And so, what is its target? So this is a great example of having some measure or target that you’re looking to achieve with the project.

So once you have this, hopefully you’ll do the walk. And during the process walks, a lot of people get a lot of ahas about the current state and why things are taking so long. But I think what’s interesting is when you get a graph like this, it always raises new questions about the process. It might ask like, well why is that taking too long? What kinds of orders are taking longer? Is this happening at a certain time of the day? Or you might say, well, what steps in this process are taking the longest? Is there something about the process that’s taking the longest? Maybe we need to look at the process and see. So, that’s what I love about these graphs. It really starts to raise other questions.

Analyze Root Cause

And ultimately, that’s really what you’re doing as part of the next step is you’re really trying to analyze root causes. So that’s the next step of PDCA. And it’s really to say, what’s causing this long cycle time or what’s causing this problem.

And a hypothesis is an educated guess about the suspected cause. And people have these too. Often, people – again, they don’t recognize it. They may not call it. I think this is the root cause. But they go, “I think it’s the chef. I think that’s what’s really happening is the chef is just slow.” That’s a hypothesis. I mean it might be directed towards blame which isn’t good but people always have theories in the back of their mind but they don’t necessarily label them as theories or root cause or a hypothesis.

But that’s really what you’re doing in the analyze phase is you’re really spending time exploring some of those root causes that you have. And it means that you might need to collect more data. You might need to walk the process again. You might need to look at other things now to prove yes, this root cause is actually true. And process walks can help do that as well.

…you’re really spending time exploring some of those root causes that you have. And it means that you might need to collect more data. You might need to walk the process again. You might need to look at other things now to prove yes, this root cause is actually true. And process walks can help do that as well.

Fishbone Diagram Example

But I think just to back up a second is root causes, we typically don’t do that. If you’re new to problem-solving in a process, this – most people don’t brainstorm root causes. They brainstorm solutions. But that’s what you’re doing. When you’re in analyze, you’re brainstorming all the possible root causes, not solutions, and you’re trying to confirm which ones are true and which ones are not true. And that’s where the power of this methodology really is.

One of my favorite things that I like to hear when people do an improvement project is when they say, “We actually thought it was this root cause but then when we try to collect the data, we discover that wasn’t the root cause.” To me, that is the testament that this methodology works and I have heard and have seen people saved thousands of dollars in solutions that were the wrong the solutions and they decided not to implement it because then what they discovered using this methodology, that’s like my favorite story is that they were going down the path and then this analysis prove that they really didn’t need to be doing that. So I love that.

But we tend to sometimes not do root cause analysis. We don’t brainstorm root causes. We want to move right to solution. And so, I would say this is a really – all of them are important steps but this is a really very important step is we don’t want to just jump to solution.

It kind of reminds me when you go to the doctor. So, most people go to the doctor. And what do most leave with? Most people leave with a prescription. And does that solve the symptom or does that solve a root cause? Well, sometimes it solves the root cause. But sometimes if you go and because your back hurts and they just give you pain medicine, are they solving the root cause? No. They are just solving the symptom, the pain.

And so, let’s say you take it for a couple of weeks and then guess what? Your pain is still there. You go back to the doctor. My back still hurts. Oh, well, let me – does it hurt when you do that? When does it hurt? Maybe we need to an MRI or maybe we need – so then they start looking into more root cause analysis. And hopefully, that – it would not be a vicious cycle of trying to figure out what the root cause is.

And we do that at work too. Sometimes we just solve the symptom and we don’t spend time exploring root causes. We really want to explore root causes at work. We don’t want to be the doctor just slapping on solutions at work. We want to be able to really figure out what the root cause is before we jump to solution. And we don’t do that enough. We always want to just – there’s something – there’s glory in solutioning. It gets all the attention. And we always want to be there.

But you know what? How many times, how many situations have you seen where solution was implemented and it didn’t solve the problem? Every time I ask that when I’m in my classes, everybody is nodding, 80% of the people in the room are nodding their heads. It happens all the time. Solutions get implemented that don’t solve the problem. And why? Because we’re not spending enough time in PDCA.

How many situations have you seen where solution was implemented and it didn’t solve the problem? Every time I ask that when I’m in my classes, everybody is nodding, 80% of the people in the room are nodding their heads. It happens all the time. Solutions get implemented that don’t solve the problem. And why? Because we’re not spending enough time in PDCA.

So ultimately, that’s really what we’re trying to do. We don’t want to implement solutions that aren’t going to work.

Bahama Bistro A3: Left Half

OK. So analysis is the last part on the left of the A3 as you can see here. And again, hopefully, you’re not doing this by yourself. The whole idea behind the A3 is that you’re socializing it. You’re socializing the problem. You’re walking the process with people. You’re involving people that are in the process. I think sometimes people think, “If I just do this myself, it will be faster and easier.” Yeah, for that part but then when you actually implement a solution, nobody is going to be behind you because nobody knows what’s going on and you’re going to get a lot of resistance.

So the whole point of this is you know what? Post it. Make it visible. Share this with people. Have people write on it. Draw stuff on it. Socialize. Communicate with it. All that stuff should be happening. It’s not something you sit at your desk and fill out. It should be involving people.

OK. So after you do the left side, hopefully, that means that you’ve actually discovered some root causes. And if you do that, now you can actually start solving and putting into place something for those root causes.

Poll #2

So why don’t we go ahead and do a poll first of all? So let me ask you guys a question. What challenges do you encounter when using the A3? So a lot of you haven’t been using the A3 based on our last poll. But why don’t we go ahead, for those of you that have been using it, or maybe you’ve even thought about using it and some of these actually might apply, what challenges do you encounter when you’re dealing with or trying to use A3?

I’m going to go ahead and launch the poll. So the answers are that you have a tendency to jump to solution. That you view the document to complete after the improvement is done. That is not part of the organizational culture. So this might be a problem actually because people want to use but then they discover nobody else is using it, “So if nobody else is using, I’m not going to use it.”

And then lastly, leaders do not promote the A3 use. And maybe it’s any and all of the above, maybe you’ve got multiple issues and challenges with the A3.

So Elisabeth, what have you seen here for the A3 use? What challenges have you been seeing?

Elisabeth Swan: This is really interesting because often I see that it is that leaders don’t promote it. And then on the flipside of that, I had a client where we traded off. I coached the team one week and he coached the team of aspiring Black Belts the next week. And he made a modified A3 so that they could update, he and the rest of the project management office, every single week and then they would update it for me. So it was a great tool and it was followed intensely because it was being pushed by leadership. So in that case, I saw an antidote to what I often see.

Tracy O’Rourke: Nice. All right. Let’s close the poll here. Share results.

Elisabeth Swan: So, you’ve got the biggest group, close to 40% just any or all of the above. And then it split between the tendency to jump to solution and then that’s not part of the organizational culture. And then a little bit, drips and drops, leaders not promoting, and a little bit A3 viewed as a documentation and completed afterward.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. It’s really interesting to see the success or failure of A3 use. So I was working with an organization, a very successful with a lot of Lean, Lean daily management tools like huddles and visual boards. They went from having none to idea boards and they had huddle meetings and they had these huddle boards and they are starting to visualize everything. And the A3s just didn’t stick for them. They just kept falling down over and over and were still working through culturally why are they not sticking? What are some of the things that – and again, using A3s, you have to apply the PDCA to that too, right? So why is this not working here? What are some of the challenges? What can we do differently as a leadership team? What can we do different for problem-solvers? So it’s PDCA on PDCA. [Laughter]

Elisabeth Swan: Nice, Tracy.

Right Half of an A3

Tracy O’Rourke: All right. Thanks for sharing them. I’m going to hide these. OK. So you could probably guess now that the left side plan is heavily – a lot of the work is in that part of the A3. So you’re spending a good portion of your time building out the left half of the A3 and working through some of those pieces. And sometimes more than 50% of your time is spent on the left. And so then once you’ve got some of these root causes identified to the process then you can move to the right and talk about, “OK, what are we going to do about these things, about the things that we identified as possible root causes?” So we’re going to talk a little bit about that now too.


So ultimately, you are going to want to try to implement what they call, countermeasures, to counteract the root causes. And some people say, “Well, why are you using the word countermeasures?” And countermeasures feel less permanent if you will. So you’re trying to counteract something.

And so, they used countermeasures instead of solution because rather than saying a problem is solved now permanently with a solution, countermeasures feel a little bit more like it’s a temporary response to a specific problem and that you might even need to have a better approach later if conditions changed. And I think they are trying to get away from this idea that if you implement a solution, it’s fixed for good and it’s never going to come back because that really sort of flies in the face of continuous improvement anyway. So countermeasure is more of the term that is used more often with Lean and with A3s.

Do Tools

So that’s really what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to implement countermeasures that you think are going to counteract the root cause or address the root cause. And this is where a lot of Lean tools can come in where you might have to – you’re eliminating waste or you’re doing some sort of workload balancing. You see a lot of Lean tools that are going to be coming up in the do phase which is you might do visual management. You might put in a FIFO lane. You might do these work cells. And if you don’t know what any of these are, you should take our Green Belt training or our Lean training because it talks about all of these possible countermeasures when you’ve got problems that you’re experiencing.

Implementation Plan

And so ultimately, you actually implement it. You do it. Implement it. And you would document some of these things, what’s happening, some of the communications. You might even train people as part of this implementation. We see a lot of people that have project management skills. It comes in really handy here.


And once you implement that, then you say, “OK, so let’s check up on it. Is this working? Did the experiment work? Did the pilot work? Did the countermeasure work?” And you evaluate the process. You reflect on if the pilot worked. You assess what worked and what didn’t. You gather feedback. And then you either permanently implement it or more broadly implement it, I guess you could say. Or maybe you make a tweak or you make a change and make an adjustment. So these are some of the things that you’re doing in the check and the study piece.

Follow Up Plan

And you might have things like a monitoring plan that you implement so that you can keep track of it. You might decide, well, how often should we check on this process? Who is going to check on this process? What measures are we going to be looking at in terms of checking up on this process? At what level – what trigger – what would trigger somebody to take actions?


So sometimes you’ve improved the process and then you realized that it’s actually – cycle time is increasing again. At what point are you supposed to react or somebody is supposed to react to that? So these are all things that you might be doing as part of the adjustments or the act portion of the steps.

A3 Completed

So that is the Plan, Do, Check, Act and that is really what ends up happening when you have your A3 is you work the left side. You have your background and your current state and you’re walking the process, you’re collecting data to get your arms around grasping the situation and really understanding and breaking down the problem and then even creating a target.

Analyze. It’s only one box on the bottom left but it’s a really important box. And ultimately, we kind of say, do you really have the root cause discovered? Because we are so used to jumping to solution that sometimes people have pet solutions that they just want to implement. I see that a lot. I see people having ideas of solutions they want to implement and they are masking it as process improvement and they really just want to implement their solution. So that’s unfortunate.

Because we are so used to jumping to solution that sometimes people have pet solutions that they just want to implement.

But again, people – they are trained to do it that way. They are trained to have solutions and implement them.

So I hope this was helpful in at least understanding the elements of an A3 and some of the piece that go into the A3. And A3s can be wonderful tools to build the problem-solving muscle. But ultimately, the commitment is that you have to commit to using it. And if your leader isn’t then have them get trained. We have – send them this webinar.

Related Webinars

We also have guess what, another webinar that could be really helpful and that is for leaders, how leaders use A3s to coach employees. So guess what? You don’t even have to tell them. Just send them this link and go, “Hey, you need to watch this because I want you to help me build my problem-solving muscle.”

We also have something called Introduction to PDCA and there’s some overlap with some of the slides we covered today because obviously, when you do A3s, you’re following PDCA. But I thought I’d throw it out there as a free resource for you as well.

But if you really want to build your problem-solving muscle, start using A3s. Start doing it in one page. I think what I love about A3s too is you have to be really succinct, and that could be really hard to do as well. We have to think about who your audience is and we have to think about what you really want to share because you have a limited amount of space and that is great practice too, really getting dialed on this methodology, PDCA, what is the problem, how do you know how bad it is, what are the possible root causes, and then what are you going to do to implement it?

And the better you get at it, the better you’re going to be at problem-solving and the more people are going to want you on their team with you with them.

Today We Covered

So, we have covered defining the A3, discovering why the A3 matters, the elements of the A3 and committing to using the A3. I would even just talk out loud, start printing them, and working through, making your thinking visible. It’s going to help you learn.

The other thing I would do is I always tell people to save their A3s. Save your old ones. We – I have an entire file of what I call first draft versions of A3s and we use them to help people learn how to use an A3, to help identify potentially what could be done better, what’s done really well on that A3 and what could be done differently or better. And then we also use it for coaches, for leaders that are trying to get better at using A3s.

So, you have to commit to using them though. Commit to using them. Save those first drafts. We’re all trying to learn. It’s not about making somebody look bad. It’s really about getting better at using this document, this A3, and also becoming a better problem-solver.


So, we are almost out of time. And we’re going to see if you guys have any questions. So if you do, please type your question in the question window. Just go to question and start typing it in and we’ll try to answer as many as we can that we have time for.

Getting Started

And while I’m waiting for your questions I’m going to cover a few other things. One of them is, if you want to get started, we’ve got lots of different kinds of training, online training, available. We’ve got White Belt, Yellow Belt, Green, Black, and Lean. And so, if you are looking to get training and education, you can try to go through some of our training. And we’ve got a coupon code that expires September 16, 2018 so definitely use it.

eBook: The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit

And guess what? We care about you guys so much, we actually – a lot of people told us they wanted us to write a book. So guess what? Elisabeth and I wrote a book. It’s called The Problem-Solver Toolkit, a surprisingly simple guide to your Lean Six Sigma journey. And that’s me on the cover. I’m just kidding. So I really like that little Volkswagen. That was my request to put that on there.

But we are just trying to make it easy for people to do their problem-solving. If you are a Green Belt, you get it as part of the Green Belt kit. It comes with it. Or you could buy it on Kindle or Amazon.

Upcoming Webinar: Sept. 11, 11am PDT

I’m going to give it over to Elisabeth. She is going to talk about the next upcoming webinar, September 11th.

Elisabeth Swan: Thank you, Tracy. This next one is about decision-making, the process we go through to make decisions and also the different types of decisions. A lot of times, I find teams think that the best form of decision-making is consensus so every single decision should be a consensus decision, which would be a disaster. And we’ll talk about why and what the options are and some great ways to make really quick decisions. But just to get used to making good ones by using the right methods. So that’s our next webinar coming up. Join me and Tracy, September 11th, 11:00AM, Pacific Time.

Just-In-Time Café Podcast

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice, Elisabeth, and I’m looking forward to that one too. And tell us a little bit about our podcast interview with Dana Wilson.

Elisabeth Swan: This one, just out. Dana Wilson is Head of Customer Experience Assurance at Comcast. And she is lovely. She is a straight-talker. She is hilarious. She talks about how to get not just the voice of the customer but the look of the customer. If you think about 80% of conversation or the communication happens nonverbally. So hearing people is one thing but seeing them is another, and that’s a big deal. So anyone that has cable out there and maybe you have Comcast cable, tune in to hear how Dana Wilson is changing the face of getting the voice of you and other customers. So that’s a great podcast.

Success Stories

Tracy O’Rourke: Nice. And tell us a little bit about our latest success story in nonprofit.

Elisabeth Swan: This one is super impressive. This is Brenda Macisaac, local nonprofit called Cape Cod Child Care. And she is in charge of making sure that we get – they get enough tracking of people who provide volunteer, both labor or they contribute money. It’s called in-kind services. And government grants are hinging on how much in-kind service they’ve tracked and make use of.

And the goal is you want parents and the community to be involved in bringing and teaching and raising children. So this is a really key metric. And she increased their in-kind reporting by a hundred percent. So super impressive there too.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. And I will just add that we do podcasts, we do webinars, and we do success stories and we do all of that for you guys, our audience. So if you are – if you have a success story that you want to share, reach out to us. Or if you have a webinar that you’re interested in hearing, please reach out to us and let us know what kinds of webinars.

Wonder Women of Quality

And finally, Elisabeth, let’s talk about our latest and greatest Wonder Women of Quality.

Elisabeth Swan: Latest Wonder Women of Quality is Tanja Fessell from the healthcare side of the house and she is looking to bring the latest and greatest process improvement techniques into healthcare, taking what works elsewhere and bringing it in. And this is a great series. I think – stay tuned. There will be another one out end of this month, wonderful looking at inspiring messages from these great women inside of process improvement.


Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. OK. Let’s move back to the questions and see what people have in terms of questions about this webinar. I will say this because this is always a question people ask, can I have a copy of the slides? Yes, you will. We are going to be posting all of the slides on our website as well as this recording so that you can view it if you want. If you like it so much, you want to see it again, it will be available.

Elisabeth Swan: OK, Tracy. We got some questions for you. When under the problem or symptom, are you referring to a pain point?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, it’s a pain point. Typically, it’s a pain point, ideally for a customer but it can also be a pain point for people that worked in the process.

Elisabeth Swan: I think it might have said paid point on the slide. So there’s …

Tracy O’Rourke: That’s right. I think you’re right.


Tracy O’Rourke: Darn it!

Elisabeth Swan: Which is another – it’s not an issue. It’s a good thing. When there’s paid point, we like that but not pain point.


Tracy O’Rourke: Everybody likes to get paid.

Elisabeth Swan: But they solved it amongst themselves. And so, here’s a good question for you. This is from Nafula. She is saying, “Is root cause not a problem?”

Tracy O’Rourke: So good. We tend to differentiate root cause and problem. So a problem is sometimes broader. So for example, if something is taking too long, you could have a multiple reasons why that is happening. So we like to define those as root causes. And we want to make sure that they truly are root causes and not just something people think is happening but it’s really not the issue.

So yes, go ahead, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: No, that’s great. I think the reason for differentiation is as you say. That’s good.

Tracy O’Rourke: Good. I hope that helps.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. OK. So we’ve got another question for you from James. He says, “Understanding the current state is critical but I also emphasize strongly that mapping the current state must include the error or redo route.” He is wondering if you also experienced gemba walks, focusing on a perfect process.

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh, that’s a great question. So we have done both where we actually do want to see what’s happening when something does go wrong. And a lot of it is dependent on how much time you have to review that. But again, we are – all process improvement typically does start with a problem or an opportunity. And so, if you can walk the process and you could see where the opportunity is happening or the process for fixing something, I think that’s great. And I would definitely encourage you to do that.

Elisabeth Swan: Would you recommend a measurable goal/target considering part of check/ study phase may require collecting more data and graphing results? That comes from Nadia.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So, I always think it’s important to get an idea of what the target would be early on. I always say and this is probably variable across different schools of thought but I always say, the target is great to get customer a feedback on and some people don’t like that. They’re like, “Well, the customer always wants everything that we can’t deliver.”

But it’s always nice to really see what that goal or target could be. And yes, you are going to collect more data. That goal statement typically will get revised or changed as you learn more about the problem and the root cause and what you’re going to implement and the impact that that implementation can do.

That goal statement typically will get revised or changed as you learn more about the problem and the root cause and what you’re going to implement and the impact that that implementation can do.

So I always believe it’s nice to have a target but it could change and you’re actually going to measure again to get results like you said. So that’s probably going to be – sometimes people say, “Well, we are not at our goal yet so we’re going to continue with this check and adjust cycle.” Or they might say, “You know what? This is great. We actually succeeded in our goal. We actually surpassed it.” Which is always a nice feeling.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. Great, Tracy. Here’s one for you from Marquee, “How do we get our leadership involved?”

Tracy O’Rourke: So, leadership, it depends. So if you’ve got strong support at the top with process improvement, hopefully A3s are not something that they haven’t been exposed to yet. But if you really want to look at it from a problem-solving and individual perspective and you really want to grow individually, I’d say send them the link to the webinar that I sent you earlier which is How Leaders Use A3s to Coach Employees. It’s in our website. It’s free. And it can really – it could be really helpful for them to understand how they can help you. And if you have a good leader and they are trying to grow their people, I think they’d be open to it.

Elisabeth Swan: Great. I would add one more webinar. There’s another one called How Leadership Can Support Process Improvement, something like that. But that’s leadership in terms of the webinar section. So check that one too.

Tracy O’Rourke: Good. Yes. Thank you.

Elisabeth Swan: Here’s another question for you. What’s the difference between the definition of safety and the definition of quality? You define quality as wrong amount, et cetera, wrong color.

Tracy O’Rourke: So safety can be great and it has been a focus for a lot of organizations. I think the important part is how do you measure that? So if you actually do something – if you’re doing a process improvement around safety, how do you know it is safer? How do you actually know besides accidents? I mean is that going to be the primary measure?

And so I think that is – you could definitely do safety as a process improvement. And a lot of manufacturing, safety is a requirement. And in administrative, we don’t hear about it as much honestly just because it’s not as dangerous to go to the office. So great point. Safety can be definitely something you want to improve. Just be wary and careful about what you’re measuring. How do you actually know you are successful in improving safety?

Thank You for Joining Us!

Elisabeth Swan: Great, Tracy. Thank you so much. And before we close out, I just want to say thanks to all of you writing such lovely comments about this webinar. And also, thanks to James who just gave us a little countermeasure he thought we could implement at the Bahama Bistro. So very nice bonus. Thank you. Nice job, Tracy. Thanks so much. Thanks to all of you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Thank you, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. And hope to see you and hear from you next month.

Past Webinars

View our upcoming webinars and join live so you can ask questions and let us know what you’d like to us to cover next. We’re busy building new webinars all the time. And we’re happy to know you’re busy too – building your problem-solving muscles – keep it up!

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Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.

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