The Power of A3 Thinking: Stop Solving the Wrong Problems

Many of us have been promoted into leadership roles due to our ability to “get the job done.” Furthermore, subordinates as well as superiors often expect us to have the answers. In this post, I will introduce a very powerful and simple method that you can use to find the best solutions for problems that may arise at your hospital. This method will also help you ensure constant improvement at your facility.

We face this situation all the time: a problem surfaces, the situation is urgent, the boss is impatient, we want to impress him/her, and people then look to us for solutions. You know the drill. In these situations, you may find yourself thinking or saying some of these things:

  • We need more staff!
  • If only we had more beds…
  • I wish “they” would just do their job.

But how do we really know what the issue is? How do we know we’re solving the right problem? And how do we know if our solution is actually making a difference?

Well, we know through the power of A3 thinking!

The term A3 is derived from the size of the paper it’s often printed on. The space and format of the A3 is intentionally constraining so that it forces users to be precise and direct. Follow these steps of A3 thinking to begin solving the right problems:

  1. Define the problem. Be objective and avoid presumptions disguised as problems. For example, don’t automatically assume that the problem roots from not having enough of something. Instead, recognize what outcome you seek and identify the existing boundaries.
  2. Describe current and desired (future) states. Use both quantitative and qualitative descriptors.
  3. Define the gap. What are the forces creating a gap between your actual and desired state?
  4. Determine the root cause. Through data analysis and by utilizing tools such as Fishbone diagrams, pareto charts and five whys to uncover the underlying reason for the situation.
  5. Create a solution. Try using if-then statements to help strategize a plan of action that will get you the results you need. Pick charts and a decision matrix can aid during brainstorming sessions.
  6. Test your solution. Define experiments along with metrics to measure the results.
  7. Measure the outcomes. Determine if the problem has been eliminated. If not, try again.

The Benefits of A3 Thinking

A3 thinking is a structured approach to problem solving and has proven to be a powerful method for improving processes. The benefits are:

  • Clear, consistent and repeatable
  • Scalable – this can be used at home as well as within every level of the organization
  • A tool for communication – one piece of paper says it all

Opposed to the “Band-Aid Approach”, A3 thinking allows one to clearly and objectively define the problem and then create a solution. After testing experiments targeted at the root cause of the problem, one can find a reasonable plan of action. All while avoiding the common pitfall of jumping to the solution before fully understanding the problem.

Rather than solving problems that don’t exist, begin solving the ones that do. Having more staff or more beds may seem to be a great solution when, in fact, the same situations will arise if you do not solve the problem at the root of the situation. A3 thinking, a powerful yet incredibly simple communication tool, will help you come up with solutions. It will help you come up with the right solutions.