Solving Problems using an A3

An “A3” is an international size piece of paper, approximately 11-by-17 inches. Using an A3 is an effective way to present a situation – a story that anyone can understand – all on one page. 

It is a visual tool for problem-solving because it presents all of the main elements in a condensed space, allowing for on-the-spot review. It is a powerful management process encouraging learning through a scientific approach to problem solving. It includes a description of the current conditions, goals, analysis, and an action plan for implementing solutions.

There is no standard format for an A3. Each A3 suits the situation. At the end of this blog, a detailed example is provided that you can use and modify to suit your organization’s situation.

Regardless of format, A3’s answer the same basic questions:

  1. What is the problem or issue?
  2. Who owns the problem?
  3. What is/are the root cause(s) of the problem?
  4. What are some possible countermeasures?
  5. How will you decide which countermeasures to propose?
  6. How will you get agreement from everyone concerned?
  7. What is your implementation plan – who, what, when, where, how?
  8. How will you know if your countermeasures work?
  9. What follow-up issues can you anticipate? What problems may occur during implementation?
  10. How will you capture and share the learning?

The key to using the A3 and, in fact, to any approach in problem solving is defining the problem. As Charles F. Kettering, inventor, said: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Too many times, people start “fixing” symptoms of problems rather than the actual problem. This never achieves the desired long-term results.

In its simplest form, a problem is a barrier that prevents the organization from achieving its goals. A problem may also involve the design or performance of work.

The gap between the existing and desired condition is the problem. Achieving performance improvement occurs through understanding of the gap.

At its core, an A3 template helps solve problems by describing the following:

  • Background or context of the problem
  • Current conditions including facts and data about the problem
  • Goal that the organization wishes to achieve in addressing the problem
  • Analysis of the problem to describe why the problem exists
  • Recommendations for how to address the problem
  • Plan for implementing the recommendations
  • Follow-up after implementation to ensure continuous improvement

The A3 is also useful for describing action items – a condensed project charter for each item covering one or two 11-by-17 inch sheets instead of multiple letter-sized typed pages.

Once you start using the A3 format to assess your organization’s problem areas, there’s a good chance that you will never go back to using traditional methods.

Leveraging the Power of Stakeholders

Do you know that excitement that goes along with your great idea for improving your organization’s processes? From great idea to project charter, the momentum you have is at a peak when you present your project charter to the project champion for approval.

At this point, your project can go one of two ways: it gets approved by the champion or it gets denied. If it gets approved, great! You’re on your way to making change. If it gets denied, there is a strong likelihood that you did not engage and secure the support of all stakeholders.

We often talk about engaging and getting “buy-in” from stakeholders. But what, exactly, does this mean? And who are these stakeholders? And what is their interest in your project?

To answer this question, consider these key steps for determining and evaluating your stakeholders:

  1. Brainstorm to identify your stakeholders.
  2. Prioritize stakeholders based on their power and interest in your project.
  3. Understand what motivates your stakeholders and what actions you need to take to persuade them to support your project.

Stakeholders include all people who have an interest in your project and are affected by your work. They can include, for example: senior managers, your colleagues, customers, suppliers, banks, government(s), unions, community groups, and others. As you brainstorm with your team, you may come up with other unique categories.

Once you know who your stakeholders are, you need to determine their power. That is, what is their desire and ability to exert influence over your project? Stakeholders can disrupt your plans, cause uncertainty in plans, or be your staunchest advocate. In short, businesses both need and rely on their stakeholders.

It is important to understand stakeholder power and interest. Leveraging stakeholder power and interest is key to getting support for your project. The matrix included at the end of this blog provides an overview of power and interest. It illustrates the following:

  • If a stakeholder has high power and high interest, they are a key player. Take notice of them and collaborate with them to achieve project success. You must fully engage them and make the greatest efforts to satisfy their needs.
  • If a stakeholder has high power and low interest, involve them in the project by regularly communicating with them or asking them how they wish to be kept involved/informed.
  • If a stakeholder has low power and high interest, communicate frequently with them. These people can be helpful with project details.
  • If a stakeholder has low power and low interest, monitor their input, as necessary to the success of the project.

With the above in mind, you need to identify your stakeholders and how they fit on the Power-Interest matrix. The best way to determine this is to meet with your stakeholders and ask them directly – this is a great first step to building a successful relationship.

Knowing all of the above – your stakeholders, their power and interest over your project, and their motivation – you can now use an appropriate method of engagement to win their support for your project and its success.

And don’t forget to review your Power-Interest grid to ensure that stakeholder influence has not changed. If it has, get in touch with your stakeholder and determine how you can maintain their support for the project.

Peak Performers: Not Always Good for Business

Are you a peak performer? According to organizational psychology, the five fundamental peak performance proficiencies are:

  • Awareness of self in all domains
  • Control of effort
  • Visualization
  • Cognitive skills
  • Self-programming

These proficiencies are common to all top achievers. However, a top achiever on a team when all other members are not top achievers may be counterproductive. Why? When one team member is working harder (or less hard) than other members, workflow is hindered. In their book, Learning to See, Mike Rother and John Shook illustrate this concept.

In this graphic, you can see that individual process steps, if not optimized to the system, can create an inefficient system. A system’s parts (or team members), if synchronized, enable the system to run smoothly. This means that no one piece of the system is running faster or slower than it should. What this means for service or manufacturing settings is that workflow needs to be balanced among all individuals if the organization is to function efficiently.

There is a prevalence of advice on managing underperforming employees, but an equivalent amount of literature is not available for managing over-performers. Perhaps this is because over-performance is not seen as a problem. But it can be a problem on teams, especially in a manufacturing setting, but it can also affect service.

I am not espousing that everyone should be an underperformer—far from it! But organizations can benefit if they ensure that their systems are free of waste (especially travel and motion waste), so that their employees can be as efficient as possible. By eliminating waste and creating flow, underperformers and over-performers can work together more productively, creating efficient workflow.

Performance psychology teaches us that workers want to succeed in an organization. By extension, these same workers want the organization to succeed. What is not clear is what motivates workers to want this success.

Regardless, organizations need to remember that their front-line workers are often the face (or voice) of the organization’s brand to the customer. Organizations that provide their workers with tools and systems that enable efficiency will help their workers want to continue to succeed. It’s that simple.

Rating Records Management Program Maturity

A records and information management (“RIM”) program that is effective and efficient allows you to do the following:

  • Create only the records needed to satisfy legal, fiscal, administrative, and operational requirements.
  • Retain essential records and destroy obsolete records.
  • Store records safely and securely in a cost-effective manner.
  • Retrieve information quickly through efficient access and retrieval systems.
  • Use the right information technology for the right reasons.
  • Promote and support the use of archival records as a community resource.
  • Recognize through policy and procedures that records management is everyone’s job.

If your organization is struggling in any of these areas, tools like the Records Management Maturity Model (“RM3”) can be helpful.

The RM3 is adapted from the National Archives of Canada’s Information Management Model and includes six areas for evaluation—organizational context, organizational capabilities, management of records and information management, compliance and quality, records life cycle, and user perspective.

A five-point scale in RM3, ranging from one (undeveloped RIM program or in the beginning stages) to five (industry best practices program), allows organizations to see how they compare to industry best practices.

The criteria for each element are summarized below:

  1. Organizational context. This includes an organization’s capacity to support, sustain, and strengthen its records management capabilities. It also includes a review of the organization’s culture, change management capability, and impact of the external environment on its RIM practices.
  2. Organizational capabilities. Included here is an organization’s capacity to develop its people, processes and technology resources for a sound RIM program. It also includes an evaluation of the organization’s availability of internal specialists to manage the program. In addition to RIM tools and their enabling technologies, other areas reviewed include project management capabilities and relationship management in support of RIM.
  3. Management of records and information. An organization’s capacity to effectively manage activities in support of records management as it relates to the effective delivery of programs and services is the theme of this element. Included is an evaluation of leadership and executive awareness, quality of strategic plans, principles, policies and standards, roles and responsibilities, program integration, mechanisms for risk management, and the performance management framework for RIM.
  4. Compliance and quality. High maturity in this area means that the organization has controls in place to ensure that its records holdings are not compromised. This includes the extent to which the organization’s processes ensure records are authentic, reliable, usable, and have integrity (i.e., records quality), information security, privacy, business continuity, and compliance.
  5. Records life cycle. Ensuring that the organization has capacity to support each phase of the records life cycle is part of this element. This includes incorporating records life cycle requirements in policies, programs, services and systems, and assessing records collections, their sharing and re-use. The organization of records for optimized retrieval as well as maintenance and preservation of records for long-term usability, and records disposition plans are also included here.
  6. User perspective. People are an important aspect of any program. The organization must have the capacity to meet the information needs of all users. This element includes an evaluation of user awareness, user training and support, and user satisfaction.

While the above elements and criteria are highly effective for evaluating RIM programs, they can also be used for other areas. But before embarking on any program evaluation, discern whether the program is required in the first place.

Leaning for Success

Lean is a management philosophy aimed at reducing waste—a philosophy that, to be effective, must become “second nature” to the way we work. Lean’s roots can be traced to the early 1900’s, although the term was coined in the early 1990s. The following illustrates Lean’s evolution:

There are several elements to Lean, but four fundamental principles will help to kick-start a Lean initiative. They are:

  1. Takt time
  2. Standard work
  3. One-piece flow
  4. Pull systems

Here’s how each principle contributes to your organization’s Lean initiative.

Takt time (takt: German for “beat” or “measure,” refers to music) tells organizations how many products or services must be produced/delivered based on customer demand. The formula to calculate takt time is:

Takt time = time available / customer demand

This equation can be used for any frequency of time and customer demand; however, typically, daily amounts are used.

When you know how much time is available to meet customer demand, you know exactly how much time is required for each product or service. Knowing takt time allows you to not only see the waste, but it allows you to see the strategic opportunities as well.

For example, assume that one department employs three staff to process orders. You calculate that the department has 1,080 minutes of available time (i.e., three employees each available for 480 minutes per day). You also calculate that it takes 30 minutes to process each order and there are 25 orders each day.

Therefore, 30 minutes multiplied by 25 orders equals 750 minutes—but your staff is available for 1,080 minutes. The strategic opportunity is to determine what to do with the remaining 330 minutes. Do you reduce staff working hours, reallocate staff to another area, determine how to increase customer demand, etc.?

The next principle, standard work is about ensuring that all work done is based on written standards and procedures. This is necessary to ensure that anyone doing the job does it in exactly the same way (i.e., standard work). Having procedures in place to ensure standard work is the basis for all improvement in any organization.

The third principle, one-piece flow is a difficult concept for organizations. This is because most organizations “think” along traditional functional hierarchies. In a one-piece flow system, all services relating to the value stream are co-located in one department based on the logical sequence of work.

As an example, consider parking tickets. In the traditional organization, parking tickets are issued by one department (e.g., Streets and Transportation), payment is collected by another (e.g., Finance) and challenges or complaints about parking tickets are handled by yet another department (e.g., Bylaw Disputes).

In a one-piece flow system, all the work relating to parking tickets is handled in one place by people who work side-by-side, e.g., Parking Department. Therefore, instead of the parking ticket process taking months to complete, it can be completed within days.

The final key fundamental principle, pull systems are simple; however, they can be difficult to implement. In a pull system, products and services are provided to the customer when the customer calls for them. Therefore, the organization only starts to fill customer orders at the time they are ordered and not before—drawing on inventory as required.

In a traditional organization with a push system, products and services are completed based on anticipated customer demands. In this instance, inventory becomes a real problem, not only in terms of space utilization for inventory storage, but also the associated costs of carrying (and, perhaps, destroying) inventory.

As you implement Lean in your organization, keep in mind these fundamental principles and return to them when things go off-track. No matter the nature of your organization—private or public—treat all the work you do as a business and the principles of Lean will be much easier to apply.

Clutter: If it’s organized, is it still clutter?

Understanding what constitutes clutter from an organizational perspective helps staff eliminate clutter—both electronic and physical. While experts agree that there is more to clutter than just physical and electronic space, the organization’s primary concern needs to be in these two areas and include the following categories:

  1. Unused items. This is a collection of “things” (hardcopy papers, knickknacks, electronic files, e-mail, etc.) that are kept for “just in case” reasons. Solution: If the item does not contribute to the organization’s vision, mission, or values, discard it.
  2. Disorganized items. This is a collection of things that are kept in piles on desks, on floors, randomly placed on surfaces, or randomly organized in electronic file folders. Solution: Conduct a purge party to organize items of value and develop a classification system for the management of records and files.
  3. Unfinished work. This is typically seen in various “piles” of to-do’s in individual offices. If several projects are on the go, there is a good chance that at least one will not be completed on time if the individual is accustomed to gathering unfinished work. Solution: Delegate unfinished work to those who have the skills and time to complete it or outsource the project.
  4. Congested space. When too many things accumulate in too small a space, the typical response is that more space is needed. The fact is that there is always more space than is required. Solution: Conduct a purge party to eliminate clutter from offices and computers.

To successfully rid clutter from your organization, convene a meeting to not only address the problem, but to also relay the organization’s vision, mission and values. Using these elements as a foundation, explain how clutter opposes these elements. The key is to “eliminate” clutter so that the organization achieves improved workflow and efficiency.

Moving clutter around by “organizing” it differently does nothing to solve the problem. And it is a problem—the monetary cost of clutter to organizational efficiency and productivity can be substantial.

In a 2012 survey by Forbes, 35% of workers said that they would “be ashamed if anyone caught a glimpse of their cluttered workspace” and 40% criticized co-workers for their clutter.

In addition, the average worker spends 30 minutes per day and 150 hours per year looking for information, the cost to the organization for this alone is about $4,500 per year per worker. A study by Brother International found that clutter costs U.S. corporations $177 billion annually.

While some costs of clutter may seem large (or small), other costs are not easily quantifiable. For example, what about missed meetings because of “lost” meeting notices in e-mail inboxes? Do organizations know how much business is lost each year because their employees miss (or are late) for meetings with prospective customers?

Another impact of clutter seldom considered by organizations is the amount of late fees or penalties for late bill payments. What effect do regular late payments have on your organization’s credit rating?

Privacy of information and identity theft is another consideration for organizations with clutter. When too much paper accumulates, sometimes the easy way out is to throw it out, but that creates risk for the organization. Diligently and regularly shredding unneeded documents gives customers assurance that the organization is serious about protecting their identity and confidentiality.

In addition to the monetary cost of clutter, the non-monetary cost of clutter can include stress, overwhelm, procrastination, and a myriad of other personal impacts that affect organizational wellbeing.

When environments are clutter-free, the mind is also free to be inspired with new ideas and new opportunities that will help move the organization to more profitability.

Efficiency is in the Toolkit

Social media, instant messaging, and other similar information sharing mechanisms all contribute to an ever-increasing overload of demands for more-better-faster. This information overload isn’t going away; it will only increase. While tools help us navigate the ever-increasing complexity of our work, organizations need to catch up.

Organizations, be it public or private enterprises, typically implement infrastructures, tools, and processes that make it easier for the organization, but not necessarily easy for the individual. This is because most organizations don’t think down to the level of the individual doing the work.

In fairness, many of the productivity tools in older, well established companies worked well when they were first established many years ago. However, to sustain and improve productivity, organizations need to re-examine the tasks required to complete a job and then work backwards from there to determine what tools would be the most efficient.

Here are six considerations (source: Simplicity by Bill Jensen) for improving your employees’ productivity in a technologically fast-paced work environment.

  1. Clarity. Be clear when sharing information with your staff. Clearly communicating what needs to be done allows employees to work smarter and faster. This creates efficiency and productivity in the workplace.
  2. Navigation. Employees must be able to quickly navigate and find whatever it is that they need to complete their tasks. When information is easy to find, efficiency and productivity are increased.
  3. Basics. Being able to get the right information in the right way and in the right amount is a basic tenet of efficiency. If basics are not available in your organization, time is wasted.
  4. Usability. Ensure that “corporate-built stuff” is easy to use. Sometimes “out of the box” products far outweigh the time and effort that organizations spend to custom build. For instance, if it’s taking seven hours to print a report or fifteen minutes to load a program, it’s not usable!
  5. Speed. Products, tools, information – basically anything used by employees to do their job has to be fast enough for them to do their job efficiently. If speed is slow, time is wasted and so are efficiency and productivity.
  6. Time. Employers must be respectful of their employees’ time and use it wisely and effectively. Don’t waste your employees’ time and they won’t waste yours.

Ideally, organizations should examine management tools (e.g., strategic plans), work tools (e.g., software), and collaboration and learning tools (e.g., company intranet) from the employee’s perspective. Do your employees understand the organization’s strategic plan or budgeting and reporting documents? Are databases and laptops enabling or hindering work productivity? Is your intranet an easy-to-navigate learning tool?

These and other considerations, when perfected, will do more to earn your employees’ respect than any monetary rewards. Change your working environment to include a holistic view of each employee’s needs to help them do their best. When you do, your organization’s productivity is improved and so are its profits.


The Cost of Ignoring Communication

A noted author recommends that people selectively ignore communications by scanning communication for two vital pieces of information:

  • Action required by you
  • Deadline for completing the action

If neither of these items is included in the communication, he says to hit the Delete key. And this applies no matter who sent the communication. The author cites a 69% chance that you’ll get this exact communication a second time and there is a 48% chance you’ll get it a third time. He may be correct about the repeated communication, but I suggest the reason the communication is repeated is that it was ignored in the first place.

If you don’t respond to senders, they will repeat their communication until you do. This wastes everyone’s time. Instead of ignoring communication, reply to all communication the first time. It is the courteous thing to do.

In a previous post, I discussed the B-F-A-T Rule for email. With Bring forward-File-Act-Toss, every email that you open in your Inbox is immediately moved out of your Inbox. The goal is to have zero “opened” items in your Inbox at the end of each day. And once you start applying the rule, you’ll be amazed at how your productivity and efficiency will increase. Not to mention that removing clutter from your email inbox will also result in reduced stress.

For every email item in your Inbox, as soon as you open it, SCAN it (or READ it) and immediately do one of the following:

Bring it forward. If the email requires more than a few minutes of your time, tag the email with a Follow-up flag, set a date reminder for yourself in the flag. Now respond to the sender and let them know when they may be getting a response from you. Then MOVE the email to the appropriate Personal Folder (or Delete it – the flag will find it for you when its schedule is due).

File it. If the email is required for reference (i.e., it has value for you and/or your organization), MOVE it from your Inbox to the appropriate Personal Folder. However, if the email has long-term value and others may need it, save it on your organization’s local area network (LAN) or use the electronic document and records management system (EDRMS), as applicable.

Act on it. If the email requires a reply and the reply will take less than a couple of minutes, REPLY to it right away and then either DELETE it (because it has no value to you) or MOVE your “Sent” email (or the original sender’s email) to the appropriate Personal Folder. Remember: even if you don’t move the email to the appropriate Personal Folder, your reply is in your SENT folder. The deleted original email will also be in the DELETE folder.

Toss it. If the email does not require a reply (e.g., mass mailings such as bulletins, newsletters, or other general communique) and has no long-term value, DELETE it.

Following the above guidelines will ensure that you always have an Inbox that is clutter-free and you will be able to locate the information that you need more quickly. In short, you will achieve productivity with your email communications. And the rule is so simple, that you’ll wonder why you never applied it before.

In addition, you’ll save time for yourself and for your senders. It’s a win-win all around.


Dimensions of Change

Are you and your organization productive and efficient? Most people say that they and their organization are both. However, I have found this not to be the case in many organizations.  

At a recent process and value stream mapping exercise, staff expressed a desire to change their operations for the better and acknowledged that they had many process issues that needed “fixing.” However, they were confused about how they or the organization should proceed. They were also frustrated, indicating that their busy schedules would hamper change. This organization is not atypical in its reaction to change.

In managing organization-wide change, researchers have identified six elements that must be in place for change to be successful. If any of the elements is missing, successful change will not occur. Here is how these elements impact organizational change:

  1. If there is no vision, there is confusion.
  2. If there are insufficient skills, there is anxiety.
  3. If there are no incentives, there is resistance.
  4. If there are insufficient resources, there is frustration.
  5. If there is no action plan, there are false starts.
  6. If there is no collegiality, there is isolation.

When an organization has a vision, it focuses on achieving the vision. Whether it is through strategic, business, or service plans, the vision must be clear and it must be communicated to all staff. And it must be understood. When the vision is understood, the organization’s goals and objectives are clear.

Insufficient skills to meet the organization’s strategy are a key component in change. If skills are lacking, staff will feel anxious about their roles. When anxiety is present, inefficiency and poor productivity are also present. Provide training, coaching, and counseling to ensure that staff have the necessary skills to do their jobs.

Incentives are very important for motivating staff to change. Both financial and non-financial rewards can be equally effective at stimulating change. Examples of financial rewards include fair compensation, bonuses for work performance, or relocation support and housing. Non-financial incentives may include a quality culture, public recognition and awards, study leave, and mentoring in the work place, to name only a few.

Resources are another important factor in successful change. Simply stated, if there are insufficient resources to make change happen, then change will either not occur or will be slow to occur. Depending on the organization’s desire for change, resources must be ample, so that staff do not become discouraged with the pace of change.

Sometimes organizations forget about the importance of having action plans in place to guide change. Having an action (or implementation) plan provides everyone with a “road map” to change. In short, it allows all those involved in the change process to know exactly what is expected, who is responsible, and the timeline and process for achieving tasks to effect change.

And don’t forget about collegiality. It’s much nicer to work with colleagues with whom you share mutual respect than it is to endure hostility. Organizations need to ensure that their staff are well suited to the culture and that the culture promotes collegiality.

Managing change is not an easy task, especially if the change involves a large-scale project, but if all of the dimensions of change are in place, successful change can be a certainty.

Accelerating Project Success

Ahh…the project. Who among us has never had to do one? No matter what line of work we’re in, we all have at one time and/or another engaged in projects. Anything from planning an event such as a small dinner gathering to building infrastructure like bridges and highways comes under the purview of a project. But did you know that the success of projects is determined in large part by the amount and quality of project planning?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge defines a project plan as “a formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control.” However, there are many occasions when a “formal, approved document” may seem over-the-top (e.g., dinner party planning). But no matter the size of the project, having some type of documentation to guide you through execution is recommended.

Consider this. Successful projects can typically be traced back to planning work that can take up to 80% of the project manager’s (and others’) time. What, you ask? When do they have time to actually execute the plan? You may be surprised to learn that the process of planning projects touches all nine areas of project knowledge control areas, whereas the execution process covers only five areas. In fact, of the five project processes (initiation, planning, execution, control, and closing), only initiation and closing have less steps than execution.

How do you make sure you have a fool-proof project plan? Here are five considerations:

  1. Define the purpose. Why are you doing the project in the first place? If you don’t know why, then you won’t know how to plan for the project, either. Knowing the purpose will help you define what success looks and feels like for the project.
  2. Allow freedom to happen, but don’t lose control. Identify what needs to be in place (e.g., policies, procedures, standards) to ensure project success. Then put this in place and trust your project team to move the project forward.
  3. Engage your team. Use brainstorming to fill in the gaps in your plan. Mind mapping used during brainstorming allows everyone to “see” the gaps and makes them easier to fill. A picture is worth more than a thousand words.
  4. Write the plan. Organize your plan in a logical sequence so that both left-brain and right-brain people will be able to glean understanding. Use a simple “at a glance” template and add detail in an appendix. Below is a template that I really like. It captures the “define-measure-analyze-improve-control” principles from Lean.
  5. Make decisions. As you implement your project plan, regularly keep checking the plan. Modify the plan during implementation, as necessary. Remember, plans are just that – plans. They serve as a guide in the process. Adjustments can and should be made to fit the reality of implementation.

Your complete project plan will include assumptions and decisions about the project as well as the project’s estimated (and approved) scope, cost, and schedule. Another advantage to having a project plan is that it helps to facilitate communication among stakeholders – they don’t need to guess about the project, since all the details are written in the plan. And that in itself can be counted as a successful outcome of your project!