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.

Facilitating through the Storm

Let’s face it. Anyone with any amount of facilitation skill can lead a group that is performing well. That’s the good part.

But what about groups perpetually stuck in storming? These groups pose bad and ugly scenarios that must be resolved before the group can perform. In fact, a group stuck in storming can be a facilitator’s worst nightmare (no matter how skilled he or she happens to be).

So what can you, as facilitator do to break through the storm? First, consider the things that you must never do such as: ignoring the problems being put forward by the team, avoiding arguments that are occurring, and telling people what to do.

None of the above will solve any problems. In fact, they will make the situation even uglier and create even a less manageable team.

To help move teams from storming to norming and then performing, employ these actions:

  1. Get the team to raise all problems/issues and solve them. Note that the team must work on solving them; the facilitator only facilitates.
  2. Encourage members to debate ideas in a non-personal way. Set up a safe environment for discussing issues and coming up with solutions.
  3. Offer clear options for resolving the problems and encourage the team to take control of implementing the solutions.
  4. Help the team identify strategies and action plans, but don’t tell them what to do.
  5. Help members identify their problems and work to resolve them. Don’t solve the problems for them.

Working with a team through its storming stage is the most difficult to manage for any facilitator. In storming, feelings are typically running high and conflicts (old or new) can affect the team’s overall morale. And if not already present, this stage can surface clearly dysfunctional behaviours.

Facilitators navigating the storming stage must remain absolutely neutral and have a high degree of assertiveness. Here are some suggestions for successfully maneuvering through storming:

  • Tension in groups is normal. Accept it.
  • Maintain your neutrality in the situation. Stay calm.
  • Create an environment that encourages expression of feelings. Think Vegas!
  • Admit that there’s conflict – no sense hiding from it.
  • Invite the team to give their input about the situation. Write solutions on a flipchart for all to see.
  • Intervene to correct dysfunctional behaviours. If you have to, quietly dismiss “unmanageable” individuals from the group.
  • Be assertive when refereeing heated discussions. Don’t be afraid to be assertive.
  • Facilitate open and honest communication. Silent disagreement can kill team morale and any good works coming from the group.

In addition to the above, teams deadlocked in storming need an opportunity to vent and resolve their issues. If this does not occur, there is little chance that the team will ever perform well as a group.

Thriving or Surviving?

What is your worst case scenario? What will you do if: (a) you are unable to prevent it from happening, or (b) you are unable to mitigate the outfall from its actual occurrence?

What if the worst possible thing happens during your project, in your company, in your life? What will you do if you cannot prevent the thing you thought you could prevent?

It’s true. Sometimes even the best thought-out plans and prepared-for scenarios are beyond our control.

Many organizations create risk management strategies and hope to never use them. Some even go beyond planning and simulate risks to test their risk mitigation strategies. But imagine an environmental, financial, or other disaster that is beyond your or your risk management strategy’s control. The risk blows up your project or your organization.

What happens next is the difference between surviving and thriving.

An organization that survives will patch up the outfall from the risk and continue business with a limp, hoping to get back to pre-risk operations.

An organization that thrives will look beyond the risk, reinventing itself to become a stronger, better service provider. In short, companies that thrive are lean to begin with and are able to bounce back stronger than ever

Many companies anticipate and identify challenges and opportunities in any project. That is a typical first step. However, moving beyond the first step involves change—and change is difficult. For one thing, agile companies (those that thrive) do not have an emotional attachment to the corporate status quo. They are not in love with their product or service. In fact, the less emotionally attached the corporation is to its products, processes, services, etc., the easier it is to change and become a thriving organization.

A thriving enterprise reinvents itself frequently. It not only looks forward five, 10, 15 or more years down the road, but it continuously adjusts its products, processes, and services to meet the approaching challenges and opportunities. In fact, a thriving organization learns to “fail forward” to thrive. That is, developing a perspective around change, challenges and opportunities that are relentlessly solution focused enables organizations to thrive.

Like love and respect for a family, revisiting and remembering the past is good, but not if it stalls your future. Organizations that pre-emptively make the necessary hard decisions, will not only sustain their future, but will thrive in doing so.

The Problem with Problems

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to be a problem? Your children are late for school, you miss the bus, and as you arrive at work, you realize that you forgot your meeting notes at home.

On top of that, two of your employees call in sick and before you get a chance to browse your e-mail inbox, your spouse calls asking if you can pick up your son from school because he’s sick. OMG, right?

If you determine that the above scenario qualifies as a problem(s) (i.e., one of “those” days!), you are using what experts call “deficit thinking.” That is, by focusing on problems, our plans of action will be concerned with fixing the problem or correcting the “deficit.” This kind of thinking can be seen not only in our personal lives, but in our organizations, as well.

Consider this: If we spend the majority of our time focusing on what is wrong with our organization, we can overlook what is right. And every organization has a mix of right and wrong. But organizations that look at what is right or what is working well, are able to shift their concerns to create more opportunities for success.

This “appreciative inquiry” approach energizes, motivates, and helps organizations emphasize its strengths rather than its weaknesses. In contrast, deficit thinking zaps our energy, de-motivates, and when one is only focusing on problems, all that can be seen are weaknesses.

This is not to say that organizations should ignore the problems or that problems will go away through appreciative inquiry. Problems must be resolved as they arise. If not, they can multiply like viruses. There is a time and place for both appreciative inquiry and deficit thinking, with the latter being extremely useful for immediate resolutions.

There are several things that organizations can do to fix problems. The most important thing, however, is to distinguish problems from symptoms. If one works on correcting symptoms, then the problem never goes away. For example, kids being late for school, you missing the bus and forgetting your meeting notes are the symptoms—the problem is that you didn’t give yourself enough time to manage your morning.

Flipping the symptoms and problems on their heads, the fact that you were running late all morning gave you more time to spend with your children. Now that’s an opportunity worth cherishing.

In addition to the appreciative inquiry versus deficit thinking approaches to problems, another way to frame our “problems” is to use Stephen Covey’s 90-10 Principle. This principle says that we are in control of 90 percent of what happens in our lives because of the choices we make. We can choose to rush through life or take a leisurely pace. We can choose to react in anger when something goes wrong or look on the bright side.

The problem with problems isn’t a problem at all. It’s an opportunity to grow personally and to improve organizational effectiveness that, in turn, helps us learn innovative ways of handling problems. And in so doing, you might discover that you will have fewer problems to solve in the long term.

Controlling Time

A search on returned 68,588 books relating to time management and a similar search on returned 108,557 titles. The prevalence of these resources seems to indicate that we have a problem in understanding how to manage our time.

Psychology Today defines time management as the “ability to plan and control how you spend the hours in your day to effectively accomplish your goals.” In short, if you don’t set goals, you are more likely to have time management problems. But research also shows that even those who set goals can struggle with time.

Perhaps the question that needs to be addressed is not how to manage time, but how individuals need to manage themselves to achieve their goals. If achieving goals is the (pardon the pun) goal.

How are you managing yourself? Does your typical day start with checking e-mail and then tweeting about last night’s party? Do you browse Facebook to catch up on what your hundreds of friends did over the weekend? Or do you review the list you created last night outlining your priorities for today?

In the first instance, you are allowing technology and others to manage your time. In the latter instance, you are in control.

Controlling yourself and your time means that you:

  1. Plan your day(s) in advance.
  2. Identify the important and urgent tasks and do them first.
  3. Build in “free time” in your plan to allow yourself to relax.
  4. Stick to your plan, only sidetracking for emergencies.
  5. Update your plan after emergencies to get back on-track.
  6. Say no to work or non-work activities that add no value to you or your organization’s strategic direction.
  7. Build relationships that will enable you to accomplish your tasks/goals.

Let’s face it: No amount of instruction on time management is going to help you manage your time if you allow events or people to control your time. Only you can control you. And that includes making and following through on decisions that will propel you to achieve your goals.

How you control yourself dictates how you manage your time. We all have the same amount of time in any given day—1,440 minutes exactly. Control how you use each minute, every day, by building good habits. If you do, you’ll never again need instructions on time management.

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.

Just Thinking About It Won’t Get You There

One of the things that I’ve discovered is that many people are great at planning–thinking about how to change processes or things to produce better outcomes. However, when it comes to reducing their plans to projects or actionable tasks, they get stuck. If you tend to fall in this group, spending your days thinking about what you need to get done, but never seem to launch out of thinking mode, then read on. I’ve got good news for you in the form of lists and schedules.

Actionable lists can help you define your projects and move you from thinking about what needs to get done to working on identifying tasks that will get you there. Lists provide visual cues and reminders to do the work. Having said this, just writing things down and being reminded to do them won’t get you there, either. What if you forget to look at your list regularly? This is where schedules can help.

Schedules keep you on track. When you know what needs doing (from your action list), use your calendar (I use my email calendar) to schedule time into your day (every day) for every single thing that needs to be done. Think of a schedule as a reminder of your action list.

When scheduling work on a project, try to schedule the same type of work at the same time of day. For example, if you need to provide a project update report to your boss, schedule it for the same time each week (or day) as the case may be. This provides consistency in work and you are more apt to do this task if it occurs at roughly the same time. The nice thing about scheduling consistently is that the more you do the same thing at the same time, there is a point at which you won’t need to look at your schedule to be reminded to do the work.

When working on tasks, work in short bursts. Typically, we tend to be very focused for either the first 20 or last 20 minutes of our tasks. If you can focus intently on your work for those 20 minutes and then take a break (look away from your work–perhaps look out the window, make a phone call, review your email, anything other than the task you are working on), you will be more productive than if you slogged at the task for hours. Using this short burst method, you will also develop better quality work.

For difficult tasks, schedule them during times of the day when you are most alert. If you’re high energy in the morning, then work on your difficult tasks in the morning and leave your afternoons for other tasks that allow greater flexibility in deadlines.

What’s on your action list this month? A better question may be: where is your list? Is your list physically (or electronically) written in a place where you can easily find it? Or are you thinking about it? Remember to dump that list from your mind to create action items that can be scheduled. This is your stepping stone to success, no matter what you’re working on.

Success is More than Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “80 percent of success is showing up.” There is some truth to that, but if all you’re doing is just showing up, you’ve got as much chance of being successful as a turtle crossing a busy highway. Success depends on how productive you are, no matter what you’re doing – at home, at work, or at play (yes, I said play!).

If you show up without a plan for action, you can’t move forward. No matter how many action lists you have (and you should really only have one), if you approach the list without a purpose, there is little to no chance that you will accomplish any of the items on that list. Some people would have us believe that as long as we have our lists, we will plow through them and be productive. Not so.

In order to be productive, we need to think about how we will be productive. You may be surprised to learn that thinking about what needs to get done occupies a great deal of time for productive people. There’s no magic in productivity, but there is plenty of thought. One might even say that it’s an “inside job.” There is thought inside planning, creating, and acting on our plans.

The day before work, do you review your action items for the next day? Do you have reminders in your email calendar regarding work or meetings that need attention? Do you pay attention to your reminders or do you selectively ignore them? Do you act on all of the priorities that you set for yourself? Writing down and then ignoring reminders is counter-productive and a waste of time. Productivity requires us to pay attention, to think, and to be thoughtful of all of our actions.

Reminders and action plans allow us to free our mind when we do not need to be productive (e.g., when we’re on vacation). But if you’re not on vacation, the more thought that you can devote to everything you do, the more you will experience the power of productivity. In fact, some would say that this is the realization of the power of thought. That is, the more you think about what you need to do, the more likely it is that you will get it done.

It is no secret that our conditions and circumstances in life are a direct result of our thoughts. James Allen said “circumstances do not make a man, they reveal him.” Use your mind to create your circumstances. The state of your finances, health, and relationships all start with your thoughts and lead to actions that create your circumstances. Engage in thought that leads to productive actions. By doing so, you will not only be productive, but you will also be creating your circumstances for success.

Brain Dumps – Key to Being Organized

When Michel Eyquem de Montagne (1533-1592) wrote: “Get a purge for your brain. It will do better than for your stomach,” he wasn’t thinking about modern-day business. However, his words echo true about stressful living, no matter the century. When you consider how much “stuff” our brains collect and how that stuff can be detrimental to our performance, who wouldn’t benefit from a getting a brain purge?

How many times a day, week, or month, do you find yourself being pulled in several different directions at once? How many times have you written a list to contain your tasks and then equally frequently forgot about or didn’t refer to the lists? Unless they are actionable, lists are meaningless. To the rescue: brain dumps.

Brain dumps are like journaling. If you’ve ever kept a journal, you’ll know that it’s possibly one of the most powerful ways to accelerate your own personal development. By putting your thoughts in writing, you simultaneously free your mind of stress, allowing an opportunity for insights that perhaps you could not (or would not) otherwise be able to see.

A brain dump can also be compared to brainstorming, but instead of brainstorming with a team, you are brainstorming with yourself. Here’s how to do a brain dump. Find a pen and paper or use your iPad, laptop, desktop computer – whatever works for you – and spend up to ten minutes writing everything that’s on your mind. This includes writing down all the things you need or want to do and even ideas that may seem ridiculous.

As you’re writing, don’t sort your ideas or analyze them – just write them. Once created, this brain dump list becomes your “master” list and a space for “freedom” – a place for gathering action items without the responsibility of actually doing any of them.

Brain dumps allow you to take a bird’s eye view of your thoughts and by doing so, you can make better decisions. When you’re ready, refer to your list and take the appropriate action with each item. Is it a required action? Do you need to do it? Can it be delegated? Can it be deleted from your list?

Review and add to this master list regularly (monthly, weekly – whatever works for you). By maintaining this list, you will free yourself of the constant “to do’s” stuck in your head. In addition, you will be better able to solve problems because you are able to “see” the problem instead of burying it in your head. You will gain clarity about the items on your list, and you will also be able to verify your progress by keeping your list current – keeping only those items that have not been dealt with.

And the best thing about brain dumps and lists is that they help you get “unstuck.” They free your mind from the persistent playback mode. And there’s nothing better than getting “unstuck” and moving forward.


Organizing for Maximum Productivity

Mary shares some tips on how organizing your priorities each day can save you time.

  1. The day before, start by planning and writing down your top priorities for the next day.
  2. Schedule time for each priority. Tip: Decide how long the task will take and then multiple it by three for a more accurate estimation.
  3. At the start of each day, review your priorities.
  4. Check and respond to email every day, End your day with zero items in your inbox –  all items handled, deleted, or flagged for follow up.
  5. During the day, work on your priorities as you scheduled them.
  6. At the end of your work day, start back with step 1.

This podcast is also available as an article: Organizing for Maximum Productivity