“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein
For most people, structured problem-solving is not a natural process. After years of being rewarded for quick answers and telling people what to do, along with the fact that most of us are overloaded, the ability to approach a problem without a preconceived solution is counter to the way people work. Many see structured problem-solving as cumbersome and requiring more time than is necessary to address a problem – especially when they think they think they know the answer.
Because of this, coaching is critical to help a person move from jumping to countermeasures to following the process and actually learn about the problem before arriving at answers. Even using a problem-solving A3 tends to result in filling in the boxes in a way that supports what we already know needs to be done.
Coaching is critical to changing the way people think about and approach problems. The advantage of using a tool like an A3 for this is that the coach can see what the person is thinking as he or she follows the process. An effective coach can review an A3 and, even without a deep understanding of the problem or related processes, ask a series of questions to help the person understand where they went wrong and how to improve the effort.
An A3 should provide a simple and clear overview of the issue, and the story describing how it was addressed. In fact, the simpler and more clear the A3, the better handle the team has on the problem, what caused it, and what to do to address it.
There are a series of questions that can help someone learn to follow the process. There is much more to problem-solving, however, than following the steps listed on an A3. The key is to help a person change the way he or she thinks. It’s a tall order, but it can be done if the person is open to learning and the coach is experienced and patient (it also helps if the coach is also open to learning).
The questions below, along with a good deal of practice, can help to start the change in thinking that will lead to more effective learning and better problem-solving.
1) Why should I care?
Right up front, the A3 should objectively demonstrate context for the problem and the benefit(s) of addressing it now. An excellent way to do this is to connect it to the vision or high-level objectives for the business. Getting the person to do this will help others agree with the importance of the issue in case support or help is needed to implement a countermeasure, and help to keep the team from straying away from the original objective.
2) Explain the logic?
The steps in the process are not meant to be done independently; they must connect and build on each other. Going over the A3 backwards is a good way to get the person to see where the logic breaks down. A good check on the logic is to make sure that the units of measure throughout the effort don’t conflict. Although it is possible that the units may change as the problem is broken down, there must be a logical relationship between them and, once the selected problem and target are defined (step 3 in the 8-step process), it remains consistent throughout the remainder of the effort.
3) What did you learn?
A key objective of the structured problem-solving process is to learn. Besides making the problem smaller and easier to attack, the reason for breaking it down is for the team or person to learn something that was not previously known. Looking at data from a variety of perspectives (what happened, who was involved, when did the problem occur, etc.) should lead to discovery about the issue. By asking what the person learned during this step, it becomes easy to see if they began the process with the countermeasure already in mind and backfilled the steps to justify their idea.
4) Why did you move on from one step to another?
Another question that can help a person learn where they didn’t necessarily follow the process is to ask why they moved on from one step to the next. As they broke down the problem, for example, they decided that they had enough information to select the problem to attack and move to the next step. Question where they got the data – or if they used data to effectively prioritize the issues, and why they chose not to break down the data any further. Even if the person made a good decision in moving to the next step, asking why can help him or her realize how important it is to think about it during future problem-solving efforts. Another benefit of asking why is that it helps the coach learn about the issue and ask good questions going forward.
There are many more common questions associated with coaching problem-solving – like who did you involve in the effort and how did you test the countermeasure? Although these are important, they are more procedural and focused on improving the mechanics of following the process, whereas the above questions help to get the person to change his or her thinking. Fundamentally changing the way people think helps them become coaches and can drive lean thinking in all situations rather than only when working on an A3.