Is there a difference between solving a problem and problem-solving? It might seem like pure wordplay, but I will suggest otherwise. In my experience, I have noticed that the first activity, solving a problem, involves taking steps to resolve an issue. It’s a one-off action. Over time, it can become a series of one-time measures, and the experience that comes from such a sequence turns into wisdom. But it remains a reactive answer to an existing situation.
Problem-solving, by contrast, is a skill. Once taught, it gives employees the ability to analyze a situation and proactively contribute to long-term continuous improvement. The challenge for many organizations is that solving a problem seems to be the quicker solution. Just take care of it, get it over with, and move on. Teaching the skill of problem-solving takes time: time to teach, time to test, and time to review. Ultimately, however, it is this latter action that builds stronger, more agile, and more efficient companies.
The 5-Why Technique
There are numerous techniques available for effective problem-solving. One of the most pragmatic and productive is the “five-why” technique, in which a team will respond to a statement in an almost childish fashion, asking “why?” as the response to each statement. Five-why (also written as 5-Why) is used in the Analyze phase of the Six Sigma process of DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). It is the primary driver of root cause analysis and has been attributed to Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. This is his most famous example, available directly from his own paper, posted at Toyota Global.
Question 1. Why did the robot stop?
Answer: The circuit has overloaded, causing a blown fuse.
Question 2. Why did the circuit overload?
Answer: There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
Question 3. Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?
Answer: The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
Question 4. Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?
Answer: The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
Question 5. Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?
Answer: Because there is no filter on the pump.
Ohno saw such problems as opportunities, and the approach forms the basis of the continuous improvement philosophy called kaizen. Asking “why” five times is not the same as using a process of elimination. It is a deductive process that capitalizes on the synergy of at least two minds working together on a problem and eliminating overload by targeting specific iterative steps within that problem.
The A3 Method
It is not a big surprise to discover that another problem-solving technique exists that also comes from the Toyota management school. It’s called A3 and is named after the paper size upon which it is designed to fit. The A3 problem-solving technique delivers operational learning – by blending practical thinking with mentorship in a structured and highly visual way.
It is based on a seven-step process, designed to be portrayed as visually as possible, and all fitting within seven boxes on an A3-sized piece of paper. Within the seven steps, the manager attempts to:
- Establish the business context and importance of a specific problem or issue
- Describe the current conditions of the problem
- Identify the desired outcome
- Analyze the situation to establish causality
- Propose countermeasures
- Prescribe an action plan for getting it done
- Map out the follow-up process
As described by author John Shook in MIT Sloan Review, “The ultimate goal of the A3 method is not just to solve the problem at hand, but to make the process of problem-solving transparent and teachable in a manner that creates an organization full of thinking, learning problem solvers.”
One of its key advantages is that it restrains more inexperienced managers from sprinting to the solution too fast. Although that might seem ideal and efficient, a hasty pursuit of the finish line often results in inadequate or even incorrect solutions. By placing the thinking process inside seven discrete steps, the manager is able to analyze his/her own decision along the solution path and allows senior managers and mentors to observe the thinking process and add suggestions or questions along the way.
Notable also is that possible solutions or alternatives to the problem are identified as countermeasures rather than solutions, implying a process leading towards a correction rather than the correction itself.
The seven-step process is seen as “standardized storytelling,” capitalizing on the human love for stories, paired with a highly visual image of the problem at hand. This image (below), is taken from a book written by the author of the Sloan MIT article, and shows the highly visual nature of the storytelling activity, laid out in a left-to-right fashion, using the challenge of locating adequate translation services for a company dealing with Japanese-made parts at their factory.
I have found the A3’s step-by-step, visual breakdown of a problem to be highly effective in identifying and solving a problem. It pairs well with the natural human approach to understanding and decision-making that requires visuals and experience – not just words – to extract the best from the people involved.
And all you need is a piece of A3 paper and a pen.
 Shook, John. (2009, July). Toyota’s Secret: The A3 Report. MIT Sloan Mgt Review. Retrieved from http://sloanreview.mit.edu
 Shook, John, Managing to Learn, The Lean Enterprise Institute, 2008