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What the Building Design Industry Should Know About Lean A3 Problem Solving

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

In my earlier blog, Applying Lean Principles in the Building Design Industry, we discussed the need to understand your objectives to serve as your roadmap for meaningful lean integration with your clients, project partners, firm and employees.  At Fitzemeyer & Tocci the Lean objectives of A3 Thinking are used to generate innovative solutions to complex technical problems for our clients, identify root causes that allows us to be true problem finders within our project teams and be the catalyst for continuous improvement at our firm and for our employees.

A3 thinking / problem solving is based upon the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) methodology made popular by Edward Deming as a quality control consultant for Toyota. A3 is a reference to the page size, 11×17, that documents the problem solving but it is essentially irrelevant to the concept. It is the process and a way of thinking that we are after.  The process is intended to foster critical thinking and collaborative problem solving that is objective, using hard data and fundamental information to the problem.  In the book titled “Understanding A3 Thinking” written by Durward K Sobek II and Art Smalley, A3 Thinking and the PDCA philosophy is described as a practical tool for continuous improvements.  Continuous improvement is a never-ending quest for advancements towards being better tomorrow than we were today.

So, what’s wrong with the Building Design Industries understanding of problem solving?

We are often taught, specifically or implied, that each problem has a finite solution. Once solved you move on to the next problem.  This is a short-term mindset to make the issue go away with no regard for the effectiveness of the solution.  Furthermore, this mindset misses out on the opportunity to ensure that the problem doesn’t occur again and the development of an individual’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  It is the check and act steps in the cycle where we confirm that our intended results are being realized and the individuals validate their own understanding which is instrumental to the development of problem solving skills.

In the Building Design Industry, the best example of this short-term focus is how we approach a request for information (RFI) submitted by a construction contractor.   We have all been taught from early on in our careers in this industry that time is money during construction.  We need to respond quickly (i.e. solve the issue) to avoid delays and get the right information to “the field”.  Once marked completed in our Construction Administration logs we are done and on to the next thing.  Problem is we’ve missed a huge opportunity to improve ourselves, our design processes and future projects.

For this example, let’s assume a plumbing contractor submitted an RFI regarding the type of valve required and referenced a detail on the drawings that did not specify. A typical response would note the type of valve required and perhaps a reference to the specification paragraph that governs this installation.  Send that response to the contractor, check that one off the to do list and move on to the next thing.

At Fitzemeyer & Tocci we strive to turn each RFI in construction into a continuous improvement in our system or design process.  We ask ourselves why the RFI needed to be submitted to us?  Was something unclear, undefined, conflicting, or otherwise indeterminable without the RFI?  This is often referred to in lean and other system concepts as failure demand.  The concept of failure demand originated in the mid-1980s with an occupational psychologist John Seddon and since been incorporated into lean Principles within service organizations.   With this mindset we can shift to a longer-term view that is aimed at resolving the issue that caused the demand for a response.  This failure demand can be turned into value demand only if you take continuous improvement actions that are aimed at preventing the occurrence from happening again.  The success of our continuous improvement or value add then becomes easy to measure (i.e. check).  Has the RFI repeated itself in whole, in part or not at all?  In the example above, a continuous improvement to our installation details would be implemented to note the type of valve required or a note to the engineer to make a selection.  This is aligned with our client and project team focused lean objectives.

Lastly with this example, we can demonstrate how our lean A3 Problem Solving approach meets our firm and employee objectives.  The firm focus on eliminating waste and gaining efficiencies is achieved by removing the failure demand from future occurrences.  The employee focus is achieved by developing a refined system of problem solving and critical thinking skills beyond the standard RFI response.

Although the formatting of the A3 reporting is the cornerstone of most lean publications that you will read, the value is in the process and the way of thinking. We’ve learned that function over form is certainly true when applying A3 Thinking to problem solving.  It is the long-term mindset of taking a current problem and turning it into future value for our clients, project teams, firm and employees.


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