Are you fire fighting? Stop; drop what you’re doing and root-cause!

I have spent my entire career working with management teams to instill a culture of relentless continual improvement.  During this time I have also fought the established ‘fire fighting’ culture that continues to be the accepted and at times promoted norm. Considered a best practice foundation, solid problem solving is paramount for operating excellence.  This manage through fact root-cause analysis and countermeasure method is intended to be used at the point of failure where employees and management personnel can apply the MTF A3™ tools to prevent further quality spills and eliminate the factors that created the resulting errors.

The A3 refers to a certain ISO 216 defined paper size which is 11×17 (B Size) to report significant continual improvement activity.  The A3 was originally used by Toyota Motor Corporation to document a step by step reporting process which is managed through fact based knowledge.   These reports typically covered problem solving, project reporting, or policy changes. The A3 report visually presents information in a very concise storyboard method, which is easy to follow and understand at a glance. The MTF A3™ follows a simple but highly effective eight step procedure to ensure rapid resolution.

Step 1 – Define the Problem or Opportunity

This is accomplished by completing the key task of defining the ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘what’ will be accomplished by formulating a SMART statement identifying the problem or opportunity at hand.  The SMART acronym is used to guide the author of the document through a series of thought provoking questions to help maintain statement integrity. The acronym broken out is  Specific – Measurable – Achievable – Relevant – Time Based. This step is designed to help formulate the team makeup and determine the cross functional support system.

Step 2 – Analyze Historical Results

The objective is to clarify the problem / opportunity statement by charting past and present performance of the metric that defines ‘what’ will be accomplished.  The key tasks associated with this step are collecting historical and current performance data, identifying performance gaps to target and benchmark, evaluating trends, and determining the improvement focus.

Step 3 – Identify and Prioritize Waste

This step is used to explain the performance gap by prioritizing the contributing categories directly affecting the metric. A metric (Key Performance Indicator) is a quantifiable measurement of business health that is developed during Hoshin Kanri for observation, tracking, and reaction.  Key tasks include breaking down the gaps through pareto analysis, identifying waste, and collecting additional data if needed.

Step 4 – Evaluate Root-Cause and Identify Improvement Needs

The target of this step is to identify the underlying causes of the problem and/or improvement needs through the use of tools such as 5Y, Ishikawa Diagram, Brainstorming, Nominal Group Technique, Impact/Feasibility Matrix, and Forced Ranking to name just a few.  This process narrows down the error conditions and allows the author of the report to lead the team through appropriate decision making.

Step 5 – Capture Activities and Document Countermeasures

Documenting activities will aid the team in keeping a chronological list of tasks that will be used to match with corresponding data points during (Step 6) the process of reviewing current results. These activities which have a bearing on the results may become identified as countermeasures once they have been validated as creating a positive result upon the metric gap the MTF A3™ is addressing.

Step 6 – Review Current Results

The primary objective is to determine the direct impact of activities on the error condition, and/or the improvement needs identified earlier in the process.  A key task for this step is updating the current metrics and visual charting as the MTF A3™ progresses. Another key task is to document when proposed countermeasures were implemented and verify that they do result in the anticipated improvement.

Step 7 – Control and Standardize

This step in the MTF A3™ process ensures that improvements are properly controlled and sustained over time. As with any continual improvement tool, the power of positive change must be controlled and managed for long term success.  Implementing these improvement changes and ‘walking away’ before it can become part of the DNA fabric will result in reoccurrence. Not following this step will adversely affect the A3 results and place the operating system in chaos.  The team must list steps taken to control each individual countermeasure, document new methods, equipment, or processes in the quality management system, effectively communicate the changes throughout the value chain, publicize and spread the improvement to other processes in the business stream.

Step 8 – Celebrate Success

To establish a culture of team based activity recognition for a job well done is necessary.  Companies are finally realizing that their greatest asset is, first, their people, then their product or service. [1] The key task for this step is to communicate the MTF A3™ results and performance gains to a wide audience.

To establish and maintain a strong problem solving foundation, standardization must be in place.  Standardization is a consensus-driven activity, carried out by – and for – the interested parties themselves. It is based on openness and transparency within independent organizations, and aims to establish the voluntary adoption of and compliance with standards.[2] The establishment of standards is the greatest key to creating consistent performance. These documented processes are then used to manage ‘abnormalities’ to the standard.  This abnormality management process allows a team member or team leader (frontline

supervisor) to focus on the vital few process factors and identify any issues for immediate problem solving and correction.  As with any process normal variability occurs so the intent is to focus on the ‘red flags’ making   the process of identifying error conditions and problem solving much easier.  This ease of use by the team makes for an achievable method during a very busy day at gemba (gemba = shop floor or point of operation).   When the abnormality is identified the MTF A3™ method can be put into action immediately and utilized by the team to eliminate the errors  within the process that are creating undesired results.  This immediate action and solid root-cause identification method will be one of the most important tools for any business seeking to establish a Lean Six Sigma operating excellence environment.

So the next time you find yourself in the middle of a fire fight, remember to stop, drop, and root-cause.  This action will put out the ‘source’ of the fire and allow employees to focus on the value added portions of the business stream.


1.  Dawn M. Baskerville; Black Enterprise, Vol. 23, Why Business Loves Workteams,  April 1993 (6/4/2009)

2.  Bart Brusse, Rigo Wenning   W3C/IST Standardization Guideline Created; 7/31/05 modified 9/1/2007 (6/4/2009)