A3 thinking is a philosophical approach to problem solving that centers on a well-communicated, team approach to using the PDCA cycle. The tool used to apply this way of thinking is known as the A3 report.
The act of working through the A3 report is generally known as the A3 process. “A3 management” or the “A3 management process” are broader terms that refer to a coaching style of fact-based leadership that makes ample use of A3 thinking in decision making.
Toyota is widely reported to have been using various forms of the A3 report for decades. It migrated to North America in the 1980′s with the expansion of Toyota’s operations in the region. It started gaining substantial popularity during the first decade of the 2000′s, and is now mainstream within the Lean community.
One of the primary reasons for its rise in popularity is the role A3 thinking is said to have played in Toyota’s rise to prominence. While the A3 is but one ingredient in Toyota’s success, it is a substantial one. Its prevalent use by the company’s management team helped the car maker weather both a global economic crisis and a PR nightmare related to a now largely debunked rash of sudden unexplained acceleration. But more importantly, A3 thinking permeates the organization at all levels. This methodical approach to problem solving is the real discriminator between good companies and great ones.
The A3 report is a storyboard that follows the PDCA cycle. While there is no firmly set format for the A3 report, a typical version contains the following sections:
Authors of the A3 report should feel free to adjust this problem solving tool to suit their needs, but should never stray far from the guiding principles: using the PDCA cycle, taking a team approach, back and forth communication, guidance from an experienced mentor, deeply understanding the problem, creating agreement about goals, and making decisions based on fact.
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Whether you are a leader or a process owner, a big part of your job will entail problem solving. Taking on problems in a haphazard, random manner is a recipe for inconsistent results. A3 thinking, while not a magic solution to problems, does increase your chances of successfully solving them. The power of the A3 report lies in the structured approach it takes to solving problems.
Before diving into the A3 report, though, let’s take a look at what a problem is. Essentially, a problem is any situation when “should be” does not match reality.
That gap develops in one of two ways. Either the target gets higher, or performance drops. Regardless of how the gap came to pass, the basic problem solving system is the same, even though the specific actions taken to close the gap may vary.
There are three common failure modes that keep people from effectively solving problems.
At the heart of most effective problem solving methodologies is the PDCA Cycle (aka the Deming Cycle).
The A3 process is a specific, structured method of problem solving. While the A3 report is the visible centerpiece of the process, it is actually more of a result of the process than the actual process itself. The A3 report is simply a concise, communication tool. Because of the recognizable format, individuals can rapidly share ideas and have confidence in what they are talking about.
The A3 report gets its name from the size of paper used in Japan where the report originated. It is relatively close to the size of an 11×17 sheet of paper in the US.
As you continue to read about the A3 report, keep in mind that there is no set format, other than that the sections should follow the PDCA cycle. Templates (such as the ones offered at www.Velaction.com/a3-template/) are handy to use as starting points, but feel free to deviate from the precise layout if there is a good reason to. One warning, though, if you do make a change: make sure that sufficient space is devoted to the plan step.
The A3 report is not intended as a tool for independent use. They involve several people. There should be an owner who is responsible for maintaining the document and managing the problem solving efforts.
He or she should also have an experienced mentor who can help guide the problem solver through the A3 process. This mentor typically uses a healthy dose of the Socratic Method, pointing the person toward ways to overcome roadblocks rather than actually giving answers. The mentor, in many cases, also lends his authority to the A3 report, so the problem solver acts on the mentor’s behalf in solving the problem. Because of the mentor’s support, there is authority strapped to the A3 report. That translates to higher prioritization.
There will also be a variety of stakeholders with a vested interest in the outcome of the A3 project.
Finally, there will be the people involved in data collection, analysis, and, of course, implementing the solutions.
In most organizations, people are busy, and there is a lot coming at them. They have to separate the wheat from the chaff. One of the benefits of the A3 process is that it gets people’s attention. It is generally used for only the most significant problems in the organization, so people tend to take notice when they see the A3 report.
Another big reason that people pay attention to A3 reports is that the somewhat standard format lets them quickly get a handle on what is going on. The A3 report acts as a standardized communication tool. Readers can follow the storyboard and, without much wasted effort, know the background and status of the project.
A3 thinking takes a systematic approach to problem solving. Typically, a project owner draws up the A3 report with ample support and input from all involved people. The author then runs it by the mentor throughout each step. The feedback and ideas from the discussion are then integrated into the report.
The background section is exactly what it sounds like. It is a brief section that clarifies the problem and adds context. Metrics are often shown in this box.
The current conditions section summarizes, not surprisingly, the current situation. It can show an overview of the process, highlight problems, or present anything else that will help people gain understanding of how things are now.
Specific goals should be set. In most cases, goals should have dates associated with them. An A3 report, though, is a storyboard to guide you through a process. At this point, you only know where you want to go, not how long it will take to get there. The goal dates will come out indirectly in the countermeasures step. Once the project is more fully fleshed out, though, you should add dates to the goals.
This step can take a substantial amount of time, as it is the most important one. If the root cause is not clearly identified, you’ll be solving the wrong problem. Mentors should spend significant time reviewing this step to make sure the author has it right.
Only when the root cause is understood should an A3 report author start coming up with solutions. For big projects, the countermeasures listed here might have action plans associated with them. Of particular importance is that the projected improvements from the countermeasures should add up to reach the goal.
It is particularly important that the effects of the countermeasures are confirmed. On occasion, positive but unexpected changes happen. If they were not predicted with the countermeasures, the root cause is likely still present. Go back and try again, or you’ll be starting the whole project over down the road.
Follow-up items are not things that have to be done to get a new process up and running. They are intended to capitalize on an opportunity to add further improvement, or to help spread knowledge. In no case should the failure to do a follow-up action item prevent the full implementation of the solution.
In an organization that embraces A3 thinking, you will have a big role to play. While you may not be designated as the author or owner of a report, there is a great likelihood that you will see people visiting your work area, scribbling on large sheets of paper.
You will probably be asked many questions, and may even be asked to collect data. If you are approached with an A3 report, ask to see it. It will give you a better understanding of how the individual sees the problem. Chances are you are closer to the process than he or she is, and can probably offer some great insight. You may even identify an error that can help prevent your life from being harder down the road.
If you have aspirations to move up in your organization, the A3 process is a great way to show what you can do. They tend to be used for important projects, and have a good deal of attention paid to them by the decision-makers in the company. Ask your boss for some opportunities to participate in the A3 process. Tip: Sitting in on a mentor meeting is a good way to gain knowledge about the process a little more quickly.
If you want to be a top performer in a Lean company, make A3 thinking your go-to problem solving methodology for anything that crosses a functional boundary or involves multiple work areas. In addition to helping you develop critical thinking, it hones several other skills that will be invaluable to you.
Many new leaders struggle with talking to senior managers. The A3 report gives them experience in a structured manner. They know what to expect, are working on something positive, and have a chance to be well-prepared for the meeting. It can provide a great opportunity to build a network.
That network building also extends to managers at a similar level. In some companies, leaders are so compartmentalized, they seldom get to know their peers anything more than a passing level. Working together on an A3 report helps build strong relationships.
Communication skills are also refined. Put bluntly, many managers are horrible writers. Grammar aside, it can be a challenge to figure out what a person is saying. Sugar coating abounds. People are reluctant to commit to an idea, so write in a wishy-washy style. (i.e. The problem could be related to the gyros, but there is also evidence that the gyros are testing out OK.) A3 reports, because of their brevity and scrutiny, quickly cure people of many bad writing habits.
There are two types of A3 reports. The first is the one that most people commonly think of, the problem solving version. The second, and much more seldom used version, is the proposal or status A3 report. Don’t worry much about learning the second version until you have some degree of mastery with the first.
A3 thinking takes lots of practice until it becomes second nature. While A3 reports tend to be reserved for bigger projects, you should strive to get to the point where you are going through the steps in your head for even the most minor of issues.
© 2009-2014 by Velaction Continuous Improvement, LLC. All rights reserved.
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