A3s are a formal process to document and report solutions in a storyboard fashion on a single sheet of paper. It actually takes a big piece of paper, 11 x 17, or two 8 1/2 x 11 sheets. The paper is laid out with the left side defining the problem and the right side proposing the solutions.
The benefits of A3 are:
- It helps define a standard for all to use.
- It provides a clear and concise method of reporting information.
- The method of operation is visible and accessible to all.
- It prevents the habit of jumping to solutions.
- It can promote communication and team working.
- It is a continuous improvement activity.
- It creates an efficient working environment.
- It empowers the people closest to the work.
So what is so special? I think it has several qualities:
- It makes you think graphically.
- It forces you to make the story flow logically.
- It makes you condense words.
- It creates collaboration and teamwork.
The format to follow for the A3s can vary as long as your storyline stays intact. The value comes from the thinking that goes into generating the A3 reports (as Tim Berry of Palo Alto Software says, “It’s the act of creating the plan that has value”, not conformance to a specific template. If you’re familiar with the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) process, it can make a great beginning as you can think of A3 as a mini-PDCA.
There are basically four types of A3: Problem Solving, Proposal, Status and Strategy. For a complete description and understanding of these, I would recommend reading Understanding A3 Thinking by Sobek and Smalley. This, in my opinion, is the foremost work on A3 thinking and description of its use.
- The Problem Solving A3 report is the most common and is the basis for all of the others. It is has been called the thinking form. This structure is the primary tool that Toyota has used to enact PDCA throughout their organization.
- The Proposal A3 format is basically the same as the problem solving report except the implementation stage and follow-up are pending. It defines what you are going to do; it is a proposal. Many times it could even be a pilot or a sample offering stating that with these types of results, we will proceed. This type of documentation is very common in marketing. I even use this structure for my own marketing proposals and quotes.
- The third type of A3 is the Status report. Think of it as a snapshot of the situation. From this, you can develop a call-to-action but it is not meant to be a problem-solving exercise. The status report is much like an end-month balance sheet.
- The Strategy A3 focuses on a business planning strategy or in the case of this writing a marketing plan. It is planning report that looks at strategy for a longer period and at a higher level than the others.
We will concentrate on the problem solving A3. It is the most common and creates the best learning tool for A3 thinking. There is a basic nine-step process that takes place. A complete description of the A3 process can be found in the book, Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping to Add Value and Eliminate MUDA.
Title/Theme: What Changes or Improvement Are You Talking About?
- Select the problem area
- Clarify the problem
- Break down the problem
- Set the target
- Investigate/analyze cause(s) then determine root cause
- Determine countermeasures and agree on plan
- Manage implementation plan
- Check and evaluate results and process
- Standardize and share, then decide next problem
A3 Problem Solving: Applying Lean Thinking by Jamie Flinchbaugh is an excellent beginning to understanding A3s. One of the key components in the book is his view of the flow and responsibilities within the A3. The outline to the right depicts Jamie’s version of an A3.
Do you try to quickly to get to why? The purpose of most questioning is to stimulate reflective thinking by probing for needs and concerns. Instead of probing with the 5 why’s try a more subtle approach or architecture for your sales and marketing.
In the paper, The Art and Architecture of Powerful Questions by Eric Vogt, he states that most groups working on this dimension of linguistic architecture produce a variant of the following general hierarchy.
The general thesis is that virtually any question can be converted into a more powerful question by moving up the pyramid. As an example, consider the following sequence:
- Are you feeling okay?
- Where does it hurt?
- How are you feeling in general?
- Why do you suppose you aren’t feeling well?
As we move from the simple yes/no question towards the why question, you probably notice that the questions tend to motivate more reflective thinking, and are generally more “powerful. There are refinements within this dimension of linguistic architecture available to an interested practitioner. For instance, using the conditional tense rather than the present tense will often invite greater reflective speculation:
- What can we do?
seems to offer fewer possibilities than…
- What could we do?
I like the Toyota architecture because Why is too powerful of a question to start with. Toyota’s, seven step “Practical Problem Solving Process” model encourages you to stay away from why till the fourth step.
- Initial problem perception
- Clarify the problem
- Locate area or point of concern
- Investigate root cause (5 Whys)
They actually follow a similar architecture depicted in the triangle above. They used simple closed ended questions to identify and clarify the problem and then locate the area of concern though the 5 whys. Not the 5 Whys of root cause, but the 5 whys of When, Who, Where, Which and What. (The red is my adaption of the problem solving funnel)
The power of the first 5 whys is where the true power of discovery lies. It is the focusing step that provides clarity and provides the basis for agreement. Without these steps irrelevant information may be acted upon and finding agreement on root cause may be difficult. Effective action can only follow clear thinking. Providing a consensus on the point of concern before moving to root cause is imperative. In the paper cited, author Eric Vogt goes on to state:
The dialogue group concluded that clearly one dimension which defines a powerful question is this linguistic architecture. However, other factors are also at play when we consider the relative power of the following two questions:
- Why is my coat unbuttoned?
- Where can we find spiritual peace?
This is an instance where most people would say that the “where” question has somewhat greater power than the “why” question. After reflection, we hypothesized that there were probably three dimensions which define a powerful question: Architecture, Context and Scope.”
Daniel Matthews is an expert trainer with 30 years of training experience including Lean implementation and Training within Industry (TWI). He has spent fourteen of those years with the Toyota Company where he created and made use of the A3 as a core component of continuous quality improvement. Dan is the author of The A3 Workbook: Unlock Your Problem-Solving Mind and presently employed at the Kentucky Manufacturing Assistance Center.