What is A3 Problem Solving?
A3 problem solving is a Lean approach to reporting issues and presenting ways of addressing them. The simple method, developed by Toyota, bases on documenting a problem, together with its current outcome and a suggested change, on a single sheet of A3 paper (420x297mm) giving it the name. It’s used to make a process change proposal, to report on project status, or solve a problem.
A3 is based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Though it appears to be a step-by-step process, the method tends to be used iteratively, with the problem and solution sections being cyclically updated.
Taiichi Ohno of Toyota was known for not appreciating reports longer than one page, which helped the proliferation of the A3 approach within the automotive giant’s offices. Furthermore, the ability to quickly discern what a problem is and to understand its solution is true to Lean values.
Lean emphasizes visualization, with examples in value stream mapping and Kanban’s workflow visualization, making a single-page report presenting what is going on was a welcome addition to a Lean operation.
It is through a company’s common use of A3s to solve all problems and plan initiatives, that they in effect start to operate an A3 system thinking methodology to address difficulties, plan change, innovate, and curate logical reasoning, rooted in the company’s current needs.
Why use the A3 approach to solving problems?
Lean provides a competitive advantage, strategic and operational benefits through its objective to increase the value delivered to the customer and to reduce waste. Engaging in a process that allows the team to find the correct, best solution in the shortest possible time is extremely beneficial.
Understandably, some reports and proposals must contain hundreds of pages of data, and they have their place in a business environment. But imagine the value and advantage that distilling this information to 1 page has, and consider how much faster decisions can be made, based on that. Besides the time savings, the opportunity to use the systematic approach of PDCA supplements the problem-solving skills required to propose good solutions.
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Dwight Eisenhower
It’s the act of planning that is important, as it spells out all known obstacles, visualizes the action plan, and helps to foresee potential outcomes and issues along the way. While documenting your problem on an A3 piece of paper may or may not yield benefits, the act of implementing A3 thinking is what makes the difference.
The benefits of using A3 thinking are:
- Quicker problem solving
through logical reasoning and application of a step-by-step, visual process. Demanding a root cause identification ensures that problems are dealt with, not just temporarily masked.
- Easier planning
thanks to the application of objective, critical thinking promoted by the A3’s structure
- Team development
through repeated use of a structural tool to find root causes of problems and their best solutions. The use of one tool across all company levels also promotes cross-department collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- Company growth
A3s help to maintain and keep company knowledge on record, helping to sustain good operating policies and build a strong growth culture, rooted in solving a company’s actual problems, not abstract ideas.
How to create an A3 report?
You can download an A3 report pdf template here.
Step 1: The title
It should focus on the problem that you are trying to solve, and not the solution you are trying to convey. Examples of titles are: “Decrease Team Misunderstanding of Task Instructions” or “Reduce Customer Complaints with Product XYZ”.
Step 2: Background
According to the authors of “Understanding A3 Thinking: A Critical Component of Toyota’s PDCA Management System”, one of the key strengths of Toyota is that they place importance on understanding a problem. Rather than rush onto a solution, Toyota takes the time to truly understand what is going on. The principle of going on a Gemba walk attests to this need to truly understand.
The report’s background section conveys important related facts, and how the problem aligns with the company’s strategic objectives. Presenting this right there on the page helps to minimize the cost that a board of highly paid executives would need to spend looking at a problem, without a guarantee of them understanding it, nor coming up with the right solution. Consider this checklist for your background section:
- do I know the needs of my report’s audience?
- have I provided enough context?
- does what I’m presenting align with the audience’s strategic goals?
- can the background be explained in 30 seconds?
Step 3: Current condition
A correct definition and a good understanding of the problem is your path to finding the right solution. That makes working on defining the current condition 90 % of the A3 effort.
The objective here is to make sure everyone is aware of what the problem is, whether the report documents it properly, or is there anything that people know to question the report’s findings. The use of graphs, charts, or other visual aids is beneficial.
Step 4: Goal
The bull’s eye that you’re shooting for. If you hit this target, you know that your problem-solving effort has been a success. But you need to know what metrics will be used to measure success, and what the definition of success is. An example could be to reduce customer complaints by 15%, as measured by your call center statistics.
Step 5: The root cause
The focus of the root cause section should be to differentiate between facts and opinions regarding a problem’s cause and effect. You can include your findings from 5 Whys exercises, an Ishikawa diagram, or any other result of your RCA efforts. If the root cause is not defined correctly, the problem will likely resurface, causing waste, hence negating the Lean principles.
Step 6: Countermeasures
Modern A3 reports refer to this section as solutions, but staying with countermeasures should help to relay that the actions aim to deal with a problem iteratively, along with the values of continuous improvement, rather than finally and unchangeably.
The section may include a table of the problem causes, actions taken, action owners, and the results achieved.
Step 7: Effect confirmation
Since the A3 exercise is based on the PDCA cycle, this section of your report should show the effort you have expended to confirm your findings, the proof that you have indeed solved the problem. For example, software engineers tend to include samples of replicating the original bugs and of verification of them no longer presenting after a fix.
If the exercise has not yet been conducted, i.e. when you’re presenting a plan to gain approval for, you should outline what exercises will be conducted to check if the plan has been successful.
Step 8: Follow up actions
The final section should include any other actions that you might want to be considered. A principle that is worth adhering to here is the “Shitsuke - sustain” step of the 5S plan. Consider what you should do to ensure the benefits of this exercise are maintained, and could they possibly be translated to other areas of the company?
An A3 problem solving report will help you deliver information in a way that provides instant value and can quickly reduce waste.
The most important thing to remember is that the act of Lean problem solving is more important than creating an A3 document that may contain no valid data, and be simply a tick on some corporate checklist.
The same is true of all Lean methods and tools - their application alone will not make your company Lean. To truly implement Lean principles, your company culture, thinking, and planning all have to transform.