Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor and Lead
Toyota insider John Shook invites you to be a detective, artist and business analyst with this crisp text that unfolds A3 management thinking in an illustrated narrative. Whether you regard A3 as a process, a methodology or simply the creative use of a large piece of paper, Shook pulls you into rigorous problem solving. This serious process that helps many companies shine in manufacturing excellence lets you, in part, feel like a five-year-old again as you dig deeper and keep asking “Why? Why? Why?” until you hit the “root cause” of your business problem. getAbstract recommends Shook’s easily applied (if you think about your results as you work through it) manual to all engineers, managers, mentors and total quality coaches seeking to understand problem solving through a lean-manufacturing lens.
- A3 is a process that helps you innovate, plan and solve problems.
- The A3 approach provides a template for “standardized storytelling.” First, you must find a concise way to describe your story’s problem.
- Find “the problem beneath the problem,” even if that involves investigating again.
- “Going to the gemba” means going to the physical place where you can show and specify your problem.
- Use the “Five Whys” examination practice to dig for the real “root cause” of an issue.
- Create a set of “countermeasures” rather than embrace quick-fix solutions.
- Nourish the “nemawashi” by preparing the ground before planting new ideas in your organization.
- Use the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” (PDCA) cycle to drive your A3 process.
- When assigning project timelines, consider “Just-In-Time Decision Making.”
- Throughout your A3 process, practice “hansei,” the Japanese term for “self-reflection.”
“What Is an A3?”
Consider a piece of paper 11 inches long and 17 inches wide – this is the international paper size known as A3. When lean companies like Toyota discuss A3s, they mean using an A3 sheet of paper as a tool to help them work through concrete manufacturing issues. The A3 management approach utilizes this larger-size paper format to standardize how a company innovates, plans and solves problems. An A3 is a piece of paper, a methodology and a process – all at the same time.
“A story is more than lifeless data to prove a point. It brings the facts and the total reality of the condition to life so the reader can understand and debate the true nature of the situation.”
The idea behind an A3 problem-solving process is that you can capture whatever difficulty you face in business on a single piece of paper. You can then discuss it with others as a shared problem, find a solution together, implement that solution and evaluate your success. Every A3 process follows a specific structure made up of these essential components:
- “Title”– How can you best label the problem at hand?
- “Background”– What is the problem’s context?
- “Current conditions” – What do you already know about the problem?
- “Goals” and “targets”– What outcomes do you strive for?
- “Analysis”– What led to the problem?
- “Proposed countermeasures”– What suggested activities will you pursue to reach your desired outcomes?
- “Plan”– In your view, who should do what?
- “Follow up”– When will you review your A3 process?
“The A3 is the instrument enabling the right decision at the right time.”
Designate an “owner” of the problem being investigated – perhaps you, if you are preparing the A3 – and show the dates of the A3’s creation and revisions. Note that your A3 resembles a résumé, and though every résumé includes similar elements, each one may look different in presentation. The same is true for your A3 creation, where you follow a logical process of problem identification and resolution, using your own words and the style and layout that best represent the problem at hand. Your only limit is the 11-by-17-inch, blank A3 piece of paper.
Identify the Problem
Think of your A3 as a template for “standardized storytelling.” Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end – told in that order. Start with the title and find a concise way to describe the specific problem. Make sure your story is easy to follow. If you are not clear about how to define the problem you are trying to resolve, the remainder of your A3 story will be hard to comprehend. A famous adage reveals the fundamental, driving truth of the A3 process: “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” Think about what you, as the A3 owner, want to talk about in your story. Spend time at the beginning of the process on your title and the definition of the problem. Seeing the problem with clarity and describing it concisely are the lynchpins of a successful A3 process. If your words on paper don’t clearly state the problem, try again.
“Like any narrative tale, an A3 shares a complete story.”
Consider the problem’s background: What is its wider context, and why do you need to solve precisely this problem? Don’t just write that you have, for example, “massive technical requirements” in your business. Be specific: Quantify the scale, scope and importance of these issues. When you draft the current conditions, challenge yourself about how much you really know about the problem. If you need to learn more, do the necessary research.
“Like homicide detectives who refer to cases as ‘closed’…rather than ‘solved,’ A3 owners seek countermeasures to problems instead of permanent solutions.”
You are now in the process of discovery. To capture the situation fully, go to the problem’s main physical location, or its “gemba” in Japanese. The gemba can be the manufacturing shop floor, a colleague’s office or a hospital unit – the actual, physical locus of the problem, which might be any place in your organization where people work and create value for customers. “Going to the gemba” and asking questions helps you discover what is really going on. Exploring the gemba enables you to gather detail on your company’s work methods directly from the people who perform the jobs. Going to the gemba also helps you look beyond the “presenting problem” so you can go back and continue writing your story.
Find the “Root Cause”
As you work on the goals and analysis sections of your A3, you may risk confusing problem symptoms, root causes and possible solutions. Be wary of jumping to the fastest way to solve the problem. Instead, break it down further until you truly understand what causes the issue.
“Real improvement only can take place when there is a front-line focus based on direct observation of current conditions where work is done.”
Some problems are messier than they first seem, but even so, you can use A3 techniques and principles to structure your “investigative process.” Think of this process as a funnel. Start with your perception of the presenting problem. Next, ask what the pain points are in your organization. Find out how these pain points affect the performance of your business. Clarifying performance issues brings you closer to the “real problem.” Now that you have more direct data available from visiting the gemba, analyze the data using “Five Whys.”
Five Whys is a root-cause examination tool. Ask the simple question “why” over and over in response to every answer or procedure you discover. This helps you dig deep enough to find the source of the problem. This practice is fundamental to the Toyota Production System. It provides the scientific basis of the process of discovery. Imagine that a production machine stops running. What are the Five Whys you can ask to help discover the root cause of the problem?
- Question: Why did the production unit cease running? Answer: The machine indicated an “overload.”
- Question: Why did the machine have an overload? Answer: Some parts of the machine did not have sufficient oil.
- Question: Why did the parts not have sufficient oil? Answer: The oil pump was not working well.
- Question: Why was the pump not working well? Answer: Parts of the pump were worn and were making short, sharp knocking sounds.
- Question: Why were the pump parts making short, sharp knocking sounds? Answer: No filter was attached to the pump’s opening and some metal parts must have fallen in.
“Lean management is neither a simple top-down nor bottom-up process. Rather, it is a dynamic system in which processes are well-defined and individual responsibility is clear.”
Asking “why” five times enables you and your teams to focus on the underlying causes of a problem instead of dealing only with its symptoms. Your task is to find “the problem beneath the problem,” even if that means going back to the gemba, gathering more information and revising your A3 multiple times.
How do countermeasures and solutions differ? Countermeasures are designed to close the gap between the current state of your issue and the goals you want to achieve by solving it permanently. Solutions are “temporary responses to specific problems that will serve until a better approach is found or conditions change.”
“Once a countermeasure is in place, it will create a new situation, with its own set of problems that will require their own countermeasures.”
As an A3 owner, your goal is to find countermeasures rather than solutions. The process of finding countermeasures involves coming up with different ways your proposed actions will address the existing problem. Going through this iterative cycle between problem, root cause and countermeasures might frustrate you at first, but this is part of the philosophy of going back and modifying continually while never prematurely jumping to conclusions.
“Simply clarifying what we mean when we say ‘problem’ can be powerful.”
You can involve others in the process of proposing countermeasures. Go back to the gemba and talk to people who can help you identify the problem and find the root cause. Gathering new ideas and creating involvement is crucial for implementing countermeasures later. The Japanese term “nemawashi” describes just that, the step of “preparing the ground for planting.” Without consensus, you can’t implement countermeasures. Without nemawashi, no seed of change can sprout, develop and grow. Involve your colleagues in the A3 process so the decision to implement change will grow naturally and accelerate decision making about implementation.
Make a “Plan and Follow Up”
The “Plan, Do, Check, Act” (PDCA) cycle drives your A3 process. All four activities are important when deciding the “who,” the “what” and the “when” of your implementation plan. A “Gantt chart” helps you depict your plan by specifying deliverables, dependencies and the duration of each action. Identify who is responsible and who reviews each activity’s progress. Consider what might go wrong, and add those probabilities to your plan.
“Critical to successful implementation of the Toyota Production System is a simple tool commonly referred to as ‘Five Whys’.”
Agree on the allocation of responsibilities within your team. No one wants to take on a new assignment unexpectedly. Going back to the gemba, even at this point in the process, helps your team members contribute their insights before you finalize the plan. By now, you should be accustomed to going back and forth and revising the plan with your colleagues on the spot. This iteration is key to the A3 process and to discovering the correct countermeasures.
“In companies whose thinking is informed by the A3 process, managers at every level make the right decision only when it is exactly the right time to do so.”
When you assign timing targets, consider “Just-In-Time Decision Making” as an alternative to staggered decision deadlines. Trigger individual decision making when the time is right. Assess all decision-making options and concentrate your team discussion on the facts at hand. Your A3 template and process will help you make decisions when you should.
Develop “A3 Thinkers”
Your A3 template may be finished – but you are not. Implementing your countermeasures and putting your plan into action means continuously reviewing your PDCA cycle with your team. Reviewing your work regularly ensures that your team members have the opportunity to become familiar with A3 thinking. Developing team members is one of your main goals as an A3 owner.
“Authority is pulled to where it is needed when it is needed: on-demand, just-in-time, pull-based authority.”
Rather than exercising top-down authority, engage each team member at each level of the organization. Make sure all your team members know what they are responsible for and that they feel their sense of ownership over part of the process. Be available for two-way discussion when they ask for input. Root your interaction in “pull-based authority” – an A3 process principle. Another principle is to practice “hansei,” a Japanese word that means “self-reflection.” Set up hansei meetings when your project hits major milestones and when it is about to conclude. Regularly hold less formal hansei sessions with your team members to develop your and their capacity to reflect critically on pending actions, and to prevent repetition of the same mistakes. Hansei resembles the “After Action Review” you find in many US organizations.
“Understanding any problem is the first step to improvement and, theoretically, resolving it.”
Once you learn the A3 format and template, wipe them out of your memory. You now know and understand the philosophy. Your blank A3 sheet of paper becomes your constant companion.
Case History: A3 at “Acme Manufacturing”
Ken Sanderson is the US site manager of Acme Manufacturing, the American subsidiary of a Japanese manufacturing company. Acme plans to expand its factory to its increase output capacity. Ken assigns his direct report, Desi Porter, to manage the project using the A3 process. Porter is new to this method, so his learning develops as the project unfolds.
“Mistakes happen – celebrate finding them.”
Porter tries to get everything right the first time and, naturally, he fails. As you consider the development of his thinking, notice how he passes through “three key stages of awareness”:
- Porter starts with suggesting premature solutions– He feels pressured by the urgency of the factory expansion, Porter does not allow enough thinking time for himself or his team. He feels emotionally attached to his premature solution.
- Sanderson teaches Porter to be an “investigator” rather than a “problem solver”– Porter realizes he can learn much more about the situation if he goes to the gemba and lets the “needs and facts of the situation speak for themselves.”
- Porter discovers how to champion the implementation– Porter becomes an “entrepreneurial owner” of his A3 proposal and his project. Sanderson shows Porter how “to solve problems, gain agreement, mentor and lead” using the A3 strategy.
About the Author
An industrial anthropologist who focuses on lean production principles, John Shook is a former manager at Toyota.