The simple A3 paper size - in the US we use 11”x17” – has become the go to instrument on Lean projects for design solution development and reporting, retrospectives, project dashboards and even proposals. At its most basic, the power of the A3 is that encourages (or enforces depending on how strictly managers adhere to the principles) a type of essentialism by requiring that all key information is laid out on a single sheet of 11x17 paper and is typically kept very visual.
Mark Twain is credited1 with having once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.” Similarly, utilizing A3 on Lean projects can help our team members get into an operating mode of ‘going slow to go fast’. The paper size and essentialism of the A3 alone is likely not what made John Shook praise it’s impact on Toyota’s operations2. When you factor in that the A3 also incorporates a standard problem-solving process, a healthy dose of collaborative development and a mechanism for Lean Leaders to teach and mentor Lean Learners in problems solving and PDCA thinking, it starts to make sense.
The power in the A3 is in how you leverage it as a learning and integration tool. Let’s look first at the most standard format. The Problem Solving A3 (A3 Template.docx) introduces a simple incremental step by step format to support root cause thinking. The steps are:
Background & Current Condition
The first two steps define the problem. In our case, the problem could be and undesirable outcome we want to fix, or a solution to a building design question we are trying to answer. Fundamental to A3 thinking is that we don’t jump ahead to finding the solution, until everyone (collaborators, stakeholders, leadership, etc.) are aligned on how we are defining the problem and that we are defining the root of the problem. This requires collaboration, alignment and learning from various perspectives.
Goals & Targets
What value do we want the outcome to look like? How will we know we’ve solved the problem successfully? On a Target Value Design project, this should be tightly connected with the projects Value Definition and Conditions of Satisfaction statements.
Now that we’ve done the hard work of really understanding the problem, we can get on to the fun steps of seeking and analyzing possible solutions! One of the common analysis processes that works especially well with design option A3s is Choosing by Advantage; however the analysis method is dependent on the problem we are trying to solve.
As in the problem definition, we want to make sure the analysis is done collaboratively and visually with engagement of stakeholders, team members and project leaders. This is not a time to jump into a silo and present finished work. As we are exploring and analyzing options, we are building alignment and pulling input from all stakeholders which may evolve the analysis – and sometimes even our understanding of the problem. This is all part of how PDCA is embedded in A3.
The analysis section should, again as visually as possible, explain the essential inputs, process, and outputs of the analysis. There may well be details behind the scenes, e.g., financial models, detailed CBAs, or other data sets, etc., but the point of the A3 is to distill all this down into the key analysis factors worth reporting.
Proposal (Countermeasure or Recommended Option)
Once the team is confident – and aligned – on the analysis we are ready to propose a plan of action. This should present the recommended option or countermeasure and the analysis should back up the team’s recommendation. In the case of design options presented to the owner, we are not saying for example – pick from these 3. The proposal is for the one option the team believes to be the best answer based on knowledge developed of the customer, project values and through the A3 process of the background, current condition, and future goals.
There are times when the team gets all the way to the proposal, and it is not accepted. In A3 methodology this is a great learning opportunity and one more cycle of PDCA.
Once we are aligned and the proposed design option or countermeasure is selected, the A3 also documents the next required steps in implementing. For a design element this may simply be some planning dates for design documentation, estimating and details. For other types of problems or retrospectives the implementation plan may go into more detail on what is required and by when it will happen.
We must finally be done now, right? We applied lots of rigors in understanding the problem, created detailed analysis, accepted a recommendation, and know what we need to do to implement – collaborating and integrating along the way.
The challenge with continuous improvement is that it’s continuous, so we’re not quite done with the A3 process yet as there’s a final step:
Follow Up (aka the Check & Adjust of PDCA)
We won’t really know if our proposed solution or countermeasure effectively solved the root problem or provided the expected value to the customer until we’ve executed the implementation plan and are able to reflect on the outcome. Therefore, the final process step of the A3 method is when and how to check in on and validate if the results match expectation and if not, what additional learning or countermeasures can we draw from the new current state.
From an organization perspective this means that A3 should remain living documents that we revisit through retrospective, but also which help inform future teams or collaborators. As your team begins to engage with using A3 problem solving method, keep in mind that it’s not about the produced document as an outcome, rather the level of collaboration, learning and input that went into the analysis which the final document then represents. Using A3’s effectively will not only help your team develop effective problem solving and decision-making skills, but also build stakeholder alignment and depth of insight into how problems were solved.
1. 1975 May 7, Chicago Tribune, Traveler’s guide: Postcard writing is the vacationer’s art, by Carol Baker, Section 3, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers.com)
2. ‘Toyota’s Secret: The A3 Report’, John Shook , MITSloan Management Review, Vol. 50 No.5, Summer 2009