Have you ever pulled up the "Print" options to select how you wanted a document printed, and saw one of the print formats as being an "A3?" It is an odd size—11.69 x 16.54in or (29.7 x 42.0cm). It's a traditional landscape size in Europe, Asia and rest of the world that uses the metric system of measurement. A3 is a paper size that is typically used for drawings, diagrams and large tables. It is also frequently used in laser printers to output two A4 pages as a spread. In addition to being an option when printing, it also has a much deeper meaning in the problem-solving and planning world.
Many organizations use the A3 model’s process and report capabilities as a structured and powerful tool for problem resolution and communications to further critical thinking. The basic concept is to put the main storyline on a single sheet of paper that is 11x17 inches (A3 metric format). You would be surprised how much you can communicate on a single page and eliminate the unnecessary and superfluous information to the reader.
Isao Kato, former manager of training at Toyota, describes the A3 Model as a combination of forces including the PDCA Cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act), the basic steps for a quality check (QC) circle, and using the Toyota concept of "making things visible at a single glance." It also has origins in the humorous anecdotes of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System (which became lean manufacturing in the United States), who refused to read more than the first page of written reports. Instead, he would say "Let's go and see," and make people "get the facts" while he tested their thinking.
The A3 Model’s Problem-Solving Efficiency
Problem-solving is a universal job skill that applies to any position and every organization. While everyone in an organization has at some point been tasked with solving a problem, not all are successful at moving beyond the symptoms. Most organizations have templates and knowledge of the problem-solving tools, so why aren’t they more successful at problem-solving? Could it be the method or process chosen?
Some view problem-solving events as just another task to check off a to-do list. Some view problem solving as a “process of the month” and are not successful in eliminating problems. Some jump to conclusions and solutions too fast without understanding the real root causes.
Organizations need a simple but effective way to identify and correct problems. While there is no “magic” in the physical A3 document itself, it is the heart of a stepped process that leads to effective problem solving. It becomes an effective visual communication tool, where the goal is always to solve problems in a structured manner while engaging everyone in the organization.
As Jim Womack, founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute, said, "The most basic definition of an A3 would be a PDCA storyboard or report, which reflects Toyota's way of capturing the PDCA process on one sheet of paper. But the broader notion of the A3 as a process embodies the way of thinking represented in the format, which captures the heart of lean management. In this context, an A3 document structures effective and efficient dialogue that fosters understanding followed by the opportunity for deep agreement.”
How to Fully Use the A3 Model
Examine the diagram in Figure 1. Where would your organization fall on this chart? Our observation is most people who use A3s use them on on special projects as a “report-out” tool of the results. Although this provides the benefit of a quick summary, it doesn’t begin to take advantage of the benefit of the A3 or of the A3 process. Using an A3 as a report-out tool is like using a smartphone exclusively for phone calls. Yes, you are getting some value, but only a fraction of what is possible. The body of a Lamborghini Aventador hardly pays homage to the powerful V-12 under the hood in this half a million-dollar car.
Companies that successfully implement the A3 process for decision-making, strategic planning, proposals, and problem-solving can realize instant and sustainable gains. Large companies, like Toyota, have been successful in its application for years. Toyota views problems as opportunities to improve its processes and its products versus seeing them as barriers or obstacles.
At Toyota, no problem is a problem! Toyota takes advantage of a problem by approaching it as a means to grow its employees, processes and products. Every A3 that is completed builds better problem-solvers and strategic thinkers. Figure 2 shows the A3 format.
It is a visual tool that everyone in the organization understands and can see the progress or outcome, without spending a lot of time looking thru documents and directories. It is a "one-stop-shop" for information on the intent, progress, results and more. Companies that use the A3 tool have these displayed in centralized locations where they can be viewed by many.
The format of the Toyota A3 looks similar to problem solving templates created by U.S. companies in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, Ford Motor Company created an 8.5-inch by 11-inch 8D Problem-Solving template as shown here in Figure 3.
Figure 4 shows an A3 we helped a client develop for a 2017 Implementation Plan of Total Process Reliability (TPR).
Figure 5 is an example of several published A3s displayed where employees can view the progress of an initiative or project.
Using the A3 Model in Your Business
The widespread adoption of the A3 Model process standardizes a methodology for innovating, planning, problem-solving and building foundational structures. However, its ability to help create a broader and deeper form of thinking to approach complex issues and challenges makes it a great tool. The A3 model can be used to further the following:
- Anytime you wish to clearly tell a story, especially when you wish to simplify or clarify a complicated issue
- Can be used as a jumping off point for Kaizen efforts
- Provides a clear and concise method of reporting information
- Used to teach problem-solving
- Creates efficient working environment
Shigeo Shingo, author of "A Study of the Toyota Production System," is credited with saying, “The best approach is to dig out and eliminate problems where they are assumed not to exist.”
For several excellent resources on this versatile tool, read “Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems” by John Shook and Jim Womack. Another great source is “Understanding A3 Thinking: A Critical Component of Toyota’s PDCA Management System” by Durward Sobeck II, which is referenced in the diagram in Figure 6. So, the next time you are thinking about approaching a project, imagine Toyota’s Lean Founder, Taiichi Ohno, saying, “Keep it on one page,” and apply the A3 model to your efforts.