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A3: Tool or Process? Both....


Several recent posts in the dojo have raised the important question of whether the A3 is a tool, or a process. I’d like to answer this question by saying…the A3 is both.

Having said that, I will add that individuals in organizations that are practicing A3 thinking need to understand the difference between the A3 as the tool, and the A3 as the process. These are separate and distinct things. They must be willing to explore why this activity pays off. Unfortunately, many organizations only see the “tool” side—focusing only on the piece of paper and not the thinking behind it—resulting in short term gains and a “flavor of the month” mentality.

In Managing to Learn, John Shook calls an A3 report a visual manifestation of our/your thinking. As a container for this process, consider the piece of paper with the various size boxes as a blank canvas to capture your work. And your work is done by engaging people at the gemba. I see too many organizations getting hung up on using a specific template, or requiring finished A3s to be so similar that the individuals doing the work are drilled into thinking about the template as a tool, and not the thinking behind it. Learning to follow this PDCA sequence is a practice that takes patience and discipline. Individuals whose primary goal is to complete the form will start with solutions first because their conception of the tool as a mere piece of paper means filling in the boxes in the quickest way possible.

Now, let’s remember that the value of the A3 as a tool can’t be understated. We just need to clarify how. And that is what I like to call “lean communication,” or a “5S of information” enabling you to share your thinking with others. Once we have used the PDCA process in the correct sequence we can then produce a document that others can see and understand easily. This form of “standardized story-telling” (to cite Managing to Learn again) is key within any culture practicing lean thinking and can be a powerful tool to engage and empower leaders, as well as the front lines. The A3 as a tool in this regard cuts across all silos and can become the common language for successful lean transformation.

The Japanese often referred to the A3 as a storyboard. It does just that, telling a story that follows the PDCA process, allowing anyone at any level to be involved, sharing the learning experience in the form of shared wisdom. Can you imagine how important this practice could be to a company and the improvement of their key performance indicators and strategy deployment? Some refer to this practice as catch-ball, the sharing of information back and forth between leaders and workers working towards the improvement of the company business plan/strategy. When an A3 owner uses the tool side to explain his/her process side, then the learning and development is complete, fulfilling the A3 management process.  

So never lose sight of the thinking process that enables you to complete an A3—which then serves as a way of capturing, communicating, and building on what was learned. Remember what goes into the A3. As I see it, when an individual decides to become an A3 owner it’s important to follow the PDCA process when you pick up that paper and pencil and head to the gemba. It’s not about just “filling in” the boxes in some random order based on an assumption; but rather a specific process that asks a series of questions that requires engagement of people showing them respect where the work is being done. This process can be followed at the worker level as well as the company level to always understand where we want to be in regard to where we are.

The PDCA (Plan Do Check Action) is a systematic or scientific way of thinking that ask Socratic-type questions in a preferred sequence allowing the problem to be effectively and efficiently solved. The PDCA has many built-in mechanisms that keep the owner in check. I often say if the process talks to you and you listen then it’s working. If you ignore the process and jump over crucial steps then the process may be compromised and your results could be skewed—or lucky. It’s always good to adhere to the steps and allow the process to work for you so you can repeat that with others and develop your workforce using the same thinking.

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