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Using A3 Problem Solving to Make the Thinking Process Visible

Liker, Jeffrey, and Convis, Gary


The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, a new book by Jeff Liker and Gary Convis, represents a huge leap forward in the literature about lean leadership. Their book contains a wealth of information about the specific ways that Toyota develops lean leaders, and it presents these ideas in a way that will help readers improve their current practice in this area. And while this book shares invaluable details about the what and the why of the specific practices, by sharing stories from Gary Convis’s experience this new resource animates the ideas with evocative first-hand authority. The following excerpt from the book touches upon A3 thinking and leading. Next week we will publish an interview with Gary about his experience using A3s.

In his early days at NUMMI, Gary’s worst fears became a daily reality. Since there was no room for inventory in the body shop, getting the people highly trained and the equipment stable was a daily challenge, and TPS provided many, many opportunities for development. With the frequent breakdowns of the machines, fixing the problems at the root cause was essential to maintaining production. In Japan, the vendors who built the equipment regularly came on site to help fix the problems, but NUMMI in California was on its own.

Gary and his team struggled for years to solve one problem after another and did quite a good job of keeping the line running, but there was still a large gap between NUMMI’s performance and the level of equipment uptime in Japan. Ironically, the guy who brought the body shop up to a new level was not a manufacturing executive, but someone who came out of finance in Japan. Mr. Fumitaka Ito became president of NUMMI and was not satisfied with the uptime of the body shop. He also noticed the body-shop engineers spending too much time in the office, which of course meant the problems were not going to get solved. In one meeting, he asked Gary to start a new practice. Whenever equipment was shut down for 30 minutes or more, he wanted a personal report from the engineers, with Gary present. The report should be on one side of one piece of paper, the famous Toyota “A3 report” (after the A3 paper size used in the metric system). Ito did not offer a training course on A3, but rather asked for a “breakdown report” for each instance and suggested that the Japanese engineers in the body shop would be able to show the American engineers how to prepare it.

The purpose of the report is to produce, in a single page, a “problem- solving story” that summarizes the problem, its root cause, and the countermeasures taken to solve the problem. Toyota uses a standard approach to problem solving that is now known as Toyota Business Practices (see sidebar). The single-page report details the problem, the gap between the current and ideal states, the root causes of the problem, possible countermeasures, the countermeasures tried, the results, and further actions required. The engineers’ job was not only to fix the breakdown but to identify why the breakdown happened (for example, improper maintenance, user error, or defective inputs) and to address the root causes so that the breakdown would not be repeated. The engineers were to present the report personally to Ito and Gary within a week of the breakdown.

By approaching the situation this way, Ito was addressing several needs at once. First, he was addressing the production problems that NUMMI was having in a sustainable way (rather than putting production goals first and just letting the Japanese engineers solve the problems). Second, he was creating a development opportunity for the American engineers to practice their problem-solving skills. By instituting the policy of having the American engineers take the lead and be responsible for the A3 reports, Ito-san was forcing them to learn problem solving and learn the value of genchi genbutsu. Third, he was giving Gary an opportunity to be engaged in the problem-solving process and creating an opportunity to coach Gary in his responsibility to develop the engineers.

During the presentations, Ito would focus on asking questions and critiquing the reports. Was the problem statement clear? Did it lead to the Five Whys? Was the countermeasure clearly connected to the root-cause analysis? Ito had an uncanny ability to pick out key gaps in an engineer’s thinking, and to drill down with detailed questions that exposed missing parts of the story, despite the fact that he was not an engineer and did not know the technical details of the problem. Following the standard Toyota practice, he would take a red pen to the report, circling items, putting in question marks, and writing in questions. The goal of filling out the A3 report, of course, is not to fill out the form perfectly, but to serve as an aid to clear thinking and learning in the problem-solving process. By listening to the presentations and reviewing the reports, Ito could assess the capability of the engineers, how they thought, how they reasoned, and how deeply they thought about sustaining improvements. As every developing leader at Toyota learns, the reports are a powerful technique for developing problem-solving ability.

Despite observing Ito-san coaching this process several times, Gary was not picking up on his responsibility in the process. While Ito was critiquing the presentations and reports, Gary simply stood to the side, marveling at Ito’s insight and amused at the struggles of the engineers’ efforts to learn this way of thinking. After a few sessions, Ito asked Gary how he was coaching the engineers through the process before the presentations. Ito pointed out there was still a lot of red on the reports, and if Gary had been teaching the engineers properly, there would be less red ink. He was pointing out Gary’s responsibility for the engineers’ development; the problems with the reports were a reflection of Gary’s leadership, and he was more responsible for any failures than the engineers were. Quickly, Gary got more directly involved, and soon both Gary and the engineers were sharpening their skills and developing much more rapidly. Eventually Gary became quite skilled at seeing the holes in an engineer’s process and thinking and asking questions to expose these holes. He began to understand the reviews as a way to measure both the capability of the worker and his capability as a teacher and coach. Quickly the A3s got much better, and equipment uptime moved steadily up toward the levels in Japan.

Thereafter, when Ito issued compliments on a job well done, they were directed to Gary, but not because he was attributing the success of the problem-solving process to Gary. The real compliment was on the development of the engineers. Any individual report was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of developing leaders. The steady improvement in the reports showed the more important progress in developing the engineers and in Gary’s assuming responsibility for that development: to see how they thought, how they reasoned, how they were going to prevent problems, and how they were going to sustain that prevention.


Toyota Business Practices

The problem-solving process used at Toyota is currently called Toyota Business Practices (TBP), although it has gone by other names in the course of the company’s history (such as Practical problem solving). TBP is an eight-step process based on the Plan–Do–Check–Act cycle of quality guru J. Edwards Deming.

In summary, the process begins with a statement of the problem, including the gap between the actual and the ideal condition. This gap is then broken down to determine the most important problems that are actionable. For actionable items, specific targets for improvement are set. These specific subproblems are then analyzed to identify the root cause by asking why until the root cause, and not a surface cause, is found (a rule of thumb suggests asking why five times). Countermeasures are then identified (plan), tried (do), and monitored (check), until, after further adjustments (act), either the problem is solved or new approaches are tried. The problem solver does not leave his role and keeps checking and further adjusting the process until it has been demonstrably stabilized and has run without problems consistently for a period of time, usually months. Then the countermeasures are standardized and may be shared with other plants if they see a need.

The eight steps of TBP are

1. Define the problem relative to the ideal (plan).

2. Break down the problem into manageable pieces (plan).

3. Identify the root cause (plan).

4. Set a target for improvement (plan).

5. Select the appropriate solution among several alternatives (plan).

6. Implement the solution (do).

7. Check impact (check).

8. Adjust, standardize, and spread (act).

Notice that in the Toyota implementation, the first five steps are in the “plan” phase of Deming’s process. This reflects the company’s focus on ensuring that the right problem is being worked on and thus the problem will be truly solved. It also reflects the emphasis that Toyota puts on gathering information and building consensus for a solution. The target setting is also critical, as it presents the challenge.

Toyota believes that this problem-solving process is essential to leadership—every leader is expected to be a master of TBP, no matter what her role or department. Mastering this process allows a leader with a background in finance or human resources, for instance, to contribute meaningfully on the shop floor, and vice versa. True mastery of TBP means being able to ask the right questions of the domain experts who are doing the hands-on work to ensure that they are truly solving problems and moving the company toward perfection.