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Who Owns Your A3? (Part One)

Reich, Mark

When I was asked to write my first A3 at Toyota 23 years ago, the experience was quite frustrating. I had just joined the company, with the responsibility to do market and competitive analysis for new products – reports that were provided to engineering and other management as one input for design of new vehicles that would be sold in overseas markets such as North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia.

My first A3 did not appear to address a complicated problem. We purchased a lot of car magazines in the division where I worked and were not sure this was a wise investment. My Assistant Manager asked me to investigate, to determine the value of the magazines, and propose some ideas. Two weeks later, I had created a first draft (handwritten – all words/no pictures) based on my analysis of the current magazine subscriptions. Without going into too much detail, my proposal was to purchase more magazines and consider hiring a new analyst. Great ideas, right? Wrong. My Assistant Manager asked me if I had actually grasped the situation of how the magazines were used – simple question. I told him I knew how they were used. People referenced these reports and incorporated them into proposals that went to design.

Then he probed further. How many references did you find? What magazines were most used? I didn't have the answers to his questions – better to say, I didn't have the facts. I had not done the proper analysis of how the magazines were currently used, and failed to determine what information was truly needed or valuable in each magazine. More importantly, I hadn't even clarified what problem I was trying to solve. In other words, I jumped quickly to a solution.

I protested that if he knew the answer (which he didn't – he had some thinking, but not a fixed answer) or the path to the answer, why didn't he just tell me what he wanted in the first place? I told him that I felt I had added little value. His answer surprised me: "the value to the company was the learning you derived from this experience. We see the first 3 years in Toyota as a time for you to develop so don't worry about making an immediate impact. You are learning."

This insight was the first but by no means the last I would gather over the next 23 years, during which I wrote many A3s and coached many others in writing theirs. One of the toughest lessons for me to learn was also one of the important: who owns the A3? This question explores one of the most fundamental points of the A3 development and execution process.

One of the primary "rules" of A3 writing (and one that I'd always forget as a beginner!) is that the author place their name, and date of writing the report, in the upper right-hand corner of the A3.

So, based on that thinking, the answer is easy, right – the person that writes it owns it.

Actually, what I learned over time is that the answer evolves throughout the course of the development and deployment of the A3. And, without the proper input (it's often called nemawashi), the process is doomed to failure. My Toyota experience revealed to me that even the most deeply investigated A3 (with clear clarification and root cause analysis of the problem) is really only one person's view of the problem to be solved. And to effectively solve most problems in most businesses requires the insight, buy-in, and ultimately action of many people who own pieces of the problem.

Managing to Learn: The Use of the A3 Management Process
Eric Ethington; Ernie Richardson; Tracey Richardson; John Shook; David Verble