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The A3 Process -- Discovery at Toyota and What it Can Do for You

John Shook
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You may know that I just completed the book, Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Manage, Mentor, and Lead. This corner is to some degree the result of the heap of leftover ideas sitting on my desk after finishing it. I won’t try to summarize the book here (you can find a summary and excerpts at lean.org), but you may find the background of its creation interesting.

LEI had wanted to publish a book about the A3 for several years before we finally created Managing to Learn. My dilemma during this time was that while I was honored to be asked and could see the value of the A3 as a Process, I also saw a major problem with a book about it. The challenge isn’t in teaching how to write an A3 but in how to use the A3 as a managerial Process. If the A3 was presented as a narrow tool, the deeper and broader aspects of the overall Process would be lost. I really didn’t want to just introduce yet another narrow tool. It has long been my view that using tools for tool’s sake (where everything is a hammer looking for a nail) is one of the very biggest problems in “LeanWorld.”

So, working with the LEI editorial team, we quickly explored the idea of telling the story of how an individual prepared and used an A3 proposal. But even well-executed, that alone wouldn’t necessarily resolve my problem. I needed to tell the story from “both” sides, since it takes two (as least) to fully exercise the A3 Process. Initially I suggested actually writing two books, with each one telling the same story (of the same improvement) from the two perspectives of a mentor and mentee. Now, LEI is open-minded, willing to experiment, and occasionally even adventurous, but that idea was deemed a little too radical, or maybe just stupid. After some discussion and even rapid prototyping (!) we landed on the equally radical but more practical (and smarter) idea of telling the story through two perspectives in running parallel columns. Tell me if you have, but I’ve never seen a book structured quite like it.

From the first draft, some readers expressed difficulties with this dual format. Readers have a choice in how to read the book -- read the left column first, then go back and read the right? Read them both more or less at the same time? It reminds me of real-life conversations at the gemba in which two people are talking to you at the same time: “Listen to me first!” “No, listen to me!” I became convinced that the two-column, side-by-side structure of the book was the most effective way to dynamically show the dual or multifaceted way of thinking embodied by the A3 Process. It must generate learning for both the mentor and mentee. It must simultaneously address a problem while exposing new ones. My own experience many years ago revealed to me the many dynamics of using A3 thinking.

I discovered the importance of the A3 Process firsthand, as do all Toyota employees. In my case, my first managers, Isao Yoshino and Ken Kunieda, and co-workers desperately needed me to learn the thinking and gain the skills so I could begin to make myself useful! But, the Process I went through was in no way special. When I joined Toyota in Toyota City (where for a time I was the only American) in late 1983, every newly hired college graduate employee began learning his job by being coached through the A3 creation Process. The new employee would arrive at his new desk to find waiting for him a problem, a mentor, and a Process to learn for solving that problem. The entire Process was structured around PDCA and captured in the A3.

The problem awaiting the newcomer had been determined by his manager and scoped out by the mentor the manager assigned. The new employee would begin solving the problem by first understanding the situation. He would define the problem, analyze it, investigate its causes, brainstorm potential countermeasures, evaluate those solutions, and then propose -- i.e. “sell” his recommended countermeasure, which would often involve a simple trial or small experiment. The selling, however, is an inclusive Process in which the owner continually improves the content and accuracy of the A3 report as a result of obtaining greater input, and as a result, agreement and support from others.

As an example, my work team used the A3 Process to solve a simple office problem. The story is common to anyone who has worked in an office and encountered the question, “Where’s the damned file?” The tools the team used were unremarkable. What was remarkable was the effort and discipline the team put into such a mundane problem. Our team did get some benefit from an improved ability to find the right information at the right time, the essential office problem. But, more importantly and fundamentally, our team was training itself. By learning to apply the problem solving tools in this situation, all the team members learned how to apply them in other situations and they deepened their own thinking skills which they can apply to every issue they encounter, every day. Practiced students of TQM would quickly recognize the example as a very typical QC Circle project report. What is significant is the way Toyota has systematized A3 thinking throughout the organization as a core discipline of management.

“Where’s the damned file?” was a simple problem, but the value of the Process extended far beyond its face value of enabling us to find files faster. Education and learning were embedded in the Process of working on the A3 (the improvement project) itself. It exemplified learning through doing at its best. The more A3s I wrote, the better I became at the thought Process. Internalizing the thinking is the objective, not technical mastery of the format. The more cycles of reflection and learning that can be experienced, the better it is for the individual and for the organization.

The most fundamental use of the A3 is as a simple problem-solving tool. But the underlying principles and practices can be applied in any organizational settings. Given that the first use of the A3 as a tool is to standardize a methodology to understand and respond to problems, A3s encourage root cause analysis, reveal processes, and represent goals and action plans in a format that triggers conversation and learning. A good A3 has sound problem-solving -- science -- embedded inside, but it achieves much more, exemplifying this great quote by a great scientist:

“Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks, but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house.” - Henri Poincaré

In exactly the same way, a good A3 is more than a collection of data that solves a problem -- it tells a story that can coalesce an organization.

See you next week.

John Shook

Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute

2 Comments | Post a Comment
JLB October 31, 2008
Great book. I am inspired by what I have learned so far with LEI webinar. I am developing my first A3 and are almost ready to go to the countermeasure section. I have focused not on the format but mostly on the methodology of the tool. Excellent!

Lean Champion January 16, 2009
I love the A3 concept but not the format. I am curious to know if anyone has received fedback that the A3 paper size is a hassle when printing out. I have recently converted to L2...2 letter size papers. It easier for people to print out.