Ever hear the question, “You need to do an A3 on that”? (Remember, the A3 is an 11 x 17 size of paper that follows Plan-Do-Check-Action thinking). Or worse, “You have to fill out an A3?”
As I’ve said before, we need to be careful how we talk about A3s; we want to focus on the A3 thinking process, not just the A3 as a tool. There are different ways of practicing PDCA, but I use the PDCA process specific to Toyota’s 8 step methodology.
Would you like to take a peek at the next level of thinking? Here’s a way to make sure your A3 thinking is sound because what you want to prevent is jumping to solutions. It’s called “Reading in Reverse”. I got to experience this valuable lesson/process first-hand from my trainers during my tenure at Toyota. It’s like a built-in trainer in itself. If I saw others speed through the problem solving process, I would just ask them to read their A3 backwards, knowing there were checkpoints within the A3 that would call them (or rather, their thinking) out. The PDCA process within the A3 “knows” when the logic is broken between steps. You just need to be willing to be aware and tuned in to the right frequency to hear it.
Traditionally, we read the “PDCA story” left to right. (As a manager, you use the A3 process to engage people in dialogue at the gemba). For the A3 creator/owner, the left side consists of:
- How you frame the problem, creating a measurable gap (clarifying the problem situation)
- The breakdown of the problem
- Selecting a prioritized problem
- Finding the point of the problem’s occurrence
- An examination of why the problem occurred
The right side of an A3 consists of:
- Developing countermeasures
- Identifying countermeasures and seeing them through
- Monitoring/checking process and results
- How you standardize and share best practices, sometimes new best practices (yokoten)
It’s natural for most people (especially Westerners) to read left to right. This tells a logical story. I was always encouraged to make my A3’s “street-friendly; you want to create an A3 everyone understands even if they don’t know anything about the process at hand. Reading it in reverse helps leaders know when their A3 owners have used a good thinking process. How does a leader know the A3 owner, for example, didn’t get lucky and happen to choose the right countermeasure (aka the throwing a dart method)? How does a leader reading an A3, or the A3 owner for that matter, know the difference between facts and opinions? This Reading in Reverse check mechanism isn’t 100% full-proof (poke-yoke), but it does ask the A3 owner to deeply consider and answer questions about the logic of their thinking.
To read an A3 in reverse, start with the right side of the A3 and go backwards asking the following questions, all of which should link back to the purpose of the A3 and the gap the A3 owner is trying to close:
- Is the newly written standard or procedure meeting customer expectations (internal/external)?
- Was the new process standardized based on monitoring the process after countermeasure implementation?
- Did the countermeasure(s) prove (through follow-up) to address the root cause(s) to the problem?
- Did the root cause(s) being addressed take care of the point of occurrence in the process?
- Did addressing the point of occurrence meet the target that was set (how much and by when)?
- By meeting the target, was the prioritized problem (smaller piece of gap) addressed?
- By addressing the prioritized problem, was some percentage of the larger gap reduced?
- Did reducing the gap by some percentage help you improve a key performance indicator?
- Did improving a key performance indicator by some percentage help you meet your ultimate goal (purpose for problem solving)?
If you find you’re able to read the A3 from left to right and then right to left AND answer all the questions above, then you passed the cause and effect logic test between the PDCA steps in both directions, back and forth.
If you can’t maintain the logic, it could mean a few things:
- You jumped to a solution too quickly, only solving a symptom
- You based your A3 mostly on assumptions and opinions
- You didn’t “Go and See” the process in person, at the gemba
- You didn’t engage in real dialogue with the people who actually do the work
These are just a few of the factors that play into ineffective problem solving. If you’re “doing” or “filling out” an A3 behind your desk, I can say most of the time you will not be able to answer the questions above.
I remember, my Japanese trainers sometimes said to me, “You got lucky… Lucky is not sustainable!” This is representative of the thinking behind the infamous “red pen” mark ups some of us have gotten on our A3s from our sensei over the years. Now you know the secret, so it’s up to you to understand, practice, and develop others in this A3 thinking process. If you’re willing to invest the time, what you’ll get is a proven methodology with repeatable, sustainable results. Using A3 thinking with your team members is a way of leading and learning simultaneously. It’s ok not to have all the answers, and instead, learn together, building mutual trust and respect. Give it a try, put your team members through the test. I promise it will make you think differently about PDCA and the A3.