Lean A3 Problem Solving Method [video]

Product by:
Durward Sobek and Art Smalley

Reviewed by:
Rating:
5
On March 12, 2007
Last modified:September 3, 2013

Summary:

(from Amazon) Winner of a 2009 Shingo Research and Professional Publication Prize. Notably flexible and brief, the A3 report has proven to be a key tool In Toyota’s successful move toward organizational efficiency, effectiveness, and improvement, especially within its engineering and R&D organizations. The power of the A3 report, however, derives not from the report itself, but rather from the development of the culture and mindset required for the implementation of the A3 system. In other words, A3 reports are not just an end product but are evidence of a powerful set of dynamics that is referred to as A3 Thinking. In Understanding A3 Thinking, the authors first show that the A3 report is an effective tool when it is implemented in conjunction with a PDCA-based management philosophy. Toyota views A3 Reports as just one piece in their PDCA management approach. Second, the authors show that the process leading to the development and management of A3 reports is at least as important as the reports themselves, because of the deep learning and professional development that occurs in the process. And finally, the authors provide a number of examples as well as some very practical advice on how to write and review A3 reports. I highly recommend this book to lean practitioners in any industry.

Go here to see a video explanation of the A3 and also to get a Toyota A3 Template Download for Free.

This article is about the Lean A3 Problem Solving Method, or sometimes called the Toyota A3 Report.

Most problems are dealt with in superficial ways.  Very few people and organizations actually arrive at the root cause of their problems.  At Toyota, they employ Root Cause analysis in almost everything they do.  One problem solving approach they employ is the Lean A3 Problem Solving Method.

A3 is a paper size, typically 11″ x 17″.  There are actually several A3-type paper sizes, and Toyota believes that when you structure your problem solving around 1 page of paper, then your thinking is focused and structured.

Below are the steps of the A3 process, followed by a real-world example of an A3 collaborative problem solving that I was a part of while I spent a short time at Toyota.  The steps below are taken from Dr. Durward Sobek‘s very informative site:

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Identify Problem or Need

Whenever the way work happens is not ideal, or when a goal or objective is not being met, you have a problem (or, if you prefer, a need). The best problems to work on are those that arise in day-to-day work and prevent you from doing your best.

a3 process, managing to learn, john shook, a3 problem solving

Understand Current Situation

Before a problem can be properly addressed, one must have a firm grasp of the current situation. To do this, Toyota suggests that problem-solvers:

  • Observe the work process first hand, and document observations
  • Create a diagram that shows how the work is done – a value stream map will be helpful here.
  • Quantify the magnitude of the problem (e.g., % of customer deliveries that are late, # of stock outs in a month, # of errors reported per quarter, % of work time that is value-added); if possible, represent the data graphically.

Root Cause Analysis

Once you have a good understanding of how the process (i.e., the one that needs to be fixed) currently works, it’s time to figure out what the root causes are to the errors or inefficiency. To accomplish this, first make a list of the main problem(s). Next, ask the appropriate “why?” questions until you reach the root cause. A good rule-of-thumb is that you haven’t reached the root cause until you’ve asked “why?” at least five times in series.

Main Components of an Ishikawa Diagram

  1. At the head of the Fishbone is the defect or effect, stated in the form of a question.
  2. The major bones are the capstones, or main groupings of causes.
  3. The minor bones are detailed items under each capstone.
  4. There are common capstones, but they may or may not apply to your specific problem. The common ones are:
  • People
  • Equipment
  • Material
  • Information
  • Methods/Procedures
  • Measurement
  • Environment

After completing your Fishbone Diagram excercise as a group, it is helpful to test your logic by working the bones: top-down OR bottom-up like:

this happens because of g; g happens because of f; f happens because of e; e happens because of d; d happens because of c; c happens because of b; b happens because of a.

The excercise above is crucially important — you must test your logic so that it makes pragmatic sense and that the atomic root cause is actionable — that is, you can do something to correct it, reduce it, or eliminate the root cause.

Once you or your team arrive at a root cause for a specific capstone, then you typically “cloud” it to identify it as a root cause. A good rule is that there is typically *NOT* 1 root cause for a problem, but potentially several. Below is a diagram of one fishbone, decomposed:

Countermeasures

Once the current situation is fully understood and the root cause(s) for the main problem(s) has been unveiled, it’s time to devise some countermeasures. Countermeasures are the changes to be made to the work processes that will move the organization closer to ideal, or make the process more efficient, by addressing root causes. Generally speaking, we recommend that countermeasures help the process conform to three “rules” borrowed from Steven Spear and Kent Bowen and slightly expanded:

  • Specify the outcome, content, sequence, and task of work activities
  • Create clear, direct connections between requestors and suppliers of goods and services.
  • Eliminate loops, workarounds, and delays

Develop the Target State

The countermeasure(s) addressing the root cause(s) of the problem will lead to new ways of getting the work done, what we call the target condition or target state. It describes how the work will get done with the proposed countermeasures in place. In the A3 report, the target condition should be a diagram (similar to the current condition) that illustrates how the new proposed process will work. The specific countermeasures should be noted or listed, and the expected improvement should be predicted specifically and quantitatively.

Implementation Plan

In order to reach the target state, one needs a well thought-out and workable implementation plan. The implementation plan should include a list of the actions that need to be done to get the countermeasures in place and realize the target condition, along with the individual responsible for each task and a due date. Other relevant items, such as cost, may also be added.

A3 Example

Below is an example from an A3 project.  The context for the A3 Report below is around the question “Why was the end-of-shift clean-up not being completed?”  This question drove the team to follow the A3 method and subsequent root cause analysis to arrive at the root causes and implement solutions.  This activity below was done proactively done by the team with full support from management.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in other Business PowerPoint Templates that you can download and use in business presentations.

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Comments

  1. robert thompson says

    A nice summary of the A3 approach. I think that the A3 approach offers a structure to view a problem through the eyes of the customer and forces an understanding the current condition before jumping to a solution. I discuss how the A3 approach can be integrated with the DMAIC framework on my blog.

    Rob

  2. says

    On my blog, I posted a link to the recent WSJ article that showed Toyota showing the LAPD to use an A3 report.

    There was no copyright on the A3 ppt that they had for download, so here is the direct link…

  3. Linda M says

    Hello – I would like the A-3 form in a Word document so we can use it as a template. Where could I find that…not a pdf or .xls

  4. says

    Great article!

    I’ve seen 5-Why’s and Fishbone diagrams used before but never heard about the rest of the A3 process.

    I definitely like the “Understand the Current Process” portion of the process but I still believe the root cause analysis portion (5-Whys of Fishbone Diagrams) is fatally flawed. For a discussion of the reasons why, see:

    [link redacted by site owner]

    Thanks again for the great article.

    Mark

  5. Dulce says

    This is excellent. You explain the Toyota problem solving process in a simple way. Great work and excellent site on Lean Training and Lean Manufacturing!

  6. Pele de Brasil says

    In Brasil my home town, there are many practitioners of Lean Manufacturing. I have worked in 3 different factories and I saw Lean process in each one, but they were done differently but the same. In some, A3 was used. In others, just Kaizen newspapers. But same output.

    • says

      Pele,

      Yes, you’re right. The important thing with the A3 is that it is rigorously followed and that it becomes a means of communication as well as a vehicle for learning (and communicating). Thanks much.

      Pete

  7. Raj says

    A3 is great for lean and makes lean training easier to do. But, in some countries (like India for me), printing on an 11×17 size paper is not practical. Any advice on how to do A3 without having to print such big paper?

    • says

      Hi Raj,

      The A3 is both a method and a means of communication. The actual paper size of 11×17 is really not that important. What is important is that the A3 process is followed – a teacher with a student – and that each of the steps is rigorously followed. Reporting the results at the end – that actual 11×17 printout is the very last thing you should worry about. The ability to see all the information and approach on 1 sheet of paper is very beneficial, but where it’s not feasible, then adjust.

      Thanks for reading shmula.

  8. Carlos Scholz says

    Hi Pete,

    Pretty good article, you cover the basics of the A3 concept as a problem solving methodology that has to be followed rigorously (although A3 can also be used for other things, not only Problem Solving).
    One thing about the video though, is that it’s missing a key ingredient of A3, which is the Gap/Root Cause Analisys. You can’t go from Target State to Action Plan, even if this is a Proposal A3… that’s my point of view at least.

  9. Carlos Scholz says

    Pete,
    the video is missing a key ingredient: Gap / Root Cause Analysis. You can’t jump from target state to action plan without knowing your root causes, even if it’s only a Proposal A3. That’s my point of view at least.

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