Toyota is known for its continued commitment to improving operational performance. How does a company with close to 350,000 employees consistently, rapidly improve? With a Lean thinking tool called the A3 process. See how the A3 process and problem solving approach helps organizations practice continuous improvement.
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What is the A3 Process?
The A3 process is a problem solving tool Toyota developed to foster learning, collaboration, and personal growth in employees. The term “A3” is derived from the particular size of paper used to outline ideas, plans, and goals throughout the A3 process (A3 paper is also known as 11” x 17” or B-sized paper).
Toyota uses A3 reports for several common types of work:
- Solving problems
- Reporting project status
- Proposing policy changes (policy meaning rules agreed upon and enforced by the group)
Why Use an A3 Process?
In most organizations, on most teams, we aren’t collaborating as strategically as we could be. We leave meetings with ideas half-baked. We often move hastily to begin working on implementing a solution, without aligning around important details. Projects move slowly due to rework and duplicate effort, two symptoms of a lack of alignment.
The A3 process allows groups of people to actively collaborate on the purpose, goals, and strategy of a project. It encourages in-depth problem solving throughout the process and adjusting as needed to ensure that the project most accurately meets its intended goal.
The A3 process prescribes to the famed quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” The A3 process helps an organization sharpen its proverbial axes by fostering effective collaboration, bringing out the best problem solving in teams.
Collaboration between talented people is critical for innovation and speed. Using the A3 process to foster collaboration can help organizations and teams invest their time, money, and momentum most effectively.
Steps of the A3 Process?
There are nine (well, ten) steps in the A3 process.
0: Identify the problem
Since the purpose of the A3 process is to solve problems or address needs, the first, somewhat unwritten, step is that you need to identify a problem or need.
1: Capture the current state of the situation
Once you align around the problem or need you’d like to address, then it’s time to capture and analyze the current state of the situation. Toyota suggests that problem solvers:
- Observe the work processes firsthand and document your observations.
- Gather around a whiteboard and walk through each step in your process. You can use fancy process charting tools to do this, but stick figures and arrows will do the job just as well.
- If possible, quantify the size of the problem (e.g., % of tickets with long cycle times, # of customer deliveries that are late, # of errors reported per quarter). Graph your data if possible; visualizations are really helpful.
2: Conduct a root cause analysis
Now that you see your process, try to figure out the root cause of the efficiencies. You can ask questions like:
- Where do we suffer from communication breakdowns?
- Where do we see long delays without activity?
- What information are we needing to collaborate more effectively/smoothly?
Document these pain points, then dig deeper. The 5 whys is a helpful tool for conducting a thorough root cause analysis. The basic idea is that you begin with a problem statement, and then you ask “Why?” until you discover the real reason for the problem. You may or may not have to ask why exactly five times – this is simply an estimate.
3: Conduct a root cause analysis
Countermeasures are your ideas for tackling the situation; the changes to be made to your processes that will move the organization closer to ideal by addressing root causes. Countermeasures should aim to:
- Specify the intended outcome and the plan for achieving it.
- Create clear, direct connections between people responsible for steps in the process.
- Reduce or eliminate loops, workarounds, and delays.
4: Define your target state
Once you’ve selected your countermeasures, you are able to clearly define your target state. In the A3 process, you communicate our target state through a process map. Be sure to note where the changes in the process are occurring so they can be observed.
5: Develop a plan for implementation
Now that you’ve defined your target state, you can develop a plan for how to achieve it. Implementation plans should include:
- A task list to get the countermeasures in place
- Who is responsible for what
- Due dates for any time-sensitive work items
Most teams choose to document their implementation plan in their A3.
6: Develop a follow-up plan with predicted outcomes
A follow-up plan allows Lean teams to check their work; it allows them to verify whether they actually understood the current condition well enough to improve it. A follow-up plan is a critical step in process improvement because it can help teams make sure the:
- implementation plan was executed
- target condition was realized
- expected results were achieved
These first six steps are captured in the A3 report. Most teams use a template for their A3.
7: Get everyone on board
The goal for any systemic improvement is that it improves every part of the system. This is why it’s vital to include everyone who might be affected by the implementation or the target state in the conversation before changes are made.
Building consensus throughout the process is usually the most effective approach, which is why many teams choose to include this at each critical turning point in the A3 process. Depending on the scope of the work, it might also be important to inform executives and other stakeholders who might be impacted by the work.
Now it’s time for implementation. Follow the implementation as discussed, observing opportunities for improvement along the way.
9: Evaluate results
In far too many situations, the A3 process ends with implementation. It’s critical to measure the actual results and compare them to your predictions in order to learn.
If your actual results vary greatly from what was expected, do research to figure out why. Alter the process as necessary, and repeat implementation and follow-up until the goal is met.
Lean A3 Examples
Using the A3 process throughout the organization
Like Toyota, Lean organizations often use the A3 process to manage work at the project, program, and portfolio levels. In order to do this effectively, the entire organization should be trained on the A3 process. This will allow for a consistent, sustainable practice of A3 planning and thinking, encouraging more effective collaboration across the organization.
A3 continuous improvement
If you’ve been in the Lean world for a while, you’ve heard a lot about continuous improvement. Easy to say, but much more difficult to implement.
Continuous improvement is hard to practice because we don’t know where to fit it in between project-driven work. We discuss continuous improvement ideas in standups and meetings (“It would be great if we could….”) but it’s hard to make time to sit down and work on improving processes and policies.
The A3 process can provide structure for and documentation of continuous improvement efforts. In addition to project work, many organizations use the A3 process to manage their continuous improvement efforts.