A3 Does Not Leave You Hanging!

The A3 method is a structured problem-solving approach first used as part of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Many organization use the concepts found in TPS for lean and continuous process improvement. Different industries are no barrier for using techniques like A3; examples include industries as far afield as software development and medicine. A3 is a deceptively simple tool to structure problem solving by focusing. A3 is an extension of the principles of Deming and Shewhart. Deming’s ideas on quality and efficiency had a HUGE impact on the transformation of the Japanese economy in the second half of the 1900’s.  A3 is directly mappable to the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (PDCA).

The A3 technique takes its name from the standard paper format common in Europe and Asia (based on the ISO paper size standard). A3 measures 297 x 420 mm or 11.7 by 16.5 inches.  On this sheet of paper, the user of the technique captures the following information.

  1. Background – Capture the context of the current problem and the environment within which it exists. Explain how the problem was discovered and why it is important to fix.
  2. Current Conditions (sometimes identified as current situation) – Provide evidence of the current issue (without attributing cause). Include information such as flow visualization, severity, timelines. This is typically where a Gemba Walk occurs to collect data and SEE the problem in action.
  3. Goals/targets (also known as Purpose and target) – develop a clear measurable goal for the new state (consider a SMART goal). Include how you will measure progress toward the target and how the target value was set.
  4. Analysis (sometimes known as root cause analysis – RCA) – Develop measurable evidence of the cause and effect relationship. This requires an understanding of the base cause that leads to the undesired effect. Tools for RCA include 5 Whys, Ishikawa Diagram, Fault Tree and others).
  5. Proposed Countermeasures – Develop and evaluate a set of countermeasures. Calculate, simulate and experiment to develop the data needed to decide on the proper countermeasure. Document the countermeasure and the justification for the decision.
  6. Plan – Describe the high-level actions needed to implement the countermeasure. Include who will take the action and the target date of the action.
  7. Follow Up  – Collect the measurement data agreed upon in step 3, validate whether the counter-measure worked and standardize (sometimes other versions show the follow-up and standardize sections separately) the solution.

This version of the A3 is from the MIT Sloan Management Review’s website. Almost every school and consulting firm has its own version of the A3. Regardless of the customizations, every implementation of the A3 approach has the goal to lead the user of the technique through a structured approach to problem-solving.

The A3 Approach is a visual problem-solving approach. There is a natural tendency to try to force an A3 analysis into a PowerPoint template. However, using flip chart paper in a group setting will foster a more intimate communication and collaboration environment for continuous improvement. As a storytelling technique, A3 provides a natural progression, much akin to the Hero’s Journey described by Joseph Campbell. We begin with a goal, solve the problem, and then return home.