Whether you’ve read volumes about various business methodologies and the philosophy of continuous improvement or just a few articles, you can’t be blamed if you’ve started to wonder if Toyota developed every improvement technique.
They certainly contributed a lot but, companies like Motorola, General Electric, Nike, and others have enhanced thinking about the power of positive change. In fact, these days companies far outside of the manufacturing sector including those in healthcare, construction, and higher education are finding new ways to inch closer to business process perfection.
However, there is no denying that many of the tools and techniques that businesses of all sorts find useful were developed as part of the Toyota Production System.
The A3 management process is one example.
A3 thinking is a management approach that turns day-to-day management into a learning practice for the whole organization. A3 management creates a standard method for innovation, planning, problem resolution, and sharing knowledge. The approach centers on organizational learning in the work itself. It is sometimes referred to as operational learning.
Toyota’s vision was that every problem an organization faces can be detailed on a single sheet of paper. This consistency and precision force everyone to see through the same lens and acknowledge the same set of facts. The term "A3" references an international paper size that is used to contain reports, ensuring that information is delivered crisply and concisely. We don’t typically use A3 paper in the United States, but an A3 page is about 11 by 17 inches. In the US, a paper called Tabloid or Ledger is close to the same size.
How the information is presented is flexible depending on the organization and the problem at hand, allowing most companies to modify the design to fit their individual needs. Of course, modern companies use digital improvement solutions for A3 templates, making paper size irrelevant, but the concept of limiting the information to a digestible size is important, so the name is a good reminder to keep it simple.
Uses of A3 Management
The A3 problem-solving approach:
- Facilitates understanding of problems, describing them, and working toward a resolution
- Documents the operational learning of each improvement project
- Explores complex solutions to process improvement
- Documents Standard Work
- Explains new products or concepts
Common Elements of an A3 Management Process Template
As we said, the design of each A3 planning document will vary based on the need, but they generally contain:
- Name: A title that includes the name of the problem, theme, or issue.
- Owner: The person who is responsible for driving the issue to resolution or documenting problem resolution or standard work.
- Date: The date of the latest revision of the A3 document.
- Background: The context, scope, and urgency of the issue.
- Current state: Everything that is known about the current problem, process, or issue.
- Goals/Targets: What does success look like and how will it be measured?
- Analysis: The current thinking about the root causes of the issue and the reason for the gap between the current process and the desired result.
- Plan: A detailed description of the plan of action, who will be involved, and what steps will be taken to reach the goal.
- Follow-up: The plan for the review process includes measurement, cadence, and team players.
The Keys to A3 Management Success
As with every business process, the difference between great success and lackluster results with A3 is in the details. The most effective A3 managers rely on:
The A3 process should be consistent across the entire organization, no matter which department or team is involved. The particular design of the A3 document may vary, but the required elements should be standardized, as should the approach for developing and sharing the document.
This is one area where A3 software comes in handy. It can be used to enforce the required elements and offer a structure for document completion and socialization.
Many process improvement projects require the collaboration of more than one functional area. That’s one of the reasons that a standard A3 process is so important.
A3 management doesn't happen in a bubble; you need people from different areas and job functions working together to solve common problems. A collaborative approach means building a team focused on solving a particular problem and making sure that everyone has access to the information required to work together efficiently and effectively. This is another important role played by A3 software.
A3 management is not a serial process. Organizations may have many improvement projects happening all at once. That’s why it’s essential that managers have visibility into what is happening across all departments and teams. With an A3 platform in place, leaders can drill down into the details of each A3 improvement project underway, and they can easily calculate the business impact of this vital work.
For more details on A3 management and A3 process templates, we highly recommend John Shook’s book, "Managing To Learn," which was awarded the 2009 Shingo Prize for excellence in business improvement research and publication. It goes deeply into Toyota's management, leadership, and mentoring processes.