The A3 problem-solving methodology was first used by Toyota in the 1960s and later embraced by proponents of Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Lean, and other systematic approaches to continuous improvement. "A3" references a European paper size that is about the same size as an American 11-inch by 17-inch tabloid-sized paper. Using the A3 process, teams create a one-page improvement project report. By limiting the report to one page, teams are forced to be concise and thoughtful about including only relevant information needed to solve problems.
Because our solution supports the A3 technique, and problem-solving and continuous improvement go hand in hand, we are often asked for tips on how to deploy it. Here are three steps to success.
1. Decide Whether A3 is a Good Fit for Each Problem
Every problem does not require an A3. Insisting on one in every instance can actually harm your improvement goals. If a problem is simple and the root cause can be uncovered by observation or other problem-solving tools, such as the 5 Whys root cause analysis, an A3 is probably not needed. If you insist on one each time, people may simply not report small problems, and they will go unsolved. If the cause and solution are apparent, just fix it.
However, for more complex problems, A3s offer many advantages. Before using an A3, determine if:
• The situation is tricky enough to warrant using an A3 to provide structure
• The report has communications value
• Someone will experience personal development by drafting the A3
• There a good reason to document and capture the knowledge
• Cross-functional collaboration is needed
If the situation checks one or more of these boxes, it is probably a good time to use A3 problem-solving, perhaps in conjunction with a PDCA cycle.
2. Standardize Your A3 Reports
One of the benefits of using the A3 method across the organization is that everyone comes to know what to expect from an A3 report. Whatever the problem, the topics covered will be the same. You will need to decide on the standard for your organization. The following items are typically included:
Header: Basic information about the team and project.
Background: An outline of the problem and a description of why a solution is needed.
Current State: The situation as it exists today. It may include graphs and illustrations, but it is always based on data, not assumptions.
Problem: This is an analysis of the current state. The team identifies the root cause of the problem so that improvements will result in positive change.
Future State: This section includes details about the specific goals and any countermeasures planned.
Implementation Plan: Here we get the Who, What, and When of the action plan and timing of the project. It should also include reporting plans for the project.
Results: Once the improvement is implemented, the results are compared to the plan, and analysis is included about the total impact of the project. Results may include cost reduction, improved quality, reduced waste, increased customer satisfaction, or any other business objective of the organization.
3. Implement A3 Management Software
While A3 is literally named after a piece of paper, modern organizations have taken it to the next level by leveraging software to support problem-solving. With an A3 management platform, you’ll enjoy:
Standardization: It is important to have standard A3 reports across the organization. Software enforces this by giving everyone a set of fields and a layout that will be consistent every time a new A3 project is started. You can set up your A3 input and reporting screens to match the needs of your organization.
Visibility: It is tough for leaders to get a sense of what improvement projects are ongoing if they are managed on physical pieces of paper or even spreadsheets. With an A3 problem-solving platform, leaders get real-time visibility into improvement activities. Coaches and managers can be proactive and remove obstacles. This level of clarity also increases accountability and allows for successful broadcasting.
Collaboration: It is common that the most difficult challenges require the involvement of cross-functional teams. Online A3 software platforms with built-in collaboration tools are so popular because the right people can be involved in each A3, regardless of where they are located. Everyone gets access to all of the information they need when they need it.
Visual Management: A3 is a visual management tool. A3 software supports the consistent arrangement of data and the inclusion of relevant charts and graphs. When someone looks at a digital A3, they can quickly understand the problem, the solution, and the impact.
The A3 problem-solving methodology is a simple yet powerful approach to tackling complicated issues. Choosing the right time to use it, standardizing on the critical elements for your organization, and leveraging technology will help improve adoption and increase the chances that you’ll generate the lasting results you want to achieve.