Introducing the A3 – part 1: operational definition and basic concepts

The discipline of process improvement (PI) is supported by different methodologies and many useful tools today.  You may have heard of Lean for targeting waste, Six Sigma for its focus on minimizing variation, the PDCA cycle, Total Quality Management (TQM), and other schools of thought concerning PI.  A tool increasingly used in PI and which you should be familiar with is the A3, regardless of the methodology employed.

A3 thinking

A3 thinking is an approach to process improvement based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle (Check is sometimes called Study, and Act is sometimes called Adjust, so PDCA can at times become PDSA). PDCA is also known as the Deming circle or Shewhart cycle, after famous innovators in quality.

Of the four phases, Plan is to establish objectives and processes with a view to an expected output, Do is to implement the new processes, Check (or Study) is to assess differences between expected and actual results, and Act (or Adjust) is to analyze these differences and put in place a plan to minimize them. This gives rise to other, “smaller” PDCA cycles.  PDCA is ongoing and iterative.

What the A3 is and what it is used for

The A3, then, embodies a structured approach to solving problems, and as such it is one tool and thinking aid that is used by many PI practitioners worldwide. The A3 is an approach, a document, and a process all in one.  It has its roots in Toyota’s manufacturing, with the “A3” designation referring to the size of the paper on which the document is developed — roughly two 8″ x 10″ sheets laid out side by side..

The A3 has the following characteristics and purpose:

  • it is a type of document with a process improvement (PI) focus
  • it has its roots in PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act) and Toyota’s own PI
  • it lays out a framework for thinking systematically about a problem, telling a story, and proposing a fix
  • it typically has a fairly narrow, operational focus, and a timeframe for outcomes that is best described in weeks rather than years
  • it teaches practitioners to synthesize the relevant and omit the unimportant, thereby helping to reduce the perceived complexity of the issue at hand
  • it highlights the importance of drilling down from symptoms to root causes, so fixes proposed have the desired impact
  • it provides a means for clear, concise communication among stakeholders (defined as all parties with an interest in or know-how about the problem)
  • it can serve both as a scratch pad for refining ideas and showcasing work that is increasingly detailed, as well as a high level project plan
  • it can be developed with nothing more than pencil and paper
  • it can be used as a valuable “lessons learned” reference to PI work already done by others — one can classify completed and in-progress A3s and group them in a library
  • it can be an excellent way of mentoring people in the aspects of methodical problem solving and solution discovery, if communications are kept open between an experienced observer and a new practitioner and results attained are used to open new lines of inquiry or modify existing ones
  • it can be thought of by the practitioner as consisting of two halves: the left half (analysis) and the right half (action/correction), which are typically tackled in sequence.
  • it is laid out on an 11.7” x 16.5” size sheet of paper — metric name: “A3”, defined by ISO 216 (297 × 420 mm).

A well-developed A3 can act as the anchor for sustainable process change.





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