What is A3, and what does it have to do with problem solving? A3 is a standard paper size, roughly 11”x17” — two letter-size pages, side-by-side. This is the paper size used by Toyota for problem-solving reports. Although “A3 Problem Solving” takes its name from the paper size used for the final reports, the focus is not on those reports, but on the process used to create them.
Writing A3 reports is important but not nearly as important as the activities executed in the creation of the report and the conversations that the reports help generate. In fact, in Toyota's internal training program, students cannot take a course in A3 report writing until they have completed the PDCA management course and a course on practical problem solving.
What is A3 Problem Solving?
A3 Problem Solving appears to be simple. It involves seven boxes on a sheet of A3 size paper. The person creating the report fills in the boxes.
The seven boxes are:
- Identify the problem or need.
- Describe the current situation. (Research and understand the current status/situation.)
- What is the desired condition?
- What is the result of a root cause analysis?
- Identify a solution.
- Implementing the solution.
- Measurements/observations confirming the desired condition has been achieved. (If achieved, update the standard procedures; if not achieved, repeat the process, filling out another A3 Problem Solving report.)
The steps of A3 Problem Solving follow the Deming Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. Steps 1 through 5 are the “Plan” part of PDCA, Step 6 is the “Do,” and Step 7 includes the “Check” and “Act” portions of PDCA.
A3 Problem Solving is more than just filling in the blanks. The form also provides a framework for A3 Management, also called “Managing To Learn,” which is the key to successful implementation of lean manufacturing techniques. A3 Management involves identifying problems and opportunities, analyzing and proposing solutions, and then acting on the solutions. In doing this it helps to align the various interests throughout an organization by encouraging communication and helping people learn from one another. But it all starts with the A3 Problem Solving process.
The Seven Steps of A3 Problem Solving
The A3 Problem Solving form is not like a work order. It is not a form that someone fills out in order to get something done. It is a framework for the problem solving process. It is not something one person can complete in an hour or two. The A3 Problem Solving form requires collaboration among a number of people, usually across organizational lines.
The A3 form provides a logical process for solving a problem. That process can be summarized this way:
Step 1: Identify the problem or need.
A3 Problem Solving can be used to solve a problem, or to take advantage of an opportunity. Step one can be thought of as the justification for addressing the situation. If there is a problem, what is that problem? Why is it a problem? How is it impacting the organization? If there is an opportunity, what is the opportunity? Why is it an opportunity? How will it benefit the organization?
Step 2: Describe the current situation.
This step typically involves a gemba walk, which includes talking with those who are involved in the area being investigated, collecting data, and possibly getting information from vendors and suppliers. The objective is to put together a complete and accurate picture of the current situation. Don't just look at current operations, but also talk with those involved with maintenance and the design of the system or process being studied. Find out what has happened in the past.
Step 3: What is the desired condition?
Where are you going with this? When everything is done, what should the situation be? In this step, establish specific, measurable goals, and define the methods to be used for collecting data. If goals are not measurable, you'll never know when they have been achieved.
Step 4: What is the result of a root cause analysis?
Addressing symptoms, or putting a “band-aid” on a problem, is a waste of time and resources. The root cause must be identified and addressed. A number of tools are available for helping to identify root causes. Two of the most common tools are the “Five Whys” and Fault Tree Analysis.
Step 5: Identify a solution.
With the root cause known, an appropriate solution can be developed. In some cases the solution will be obvious, but other situations may require collaborative problem solving and brainstorming.
Once a solution has been identified, create a plan that specifies:
- What will be done.
- How it will be done.
- The resources that are required.
- Who is responsible for accomplishing each part of the plan.
- When the solution will be fully implemented (including milestones for larger projects).
- How success will be measured.
Step 6: Implement the solution.
The problem has been identified, and a plan established for solving the problem (or taking advantage of the opportunity). Next, that plan must be implemented. Note that this process requires the full backing and support of management. For example, management must be willing to make the necessary resources available so that the plan can be implemented. That means that management should be a part of the A3 Problem Solving process from the beginning.
Step 7: Measurements/observations confirming the desired condition has been achieved.
The final step is to determine whether the changes have achieved the desired result. If so, any needed changes to standards should be made. If not, then the process should be repeated. As a part of this final step, all of those involved with the A3 Problem Solving process, as well as everyone working in the area being addressed, should be informed about the changes and the results.
A3 Problem Solving is part of the foundation of lean manufacturing. However, it is not a one-way street. Lean methods such as Kaizen, for example, help to identify the problems addressed by A3 Problem Solving. Kaizen suggestions can be a source of information for identifying both problems and opportunities. Learn more about Kaizen with a free Kaizen Quick Start Guide.