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A brief introduction to A3 Thinking

I’ve been running some workshops on Visual Management recently for clients in the Construction sector and we’ve been looking at how this applies in 5S and also how to set up and use “Information Centres”.  Visual Management in 5S includes techniques such as signage, colour-coding, shadow boards, photos showing expected standards of cleanliness and organisation.

Information CentresInformation Centres are local noticeboards used to display relevant quality, performance, safety and planning information at a level of detail relevant to that particular workplace.  They usually also include information on current improvement activities and may also summarise the skills of the team members in the form of a Skills Matrix.

My colleague Ali Mafi (Lean Thinking Ltd.) has also been introducing people to A3 Thinking which is a way of capturing and reporting progress and performance with any improvement activity. It originates in the Toyota Production System.   As the name implies, it is based on an A3 sheet of paper (Landscape layout) which is broken into sections to summarise what’s happening.  The flow of the report is top-to-bottom on the left side, then top-to-bottom on the right side.  The left side defines the problem – the right side proposes solutions.

Typically, an A3 Report can be used to summarise problem solving and process improvement activities and they are a complete antidote to the typical form of management reporting where you have to wade through pages of text to find out what’s going on. [Download my A3 Improvement Template]

A3 thinking is NOT about filling in a template; it’s more about telling the story of an improvement journey from problem to solution.  Hence, not all A3 Reports follow the same structure, but typically, you might expect to find one with these headings:

  1. Background to the problem (its context and why it’s important)
  2. Current situation/problem statement (where are we now?)
  3. Objective (desired outcome/target level of performance – where do we need to get to?)
  4. Root Cause Analysis (Fishbone, 5 Whys, Pareto etc. showing evidence and data)
  5. Countermeasures (actions being taken to address the problem)
  6. Impact (confirmation of the effectiveness of the countermeasures – more data)
  7. Follow-up actions (anything else that still needs to be done to ensure the problem stays fixed, or learning to share more widely)

A3_ReportThe size/space limit (i.e. A3) is in some ways more important than the headings; it forces brevity and focus. The reports are usually displayed on the wall, or on an Information Centre, close to where the problem exists.

A really good website on A3 Thinking is here, where I found an interesting presentation on “Advanced issues in A3 Problem Solving” (pdf) by Art Smalley which describes three pillars of A3 Thinking (A3 promotes all 3):

  • Problem Solving
  • Communication
  • Mentoring

It also describes three types of improvement situation:

  • Easy Cases – “Just Do It!”
  • Medium Cases – Structured Thinking
  • Hard Cases – Persistence & Careful Analysis

I’d say A3 Reports are particularly suited to the Medium and Hard cases; the former being the sort of problem solving activity associated with daily operations.  Hard cases are more likely to require bespoke improvement teams (projects) working over a longer period of time.  Incidentally, these three types also reminded me of the trap that too many Lean and Six Sigma fanatics fall into: assuming everything requires a “Hard Case” level of response and “heavy-duty” statistical analysis tools.

Finally, here’s a short video of James Womack (Co-author of The machine that changed the world) talking about A3 Thinking…

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