A3 Problem Solving

A3 problem solving is a lean management approach to problem-solving to encourage learning, collaboration, and personal growth amongst employees.

Understanding A3 problem solving

The A3 process was first developed by Toyota and its tendency to use a single piece of A3 paper to outline ideas, plans, and goals relating to problem-solving. Although not attributable to a single person, the approach is a hybrid of the PDCA cycle and Toyota’s philosophy of making things visible.

By using a sheet of paper 11 x 17 inches in size, it forces teams to be concise and collaborate effectively on the information they want to include. This makes potential solutions more understandable and thus easier to digest across all levels of the organization

Implementing A3 problem-solving in practice 

While the exact components of each A3 sheet vary, most include the following seven steps as a minimum:

  1. Define and clarify the problem.
  2. Define the current situation. At Toyota, problem solvers observe the problem occurring in work processes firsthand and transfer these observations to a whiteboard. If possible, the size of the problem should be quantifiable. For example, Toyota may quantify the number of chassis manufacturing defects per month.
  3. Implement a root cause analysis. The introspective 5 Whys analysis is a simple yet thorough means of identifying the most basic reasons for a problem.
  4. Brainstorm countermeasures. These are simply ideas for addressing the root cause. The most effective countermeasures will have the desired outcome clearly defined and a plan for achieving it. They will also designate specific staff to carry out the measures.
  5. Define a target state. A core component of A3 problem solving is communicating a target state through a process map. In other words, the optimum state a business wants to achieve in the form of a goal. To attain the goal, all relevant changes must clearly be defined on the process map.
  6. Develop an implementation plan. With the target state defined, it’s now time to define how it might be achieved. Each countermeasure should have an accompanying task list and denote who is responsible for carrying it out. All time-sensitive tasks should also be documented here.
  7. Create a follow-up plan with ideal outcomes. If actual results differ from the predicted results, the problem solvers should go back to the beginning of the process. Positive outcomes should also be incorporated into standard operating procedures and communicated to the relevant staff.

Benefits of A3 problem solving

The primary benefit of A3 problem-solving lies in its simplicity. 

It encourages employee buy-in since the problem is communicated in a way that most can understand. It also increases corporate culture as employees across various departments share knowledge and work collaboratively to improve process efficiency.

Indeed, businesses can similarly adopt the Toyota ethos of visibility to advertise success throughout the company which itself is a result of empowering employees to solve critical problems.

Key takeaways:

  • A3 problem solving is a collaborative approach to problem-solving confined to the size of a sheet of A3 paper.
  • Most iterations of A3 problem solving include seven basic steps that document how a business defines a problem, identifies solutions, and then monitors solutions through goal setting and follow-up plans.
  • Businesses who adopt A3 problem solving enjoy several benefits, mostly related to healthy company culture and a commitment to improving processes.
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