A3 Problem Solving

In many organizations, employees are missing out on effective collaboration due to solutions being implemented with haste, departments not being aligned around key details, and projects stalling due to the need for revision.

A3 Problem Solving aims to help teams get ahead of the issues associated with poor planning by providing a systematic approach to solving problems. This process encourages in-depth problem solving designed to ensure that projects meet their intended goals.

Done right, A3 gives organizations a path toward faster, better decision making and more efficient processes, and helps nurture a collaborative culture.

In these next few sections, we’ll define A3 Thinking and go over the key elements involved in this powerful problem-solving tool.

What Is A3 Problem Solving?

A3 Problem Solving, or A3 Thinking, is part tool, part methodology for solving problems in a Lean environment that, like many parts of the School of Lean, was developed as part of the Toyota Production System.

At Toyota, A3 reports were initially used for solving problems, reporting on a project’s status, and proposing policy changes, though it’s worth pointing out that the potential applications cover a much broader range of use cases.

The Definition of A3 Thinking

A3 Thinking is typically defined as a problem-solving, decision-making, and collaborative management tool.

The name “A3” refers to the size of the piece of paper (11 x 17) used to outline goals, ideas, problems, and solutions in the A3 Thinking process. Now, it’s important to note that the size of the paper isn’t really important. Instead, the value comes from the fact that the summary of what’s being reported fits on one sheet of paper. Teams are required to focus on distilling the problem, solution, and the steps in-between into a single A3 page.

When implemented correctly, creating an A3 report allows teams to identify the most critical aspects of a problem or situation using the Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) process and stay focused on what matters.

A3 Problem Solving Online Video Course

As part of our growing School of Lean library, our A3 Problem Solving course will guide you from the basics to being able to implement A3 Problem Solving techniques within a few days.

Through this course you will learn how to make lasting changes as well as how to decide where to start making improvements.

Watch a Free A3 Introduction Video

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A3 Problem Solving Template

The A3 report is a single-page document that is used to tell a story of how a product or service was improved by the methodical application of each step in the PDCA cycle.

Here’s a breakdown of the five steps we typically include in an A3 report:

  • Describe the current state. Before you can properly address a problem, the owner needs to describe the current situation: What’s happening, and why is it a problem?
  • Provide some background information. The first step in the process is defining and describing the problem. The goal is to provide context for the situation and set the stage for next steps. As such, you might use this space to share facts, figures, charts, and graphs to provide supporting data.
  • Perform root cause analysis. At this stage, you’ll work through the 5 Whys and other Practical Problem Solving methods to identify root causes. Remember, root cause analysis should always lead to action.
  • Come up with an action plan. Determine which countermeasures you’ll use to eliminate each root cause. This means identifying who needs to be involved, what needs to happen, and when you’ll be able to review and analyze your results.
  • Follow-up. The follow-up stage is where you’ll validate the results of your action plan.

You’ll notice we’ve outlined five steps above, though some Lean experts break this process into seven or more steps.

The A3 template isn’t all that important to the A3 Thinking process. The beauty of A3 reporting is that it’s a really flexible process that can be adapted to different situations depending on your needs. The real value comes from the thinking and collaboration that takes place as teams work through each of the four PDCA steps.

Remember: A3 Thinking distills the problem solving process into a one-page story that sets the scene, outlines goals, and works through problem solving. A3s are designed to be flexible. You might use it to focus on improving quality states or eliminating safety incidents or for justifying capital expenditures.

How to Practice A3 Thinking

A3 Problem Solving is a useful tool for identifying and addressing the root cause of a problem, encouraging organization-wide knowledge sharing, and working through a range of decision-making and critical-thinking tasks.

Again, you don’t necessarily need to follow a specific template. Instead, you can adapt the format and steps so that it aligns closely with your organization’s goals and internal processes.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for organizations new to A3 Problem Solving:

  • Clearly define the problem you’re addressing.
  • Make sure each A3 has an owner and includes a list of participants.
  • Consider integrating visuals if it’s a more effective way to communicate ideas.
  • Don’t worry about filling the entire A3 report—the more concise, the better. On the flip side, if the problem can’t be explained in a single sheet story, you’ll want to break it into a series of smaller problems you can address one by one.
  • Update the document as new information becomes available.

For a deeper dive into the A3 process, check out our online course. You can watch the first installment of the series for free to get a sense of what you’ll learn in this training module.

A3 Thinking Podcasts

Our free podcasts provide real world insights into practicing A3 Thinking.

Gemba podcast 218 brad brown

How To Harness The Power of A3 Thinking

The tables

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Gemba podcast 173 katie anderson

How To Use A3 Thinking

Audio of a presentation given by Captain Brad Brown at the 2017 Lean Municipal Government Forum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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