Understanding Lean A3 Thinking
The A3 Thinking approach offers organizations a systematic method for realizing opportunities for improvement in the workplace.
A3 Thinking has been repeatedly reported to be a key tool In Toyota's quality-focused history. This simple process has underpinned Toyota's continual improvement program, delivering accelerated efficiency and other quality-related benefits.
The A3 reporting process itself only reflects half of the story. The development of an improvement- and change-focused company culture is at the core of A3 Thinking. The deployment of an A3 reporting process in an organization enables a company-wide improvement culture to flourish.
A3 Thinking underpins business improvement culture
The A3 approach offers the following key features:
- Provides a logical thinking process
- Clearly presents known information objectively
- Focuses on and shares critical information
- Aligns effort with strategy/objectives
- Provides a consistent approach throughout the organization
- Provides a powerful problem solving process
A3 paper reports
Traditionally, A3 reports are so named because they fitted onto one side of an A3-sized sheet of paper (about 11×17 inches). The purpose was to document and show on one page the results from the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle. These days organizations may use purpose-made software for cataloging and tracking A3 projects. Our cloud-based CAPA software is a good example of this type of system.
A3 Thinking supports Plan-Do-Check-Act
The A3 report process aligns to and supports Deming's 'Plan-Do-Check-Act' management philosophy. PDCA is often used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products.
- Plan: Establish the objectives and processes necessary to deliver results in accordance with the expected output (the target or goals)
- Do: Implement the plan, execute the process, make the product. Collect data for charting and analysis in the Check and Act steps
- Check: Study the actual results (measured and collected in the Do stage above) and compare against the expected results (targets or goals from the Plan) to ascertain any differences
- Act: Request corrective actions on significant differences between actual and planned results. Analyze the differences to determine their root causes
A3 Thinking provides a logical improvement workflow
The basic A3 Thinking workflow is shown below:
CAPA Manager from Adaptive BMS provides an intuitive A3 workflow framework. The A3 steps are described in more detail below.
1. Plan: Select an A3 project title
It is important to select a descriptive and useful project title or theme. For example, it might be "Reduce sensor failures" or "Improving on-time delivery". The theme should focus on the problem observed, describing this particular A3 project's purpose.
2. Plan: Form the team
Select a team that includes process stakeholders. Process owners and operators are often the people most equipped to improve it, so the bulk of the team should comprise of these people. Include improvement coaches and technical experts as required. Teams can range from 1-20 depending on the project's requirements.
3. Plan: Define current condition
Outline the current situation in a simple way for the target audience. Be objective and state all the relevant known facts. Think about including charts, tables, graphs or using other techniques to illustrate the current condition. Think "communication".
4. Plan: Define the goal
Define the desired condition. How we will know that the project is successful at the end of the implementation? For example: "Our goal is to reduce sensor failures by 80% versus 2011 results".
5. Plan: Root cause analysis
Describe the Root-Cause Analysis investigation. How was the root-cause of the problem identified? Use the seven basic quality tools as required, list what was used and the results:
- The cause-and-effect chart (a.k.a. "fishbone" or Ishikawa diagram)
- The check sheet
- The control chart
- The histogram
- The Pareto chart
- The scatter diagram
- Stratification (alternatively, flow chart or run chart)
6. Do: Deploy countermeasures
The Countermeasures section is focused on improvement planning. List the actions and tasks for tackling the problem. This section also serves as an action plan that outlines who will do what, by when. This section can also list other A3 projects that have been identified and raise on the CAPA manager system.
7. Check: Effective confirmation
Define a method for assessing if the countermeasures have been successful. What is the difference between the desired condition and the improvements made through our current countermeasures? Did the countermeasures have an effect, or not?
8. Act: Follow-up actions
Here we reflect what further changes should be made to the system to sustain the improvement and what remains to be done. This could be further process changes or requesting entirely new A3 projects.
9. Act: Document changes and report
It is always important to correctly document all improvement work as this helps future improvement activity. For significant projects think about creating a project case study slide. Always ensure projects are properly closed down following completion. Also, list all updated documents, processes and procedures in this section.
The A3 Thinking process requires a pipeline of ideas from the workforce, customer and business strategy
A3 thinking supports an improvement-focused culture. The A3 process empowers all employees to realize improvements and solve problems themselves. It is very important to install a workforce-wide Opportunities Database to provide an ongoing supply of improvement opportunities. If the workforce is able to realize improvements quickly then a continuous supply of new ideas needs to be maintained.
The A3 process keeps organizations focused on solving the right problems, while making our progress visible to the entire team and the organization. Systems like CAPA Manager from Adaptive BMS significantly improves the accessibility of the A3 process, automating the A3 workflow, communication and reporting functions.