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What’s All the Fuss About A3 Thinking?

By Jon Miller Updated on May 17th, 2017

Jim had a good point in his comment:

I don’t understand the excitement about this so-called A3 thinking. Root cause analysis has been around for decades, so has five whys (at least since the very early 1980s.) As for hypothesis testing it is well over 80 years old. PDCA goes back to Deming who modified it from Shewhart who developed it in the 1930s, I’ll grant you that the simplicity of the A3 form is good but then again many of us have been using a simple format to solve problems for a very long time. I guess if you are relatively new at this A3 must seem like an innovation. All in all, nothing more than the use of a different jargon to solve problems the old-fashioned way.

A3 thinking may be just another case of old wine in new bottles. It is probably accurate to say that there is no part of the lean management system or TPS that is not at least 25 years old, and 80% of it is well over 50 years old. As part of the Toyota Production System it is problem solving structured around the PDCA cycle, one-page summaries and teacher-student dialogue. Quality improvement and planning tools such as 5 why, the Ishikawa diagram, the Pareto chart, the Gantt chart etc. are liberally used within A3 documentation also.

If A3 thinking had come from a less successful automotive company than Toyota, it would probably not be famous. There are books in Japan on the importance of saying “good morning” and greeting people by name when coming in to work each day, demonstrating the measurable impact on morale (absenteeism), quality and productivity. This sort of uncommonly practiced common sense doesn’t meet the light of day until a successful company that has been in the news, or an iconoclastic CEO promotes it as the “latest thing”. That it takes an exceptional case to return us to common sense is unfortunate, but we can be grateful when these good ideas to come to light and are shared.

What’s the excitement all about? It’s good to have an open mind to study old information packaged in a new way, since all information is old information rearranged. Anytime we discover something of practical value and use it’s worth celebrating, even if it’s been known by everyone else in the world forever. It’s exciting to have your eyes opened to something obvious, so that you can really see it. I remember the day when I discovered that the F2 key lets you rename files. Whoa.

Although it can make a person a better problem solver, the most powerful aspect of adopting A3 thinking is not at the individual level. The best use of the A3 is to lock down a standard way of working for an organization when it comes to planning, problem solving or proposal writing. A3 is almost no use if a small number of people are A3 experts and the rest of the organization does things as always. Most people who “know A3 thinking” don’t really practice it but only have it in their tool set as an option, not as an absolute mindset and behavior. Most 5 why analysis I have seen is shallow or not a drill down at all but multiple whys that don’t pass the “therefore” or “so what” test. The A3 as a standard way of discussing and solving problems facilitates learning across an organization, and that’s something to get excited about.

  1. Robert Anderson

    March 4, 2009 - 10:24 am

    Getting wrapped up in the format or the actual A3 report itself misses the point. Companies aware of problem solving methodologies under a different name still, all to often, address the symptoms rather than the cause.
    It is the A3 methodology, the rigorous thinking model that says show me your thoughts, that truly helps us to identify the root cause (through 5 why, Ishikawa diagrams, etc) and to plan to solve them with countermeasures (PDCA). This is the beauty of the A3, tying all those methodologies together.
    The dialogue that then ensues between the coach and the author is made easier when you think of tying all those disciplines together on 1 sheet of paper. The task is somehow less daunting because it seems too simple.

  2. Mark Graban

    March 6, 2009 - 8:39 am

    F2 key — sweet tip! I didn’t know that one…
    Agree with what you’re saying about A3. I think it gets overhyped as a cure all the same way VSM or 5S can get overhyped.

  3. Don MacEachern

    March 29, 2009 - 4:48 am

    Do you think the hype is more for the tool or that western (American) management still has not grasped the understanding of process? They do not know how to properly manage all the business processes as well as product processes inside the business to the extent they can not teach the details of what work has to been completed and when truly we have discovered an improvement. Also The capability and Ability to get to true root cause of the issue/problem.

  4. Jon Miller

    March 29, 2009 - 9:15 pm

    Hi Don,
    I think the hype is the result of a combination of three factors: the fact that the A3 is billed as the management system of the world’s most successful manufacturer (Toyota), the elegance one-page thinking, and the shocking simplicity of the A3 process.
    The A3 has been around by other names for years, evidenced in hoshin planning, the QC storyline boards, and PDCA problem solving activities. The timing of the release of this latest generation of PDCA is what has helped at least as much as the fact that it works.
    TQM was hot stuff back in the day – both are effective when used, but not the whole solution by themselves.

  5. Debbie

    June 3, 2009 - 2:09 pm

    Using A3’s gives a company “standard work” when it comes to problem solving as it cuts across all functional levels. It increases communications and help us help each other “think” out loud.

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