Tips for Lean Managers

The Advantages of A1 Thinking Over A3 Thinking

By Jon Miller Updated on May 20th, 2017

Image source: Wikipedia Commons
What is popularly called A3 thinking is the practical problem solving process which summarizes the PDCA cycle on one page. Those of us who have memories of TQC will recognize it as nearly identical to the QC storyline concept. Many QC storlyine display boards were A0 size for good reason. Lately as I have looked for more effective ways to teach this so-called A3 thinking I have become a fan of A1 thinking.
The designations A0, A1, A2, A3, A4 etc. represent size, and the lower the number the bigger the paper. The image above illustrates that as we increase in number we halve the paper size. Whether A1 or A3 the thinking is the same. The critical difference lies in the size of the one page document and the working environment this creates. Here is a summary of the advantages of A1 thinking over A3 thinking.
Speed. Believe it or not in some parts of the world one of the hurdles to getting started with A3 thinking is getting your hands on A3 paper. Once you have it, many people choose to print a template rather than draw the boxes by hand as recommended. Thus the printer needs to be set up as well, as the document and print settings. This is not a huge challenge, but it is set up and creates delays as well as other wastes. If you have a plotter you can print out a template on A1 or even A0 size. But don’t do that. Use a white board approximately A1 in size. A flip chart can also be used but the whiteboard allows for the ease of erasure as well as portability due to its firm backing. Pick up a dry erase marker and start at the top left of the chart. Easy.
Teamwork. The A1 thinking process allows four or five people to comfortably encircle the whiteboard to read, ask questions and contribute during the problem solving process. In contrast the A3 requires that you hold it close and read it one or two people at a time. Of course we could print many copies, but that is a waste. We can put it into a spreadsheet and project it on a screen, but that is over-processing.
Flow. There is nothing like the sound and the heat from the fan of a projector to lull a group of A3 thinkers to sleep. Even when writing A3 documents by hand instead of typing it directly into an electronic document, we are in our comfortable chairs, crouched over a piece of paper. On the other hand A1 thinking forces us to turn the lights on, get out of our chairs and engage in writing on a large board. It’s not strenuous, but it’s a full-body activity. This helps circulation, which helps us maintain our energy level as well as the flow of thought.
Dialogue. At the heart of the A3 thinking process is a writer-coach relationship. This is identical to the team leader developing the ideas of the team members into implemented kaizen suggestions, and how kaizen even facilitators pull the best out of the kaizen team members by coaching and questioning rather than providing the answers. It is often easier to give coaching than to ask for it. For a vigorous culture of A3 thinking we need healthy bottom-up communication. To facilitate this, a whiteboard in a work area is much more inviting than a nicely printed or hand-written A3 document. There is something informal about a whiteboard. It says “Write on me” while a paper document says “Read me” but we’re not sure if it’s OK to mark it up. An A1 thinking whiteboard showing the task breakdown for a hoshin kanri breakthrough objective or even a small problem found on the line allows team members to pick up a marker and add their comments or questions, initiating the coaching dialogue.
Visibility. Size translates into better visibility while working on the problem solving document. The A1 thinking document is four times larger than the A3 document. It is big. You can read it from across the room. The caveat is that you have to write at least four times as big as you would on an A3. Don’t use the extra space to cram in more information! The visual impact of an A1 presentation is not only due to its size. The fact that people can draw and write brings out creativity and ownership in the document. You can use colors. The actual stand up presentation becomes more engaging as a result.
I’ve heard that Toyota has gone from A3 thinking to A4 thinking. Knowing Toyota this is probably due to the need to cut the cost of paper used for A3 thinking by half. Perhaps it also cuts the time to think in half. Who knows. Next time you have the opportunity to teach or practice A3 thinking, use a whiteboard or chalkboard instead of paper. I strongly recommend starting with A1 thinking and working your way progressively towards A3 thinking.

  1. Harish

    December 3, 2009 - 4:28 am

    Hi Jon,
    I am going to say that “Great minds think alike” (I wish). At my plant we are planning on creating an A3 board in one department which will be called as an A3 board. This is basically a large dry erase board. It will be a living document. The idea is that at the end of the project, a picture of the board will be taken and saved as the “A3 document” in our reports database. This way there is no need for electronic A3 forms or an A3 sheet for everybody etc. We also plan on doing one A3 per month so that we can effectively pool our limited resources and everyone will work together as a team to complete the project in the allotted 30 days. The project will be chosen by a team based on company priorities. I will let you know how this works out.
    Great post as usual.

  2. Bruce Baker

    December 3, 2009 - 5:47 am

    This is cool. As long as we tape up the whiteboard first to make sure that we have the right boxes on it — NO I’M BEING SARCASTIC. The company that I work for now preaches A3 thinking, but they mean just use this standard “9 box” 3 x 3 template. We use a blank piece of paper in the plant. If it has to go higher then we have to shoe horn it into the nine “approved” boxes and then invent something to go into the boxes that don’t haturally have something.
    I am going to try this whiteboard thing in some autonomous maintenance stuff that we are doing. I think maybe we will weld up a frame and put it on wheels so we can move it around the floor easier and take it into the training room when we need to (our gemba is super loud so we can’t talk to each other very well unfortunately).
    This is really cool, gonna try it.

  3. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    December 3, 2009 - 11:41 am

    Well done Jon. I submit there is no such thing as A3 thinking anyway. There is just lean thinking. And A3 is just the “canvas” on which to paint your thoughts.
    In my coaching, I much prefer to use a whiteboard so that we can (a) collaborate and (b) stand.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  4. Andrew

    December 7, 2009 - 12:02 am

    Hi Jon,
    I agree fully…but to take the idea a step to the side…main resistance I’ve encountered as a consultant…comes from management and consultants… Much “better”, more “productive” to do it with a tiny portable computer and projector…! Unfortunatley this leads to lots of pretty slides but no buy-in, less productive content… It can also influence in the choice of those who participate! It lastly creates an “us” and them syndrome…bad for next steps. “Us”(the victims of what’s been defined) and “them” (those that were present in the cosy meeting room…and who produced the pretty picture on their cool software packages)
    Andrew Chisholm

  5. Jon Miller

    December 8, 2009 - 6:51 am

    Hi Robert
    You have the right idea with DIY lean tools. Best wishes,

  6. Wesley Bushby

    December 8, 2009 - 7:43 pm

    I’m wondering if we are getting caught up in the need to constantly identify how we act by physical form or verbatim definition. A3 Thinking us just that – a thought process. A3 is a method to show your thoughts from problem identification, possible solutions, and effectiveness of the solution chosen. It revolves around PDSA so I don’t see how anyone could go wrong. You can start on the wall of the boardroom as far as I’m concerned. However, the underlying purpose is to finalize in a direct and quantifiable method, which the A3 or 11 x 17 paper forces you to do. Perhaps Toyota believes this can become even more precise going smaller, though I do disagree with that.
    How the owner of the A3 goes about problem solving is up to them. The A3 process of identifying and involving (or at least keeping informed) the stakeholders is an important part of A3 thinking. The final product is still a map or story of your PDSA, just it is kept sweet and simple for the final product. I’ve riffled through a number of A3’s with ease when doing research on similar problems to the one I was solving. Even though I had not written the others, and they were a couple years old, the clear picture was still there for me to follow and use.
    So I contend you are still doing A3 thinking. The question is, can your documents be easily found, read, understood, and re-used years down the road and are the solution(s) still effective? If so, you met the intent of A3 thinking.

  7. Saravanan

    December 10, 2009 - 5:54 am

    Hi Jon!
    That is what has happened in reality, When I started to convey the Impact of the KANBAN along with simple and power full visual control indicating the machine running,setup and wait/broken down and try color Indetification tag for the WIP Materials.
    I have Used a Flip chart all the way during my simulation (presentation)to collect the questions from the auidance, finally at the end simulation,
    The Team found
    – The all the questions are answered in the Process
    – and enabled to draw a ROAD MAP for the Implementation
    ” I wouldn’t say it works, it just brings out the reliased competency from the auidance as well as the Teacher ”
    Enjoy the way working!

  8. Cromwel Burgos

    March 18, 2022 - 12:44 pm

    As long as it follows the PDSA Plan Do Study Adjust cycle of scientific thinking and it can flow through the stakeholders or people involved, the way of thinking is what matters.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.