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.