A3 is a principle, not a problem-solving method !!
Origins of the "A3 method"
The A3 method, or the A3 process, stems from the Toyota Production System (TPS). The A3 method evolved and was refined at Toyota over the years, tracing back to the 1960s and 1970s when Toyota started to further formalize its problem-solving approaches and visual management. However, pinpointing an exact date for the establishment of the A3 method as a standardized practice is challenging.
By restricting information presentation to a single page, Toyota's leaders hoped to promote more relevant thinking, prompting employees to distinguish the crucial from the non-essential. A one-page summary would enforce clarity, brevity, and focus, discarding superfluous information and zeroing in on the heart of the problem and solutions.
The A3 format was chosen as it was adequately sizable to contain ample information and was the largest format that could be faxed, thus facilitating quick communication between stakeholders during an era when the fax machine was an essential communication tool.
How the principle of the A3 format became an "A3 problem-solving method"At Toyota, the A3 format was commonly used for managerial reports, particularly those of the "Kanri Nouryoku" program aimed at enhancing its managers' managerial capabilities. In this program, managers were required to present in the A3 format centered on problem-solving issues each manager and their teams faced in their work. This is how, over time, the A3 format got associated with problem-solving and the A3 format itself. The widespread dissemination, transmission, and interpretations of Lean in the 1980s further propagated this association. With the advent of the internet and articles being penned on websites by those not well-acquainted (aiming for better Google ranking) has irrevocably entrenched this confusion: the A3's intention and principle (clarity, brevity, focusing on the essentials) has become the A3 problem-solving method.
So, what are the steps of the A3 method?Any method should have some specification that transcends mere principles. Specifically, a description of the method's steps. It's quite easy to find, especially online. Most steps are similar, very logical and sensible. However, the similarity is more due to a phenomenon of replication and common sense than a genuine prescription of steps, as found in true standard methods like DMAIC, PDCA, and 8D. Here's an example of the steps (yes, we are replicating too...):
- Describe the current situation
- Define the objective
- Identify root causes
- Define corrective actions
- Outline the implementation plan
- Monitor the results
- Learn from the experience
ConclusionAs we've seen, the "A3 method" steps aren't specified and thus aren't what sets the A3 method apart. What distinguishes it are its principles: clarity, brevity, and focus, eliminating unnecessary information and honing in on the core of the issue and its solutions. These principles are powerful and can (and should!) be applied to any problem-solving method, whether standardized (DMAIC, PDCA, 8D) or ad-hoc. They go well beyond problem-solving: they are managerial competencies. Which, after all, was Toyota's intent when they developed these principles.
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