A3 thinking is based on the plan-do-check-act cycle. This powerful way of thinking developed by Toyota is written on ledger-sized paper (11 x 17 inches)—the A3 report—that a team can use to define or clarify problems, suggest solutions, and record the results of improvement activities.
The thought behind the A3 report is to include all relevant information and to establish a clear representation of the current problem, eliminating "waste" in the form of information that is not pertinent to the problem at hand. The idea is to streamline the report so that it focuses only on the problem and its solution, nothing else.
The report is broken into different sections, each clearly labeled and arranged in a logical flow. The A3 report is an effective tool because it contains not only text, but also pictures, diagrams, and charts, all of which enrich and clarify the data and improve communication.
The A3 report can be used for problem solving, but there also are two other ways of using it: a proposal A3 report and a storyboard A3 report. Each report has a slightly different focus, and the experience level of those facilitating the initiative may vary, but the foundation behind each A3 will not change.
A3 Report Procedure
Like the define, measure, analyze, improve and control method (DMAIC), the problem-solving A3 report has steps that must be followed from beginning to end.
The duration of an improvement event is generally four weeks and has four distinct week-long phases:
- Preparation and training
- Process mapping and current state analysis
- Process mapping and future state analysis
- Implementation and ownership
The report typically has left and right sections, with many headings—often called blocks—in each section.
On the left section, there are four headings:
- Theme: Succinctly states the problem(s) being addressed in one or two sentences.
- Background: A description of all pertinent information needed to understand the scope of the problem at hand.
- Current Condition: Helps develop an understanding of what is currently happening using a value-stream map. The map should be enhanced by inserting quantitative information (e.g., setup times, takt time), notes, and illustrations to enhance readability and help develop a good understanding of all existing conditions.
- Cause Analysis: Helps determine the cause of the current problem, using various root cause analysis tools, ideally the 5 Why’s technique.
On the right section, there are three headings:
- Target Condition: Considerations of possible improvement ideas that could rectify the problem. Toyota calls these improvement ideas "countermeasures," implying that a solution is currently being reached for a specific problem only until a better solution is found. These countermeasures are the objective the team uses to draw the target condition or future state map, which shows how the improved process will work with these countermeasures in place.
- Implementation Plan: Identifies the steps that need to be completed to realize the improvements outlined under the future state map. The participants clearly write the changes necessary to improve the process, prioritize the changes, establish a timeline to complete the changes, and identify the expected results.
- Follow-Up: The activities that are not completed in the time outlined, which help document problems encountered during the implementation so the future implementation can be improved. In addition, results of the implementation are also written down to outline what specific improvements have been realized.
A3 Report Example
Below is a completed problem-solving A3 report process using the major phase inspection process for a U-2 aircraft as an example.
- (Theme) Clarify and validate the problem, starting with a perceived problem and using quantitative data to validate whether it is, in fact, a problem. The completed first block is populated with a short problem statement and data to validate it (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Block 1 of A3 Report—Clarify and Validate the Problem
- (Background) To break down the problem and identify performance gaps, the team begins to dissect the scope of the problem statement from Block 1 and determine the area of focus. Using targeted data to find specific focus areas, the team breaks down the larger problem at hand into bite-sized pieces. The completed second block is populated with data determining a focus area.
- (Current Condition) The team develops an understanding of what is currently happening to determine what success will look like. The improvement target must be based on current state and must be relative to the problem statement in Block 1. The completed third block is populated with an improvement target.
- (Cause Analysis) Determine root causes using the focus areas from Block 2. The completed fourth block is populated using root cause analysis tools and highlights the determined root cause.
- (Target Condition) Develop specific countermeasures for the root cause from Block 4. The countermeasures should only specifically address the root cause and, in theory, should solve the problem identified in Block 1. The completed fifth block is populated with any tool that will outline the countermeasures.
- (Implementation Plan) The team tracks the countermeasures from Block 5 and ensures each one is accomplished. The completed sixth block is populated with the tool used in Block 5 to outline the countermeasures and updated as each is accomplished.
- (Follow-Up) The team begins to track the results as countermeasures are accomplished, confirming results and process. After all are completed, the team will use the data from Block 1 to determine if the countermeasures from Block 5 are improving the process. The completed seventh block is populated with continued data from Block 1.
- The team should standardize process only after confirming successful results validated in Block 7. If successful results are validated, the completed eighth block is populated with tasks that were implemented to standardize process.
Create An A3 Report
Start using the A3 report template to see how your team can use it to define or clarify problems, suggest solutions, and record the results of improvement activities.
A3 Report Resources
Process Improvement: Using Toyota's A3 Reports (Quality Management Journal) Toyota created A3 reports as a means of identifying and solving problems. However, no study has as yet been published explaining how to implement A3 reports in manufacturing. This study examines how A3 reports were implemented in a successful process improvement project in aircraft maintenance and repair operations.
Breaking It Down (Quality Progress) In this best of Back to Basics column, Alberto Ayulo explains the steps of an A3 report, which is based on the plan-do-check-act cycle. Each step is explained and the relationship between A3 report blocks is discussed.
Art of Improvement (Quality Progress) While executives often instinctively rely on digital-based skills, such as analytical thinking and data modeling, they must also lean on observation-based skills, such as creative thinking, drawing and visual learning. Driven from the bottom, an A3 report can be an excellent tool to blend art and science. The idea is to streamline the report so it focuses only on the problem and its solution—and nothing else.
Breakthrough Solution (Six Sigma Forum Magazine) Faced with a disappointing process yield of 86.5%, Asahi India Glass Co. applied the DMAIC method and A3 reports to find and resolve problems in its automobile glass manufacturing process.
Lean Delivery (Quality Progress) By employing lean Six Sigma strategies, A3 reports, daily team huddles, and incorporating the employees in the improvement process, Mercy Hospital St. Louis was able to cut down on wasted time and increase on-time surgeries and other procedures.
Continuous Improvement At Two Companies (PDF) Todd Schneider, a certified public accountant turned executive champion for continuous improvement (CI), has helped integrate CI/lean into the operations of two companies. Lessons learned in his quality journey include the importance of training and communication and strategies for gaining upper management’s support.
All The Right Moves (Quality Progress) This article presents a case study involving patient flow in a healthcare facility in northeastern Ontario, Canada, during a time when hospital-based funding was frozen while community-based services increased.