A3 Thinking has become popular of late within the lean community, but for all the wrong reasons. It has been used by some for years, so why grow popular now? Since the beginning of lean, people have been reaching for another tool hoping that this tool, finally, will create the tipping point of progress. But the reason we are searching for another tool is because we don't know how to work on the real difference maker -- getting the culture and thinking right. In this case, the cause is also the cure. The cause of everyone's interest is that we needed another tool because we ran out of the old ones. Since we've grabbed A3 as the next tool, it actually gives us a mechanism to work on changing the thinking.
A3 Reports are simply a wastefree way for report writing and communication. But the basic building blocks of the A3 report provide a nice little template for good thinking. Here are frequent failure modes in using A3s:
- The Problem Statement. There are few things both more fundamental and more frequently fouled than the problem statement. How you structure the problem statement determines your focus. Make sure your problem statement is actually about the current observable condition, not about a perceived solution, cause, or what you want.
- The Current Reality. This is not a sit-down exercise; it is an activity. Go observe. See what is actually happening. You want the as-is, not the supposed-to-be or the my-belief-is version of reality.
- The Target Condition. This is not the result you would achieve; this is how you will change the work in order to get the result. We don't just want to uncover solutions to problems, we want to design the work to create a new and better reality. Bad systems beat good people, and our job is to change the system.
- Work in Pencil. Two things happen when we work in pencil. First, we are much more likely to draw pictures than on a computer. When we draw a picture, we are more likely to capture the system view, not just the results view. Second, we should be willing to backtrack as we learn. At least half of problem statements should change based on what you learn going through the exploration.
Don't grab A3s as the next lean tool. If you do that, you will have the same result as any time you grab a tool. Use it to help you understand and change the thinking of the organization. A3 does not change the thinking, but it makes the thinking that we hold visible. And you cannot change what you cannot see.
Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.