Durward K. Sobek II, associate professor of industrial engineering at Montana State University, recently spoke to a large IndustryWeek online audience about A3 thinking and A3 reports. It's a topic he is quite familiar with as co-author of Understanding A3 Thinking, which he wrote with lean expert Art Smalley.
For the unfamiliar, A3 reports are the centerpiece of the system Toyota uses to implement PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act). More specifically, they are one-page documents that record the main results from the PDCA cycle, with A3 simply referring to the fact these documents should fit on one side of an A3 sized sheet of paper (about 11X17).
However, explained Sobek during the IW presentation A Primer on A3 Reports: Better Thinking for Stronger Organizations, the A3 report is not merely a documentation tool. Instead "it is a communication tool for dialog between individuals to support collaborative problem-solving and mentoring processes. And the process of creating the report becomes the real value of the thing."
Sobek shared several form and style points for creating an A3 document. They include:
- Be concise and make every word count. The size of an A3 report does not allow for extraneous language.
- Graphics and visuals are preferred over text.
- You don't see much in paragraph form in an A3 report. Narrative is more likely to be a bullet list or itemized list.
- The title, to and bylines, and the date are important on an A3 report. Why? The title of the report is important so those you are communicating with can quickly identify the topic of the report. The "to" reminds you who is going to read the report and give the stamp of approval. It also reminds you that you are writing for an audience so you need to make decisions about what to include for good decision-making by that audience. What to include will be driven in part by who the audience is. The byline is the author, and the date shows how recently the document was done.
- Typically each section is boxed and the edges line up for easy reading.
- Use white space for readability.
- Toyota places a strong emphasis on the report telling a story.
Sobek also fielded multiple questions about A3 thinking and A3 reports. They included:
Question: Is it possible for people/organizations that do not practice the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) method of problem-solving to successfully adopt A3 thinking?
"The answer is yes," Sobek says. "You will, by following the A3 process and the structure in the A3 thinking process, you are actually doing PDCA even if you don't call it that. So I don't really think it's a prerequisite that you're already in that mode."
Question: What do you think is the biggest challenge to implementing an A3 system?
"Let me cite two. The first challenge I can see immediately is form over substance," says Sobek. One can get caught up in creating the templates and making sure boxes are located in the right position and so forth. However, he notes, "We need to make sure we understand that the purpose is to have a useful A3 report. We don't care that it's a perfect A3 report. Yes, you can always make these things better, but are they useful for the purpose you are trying to accomplish? If they are, then I think you don't need to iterate on it anymore. So I'm concerned on form over substance.
"The second challenge is really using the A3 report rigorously."
Question: How much time should it take to complete an A3?
"It depends. It can be highly variable on the nature of the problem." Sobek said other factors that will impact this metric include the complexity of the problem, how much knowledge you have of the problem, and the resources available, among a host of others.