What is A3 Problem Solving?

A3 Thinking comes out of A3 Reporting, an approach used by Toyota in the Toyota Production System, or TPS, which involved documenting or reporting team exercises on a single sheet of ISO-A3 paper. When the problem solving process is documented on a A3 record sheet, we call it A3 Problem Solving. While the documentation of the problem solving process is an outcome of A3 Problem Solving, and that has advantages in itself, the A3 philosophy and how it impacts on problem solving is where the true benefits of this approach lie.

Since space on an A3 record sheet is limited, this forces critical thinking that is precise and economical, driving focus at every step of the problem solving process. Problem solvers have a roadmap to guide the problem solving process, with individual steps outlined in blocks on the A3 record sheet. This eliminates shortcuts and gives structure to the process. The A3 can be readily shared and displayed, encouraging team input. Organisations employing a defined, consistent format can use the A3 to guide a standard organisational thought process when it comes to problem solving. That drives a common “problem solving language” and helps to build a problem solving culture. Since the entire problem solving process is displayed on a single sheet of paper, linkages between individual steps are easier to see, and alignment of all of the steps is facilitated. 

An A3 can take several forms but should incorporate Plan-Do-Check-Act through the individual problem solving steps employed. This means ensuring that the results achieved through an implemented solution are evaluated and that this feedback is incorporated into further problem solving should desired results not be achieved. The individual steps should include defining the problem, measuring it, finding the root cause, developing and choosing solutions, implementing solutions, evaluating solution performance, and then outlining the steps that come out of the problem solving process. An A3 recognises that the problem solving process is fluid and iterative, and is hence preferably completed in pencil, allowing changes to be made as required.

Today’s technology allows A3 Problem Solving to be conducted electronically, with A3’s stored in databases and making them more easily adapted, stored, searched and shared. If this route is adopted, care must be taken not to lose the collaborative and knowledge-sharing aspects of A3 thinking, particularly the role of the A3 in facilitating coaching and in garnering the input of all those with a stake in the problem.

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