In 1983, a young American named John Shook went to Japan to work for Toyota. He’d been to Japan before, was a student of lean management principles, and was already attracted to Japanese ideas about process improvement, quality and distributed responsibility. But (he admits this now) he still didn’t know what he was getting into. He was about to encounter The Way.
The leading question
At Toyota, John Shook learned the A3 problem-solving process from the inside. What surprised him?
- Almost always, the problem you face is different from the one you thought you were facing.
- Most of us are so eager to find (and deliver) the solution to a problem that we jump to conclusions instead of truly investigating to the problem’s root.
- The A3 process provides a framework for learning in the “place where the work occurs.”
Shook was the only Westerner in Toyota City then, and he was initiated and trained like any other fresh arrival — hammered into shape on the forge of something called the A3 report. “Every newly hired college-graduate employee began learning his job by being coached through the A3 process,” Shook recalls. “The employee would arrive at his new desk to find waiting for him a problem, a mentor and a process for learning how to solve that problem. The entire process was structured around PDCA [plan, do, check, act] and captured in the A3.”
“A3,” he discovered, was for starters just the international term for an 11-inch by 17-inch sheet of paper.
But at Toyota it had come to stand for something else: a process, a way of thinking and communicating, a way of learning, a way of getting things done and a way of attempting to create an entire organization of problem solvers. “Toyota’s insight many years ago was that every issue in an organization should be described, analyzed and solved on a single sheet of paper that everyone touching the matter can see,” says Shook.
Specifically, says Shook, the A3:
- depicts an issue;
- analyzes the situation and its underlying causes;
- identifies the required outcome;
- proposes some corrective actions;
- prescribes an action plan (who will do what when); and
- creates a follow-up review process — all in one integrated document.
(In “Toyota’s Secret: the A3 Report”, you can see a sample A3, annotated and explained by Shook.)