Toyota’s Secret: The A3 Report

How Toyota solves problems, creates plans, and gets new things done while developing an organization of thinking problem-solvers.

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While much has been written about Toyota Motor Corp.’s production system, little has captured the way the company manages people to achieve operational learning. At Toyota, there exists a way to solve problems that generates knowledge and helps people doing the work learn how to learn. Company managers use a tool called the A3 (named after the international paper size on which it fits) as a key tactic in sharing a deeper method of thinking that lies at the heart of Toyota’s sustained success.

A3s are deceptively simple. An A3 is composed of a sequence of boxes (seven in the example) arrayed in a template. Inside the boxes the A3’s “author” attempts, in the following order, to: (1) establish the business context and importance of a specific problem or issue; (2) describe the current conditions of the problem; (3) identify the desired outcome; (4) analyze the situation to establish causality; (5) propose countermeasures; (6) prescribe an action plan for getting it done; and (7) map out the follow-up process.

The leading question

Toyota has designed a two-page mechanism for attacking problems. What can we learn from it?

Findings
  • The A3’s constraints (just 2 pages) and its structure (specific categories, ordered in steps, adding up to a “story”) are the keys to the A3’s power.
  • Though the A3 process can be used effectively both to solve problems and to plan initiatives, its greatest payoff may be how it fosters learning. It presents ideal opportunities for mentoring.
  • It becomes a basis for collaboration.

However, A3 reports — and more importantly the underlying thinking — play more than a purely practical role; they also embody a more critical core strength of a lean company. A3s serve as mechanisms for managers to mentor others in root-cause analysis and scientific thinking, while also aligning the interests of individuals and departments throughout the organization by encouraging productive dialogue and helping people learn from one another. A3 management is a system based on building structured opportunities for people to learn in the manner that comes most naturally to them: through experience, by learning from mistakes and through plan-based trial and error.

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Comments (21)
Kirk Gould
After a whole week of A3 training by an experienced Lean practitioner, the elegance and beauty of it started to become clear.  The A3 is designed to be carried with you and is historically done with paper and pencil on the shop floor.  As updates are needed, it is erased and updated.  It is always real time.  

It also requires a face to face conversation and the need to go to the gemba (the place) . The pictures also tell a richer story than just words alone.  This is not just an analysis tool, it is a results tool.  In fact, it drives the process.  

When people can see the whole thing on one piece of paper, they can understand it in a better way than they can by trying to synthesize things pulled from multiple recesses of their minds.

-Lean Agile Coach
sheila colinlak
Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift. 

Patrick Doyle
The value in A3 reporting is that it forces the author to think and communicate concisely while presenting  the current state, what the problem is, and at least one feasible solution. It forces people to present solutions, not complaints.
Acta de Constitución de Proyecto Ágil, un elemento diferenciador. | Agilia
[…] Shook habla en un artículo en MIT - Sloan Management Review del valor del informe de una página A3. El A3 (llamado así por el tamaño de la hoja de papel […]
dave whaley
Simple solutions are elegant. The A3 is a great tool to chnage culture.
flaviolima
As usual any tool stamped with a Toyota badge is considered the panacea for all problems. Please let keep in mind any tool when it is well applied will bring out a satisfactory result - since a simple Ishikawa to a most sofisticated 8D or Deep-Drill or TRIZ. Most important than tool is application of a correct/suitable management of people guiding their efforts towards results.
WILLIAM HARROD
This approach has potential in many areas where information overload is used in place of understanding.  As a decision maker, being presented with this instead of many pages of dialogue would demonstrate clear thought, provide opportunity for challenge and support effective action.
Anonymous
Simple stuff
byrnec
I agree with neeti. It is clear the anecdote in First Person that the A3 was not itself driving the solution process: his manager was. It would have been much faster based on six-sigma thinking wherein one concentrates on the causes of variation. Clearly the A3 helps clarity of presentation (wonderful in iteself), but this only _might_ help clarity of thought.
gmunoz2008
My opinio is tha people from Toyota that uses this report(A3)are very practical and simple to use and to develop team spirit.
Very truly yours
gmunoz2008
redcedar
In our first application of A3, we turned a planned 2-day workshop into four hours of immediate collaboration. "Simple" works.
HOWARD S WEINBERG
Yes, this is simply the scientific method applied to work.  But do not minimize the effect of everyone in Toyota using the same systematic  process and the same language to solve problems. And A3 is only part of what creates Toyota's performance. It is the corporate system in which A3 fits that is so hard to duplicate.  "The Mind of Toyota" is a great book that explains it.
systemental
It is easy to lose sight of common sense in a large complex organization.  The A3 brings common sense (along with the scientific method) into clear view.  
I believe in the practice - just don't get too hung up on the one page thing the first time you try it.
faceman888
neeti,
It is common sense.  It works.  Many people are seduced by the complexity of more extravagant measures.  It is a simple and visual approach to the scientific method.  Observe, hypothesis, Test your hypothesis, Study results and take action.  
I resisted this and other Toyota based methods because I wrongly thought the simplicity to be inadequate and also arrogantly thought them to be beneath me.  I have learned.
khucxuanthinh
usefull design!
as i see it build from cause - effect theory. but this is great. it help people go from step to step in the right logical sequence. so if follow this logic, problem will be sold with easy to understand display.
Many thank!
rajivbahl
Such beauty in its sheer simplicity. Thanks John for sharing your wisdom. Will implement A3 rather A4 :) for my team in Bangalore.
brata
Great innovation, great design. After all there are not many Harvard MBA around you like General Motors. You have to work with different people with their different level of knowledge. So most easy edible meal is loved by workforce.
getstuff
A3 thinking seeks out the important mole hills from the mountains of 'favorite' mole hills

Read the book; Managing to Learn, by John Shook
leanvsl
A3 thinking is a good thing. 

The Alternative is to sit in meetings for days and discuss multiple political agendas with people who would rather play golf.
purunep
yeh! it's sound nothing. but it has lots of value because most managers don't use their common sense.
neeti
A typical example of making a mountain out of a mole by management consultant.It sounds nothing more than common sense.