The A3 process is more than a problem-solving tool. Taught properly, it is a way for an organization to build performance capabilities in leaders and all team members, and, in turn, strengthen business capabilities. As such, A3 thinking is as much of a social process as a technical problem-solving one. Reflecting on my 30 years of learning, teaching, and coaching the A3 process—the first 14 years at Toyota—this is one of seven facets of the A3 practice that you must learn to gain the most value from it. But too often, the focus of A3 learning is on how to problem-solve by “filling out” the six boxes on the 11x17-size sheet of paper that gives the process its name.
I imagine many A3 creators initially see themselves (as I did once!) as the lone problem-solving hero as they completed their document. However, with good coaching, the A3 learner should begin to understand that the A3 thinking process itself is what teaches you how to be a problem-solving investigator and an improvement leader. A well-coached learner eventually will realize that success at these two outcomes derives from interaction with others at the gemba, the place where the real value-creating work gets done. This is the core social aspect of the A3 process.
In drafting and revising the left side of the A3 document (problem identification, problem clarification, and cause analysis), the learner creates a fact-based picture of the current and desired states, and reveals the underlying reasons for the gap. This requires the learner to be an investigator, going to the problem site to see the operation and hear from the operators there. Gathering this knowledge and data helps create a picture that makes the process problems evident to those who have a stake in the process working well. The crucial point here is that the A3 learner does not work alone. Identifying the places and ways the process is broken is impossible without the knowledge and experiences of others who work in the process or are connected to the process.
When developing the right side of the A3, the learner’s role changes significantly. The focus begins to move toward leading other stakeholders in thinking about how to improve the system to meet the needs of the business more effectively. The learner must engage stakeholders in deciding what changes to make as well as who will be responsible for implementation and yes, follow-up.
In addition to problem-solving, this role requires skills in asking, listening, facilitating, influencing, and coaching others in yet more problem-solving. Without the input and agreement of other stakeholders, the learner cannot effectively identify, evaluate, select, and gain alignment on potential action steps and countermeasures. Without the contributions from cross-organizational departments that will be affected by the work plan, the learner will be unable to create a plan that others agree to support with information/knowledge, support, and resources. Without this kind of alignment across the organization, the learner alone cannot possibly be responsible for implementing, following-up, and reviewing the plan. A3 thinking is a social process because so much of our work is a social process. It is full of interdependence.
Executing the right side of the A3 process builds the learners’ social-side skills of engaging, aligning, and communicating as it develops problem-solving skills. Engaging with, listening to, and thinking with others helps the learner (and all stakeholders) arrive at a common understanding of the problem situation. Then it’s about gaining alignment on how to improve performance and developing the willingness to share responsibility for making necessary changes. Ultimately, the A3 creator earns the authority to lead an improvement initiative while working closely with others.
Just as or perhaps more significant, an organization that uses the A3 process not only develops both the A3 creator’s and stakeholders’ capabilities to see and solve problems collaboratively, it increases employee engagement, alignment, and communications. When practiced broadly throughout an organization, the A3 process becomes a way for teams to continually develop people’s capabilities. In turn, this builds sustainable performance and business improvement.
Everything gets better, not only one individual team member’s ability to solve problems.