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This coming Wednesday, Scrum Inc.’s online course will dive deep into Toyota's legendary problem solving tool the A3. Most people have heard of root cause analysis, but less have heard about the A3.

A3? Isn’t that a piece of paper?

So what’s so special about a piece of paper, and what’s all this A3 nonsense? (A3 is the International Organization of Standards denotation for an 11x17, or tabloid, piece of paper. The A3 is the largest standard paper size in Toyota.)

To quote Jim Womack, the author of the famous book on the Toyota Production System, ‘The Machine that Changed the World’:

The most basic definition of an A3 would be a Plan Do Check Act (P-D-C-A) storyboard or report, reflecting Toyota's way of capturing the process on one sheet of paper. But the broader notion of the A3 as a process embodying a mindset that captures the heart of lean management. In this context, an A3 document structures effective and efficient dialogue that fosters understanding followed by the opportunity for deep agreement.

PDWhat? PDCA is the process, popularized by management legend W. Edwards Deming, that teaches quality improvement. In fact Deming later changed PDCA to PDSA, the S meaning study, as he felt you should spend more time studying your results. Here’s how it works:

  • Plan: identify what can be improved and propose measures and a plan
  • Do: implement the plan
  • Check/Study: measure and analyze the results
  • Act: based on the results
  • Repeat the process multiple times to continuously improve

Deming based his work on that of his mentor Walter Shewhart, he always called it the Shewhart Cycle. Others later referred to it as the Deming Cycle, and it was Deming who taught the PDCA process to Toyota. (Shewhart developed the process based on Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, which was the beginning of the scientific method.)

The Toyota A3 report teaches you how to apply this process in performing effective and deep problem solving. However, simply knowing what PDCA stands for is not enough. If you truly want to solve problems so they never occur again, you need to develop your A3 skills.

But why an A3? There are a number of anecdotes on how Toyota settled on the A3. The one I like most recounts that Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the famed Toyota Production System, was well known for not reading any further than the first page of a report. This may be one of the reasons the A3 was born. A big enough piece of paper to capture the entire problem analysis and recommendations on one page, so sensei Ohno would read it.

However the A3 was born, it has become the most important tool for teaching PDCA. Creating an A3 is a deep learning approach in truly understanding problem solving and continuous improvement, and our monthly free webinar next Wednesday, September 3oth at 11am EDT will provide you with a comprehensive overview of how this process works, and will enable you to achieve the same deep understanding of how to solve difficult problems as the lean masters at Toyota. You can register here.

-- Nigel Thurlow

Nigel is a Lean and Agile Coach for Scrum Inc. A Continuous Improvement Leader, Quality Advocate, and ex member of “The Machine That Changed the World”

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