A3 Thinking – Why is one version better than another?

Before looking at this let’s reflect on what an A3 is trying to do. Most applications of A3 Thinking are to solve problems, that it something that is absolutely common across all versions and approaches. With this in mind, let’s look again at the title of this article – A3 Thinking. The key word here is “Thinking” and not just using the A3 as a tool. To become a successful problem-solving organisation with a culture of continuous improvement it’s not enough to just implement by rote the lean tools that we see and learn about. Tools are just countermeasures to business problems that should be used until better countermeasures are found (Ohno). So really it’s the Thinking aspect that’s important.

To take this Thinking element further, it’s also not just about solving the problem on hand. The problem solving activity must be done in a way such that the problem is less likely to occur in the future and the problem solver must enhance their problem solving skills and be prepared to tackle even more challenging tasks in the future. So for the thinking element to be correct there must be some pre-requisites in place in order for A3 Thinking to be successful. The A3 format (no matter how many boxes or the titles of those boxes) is only part of the solution. So what are these pre-requisites? They may sound familiar.

The first is a thorough understanding of the Plan Do Check Act (PDCA) cycle of improvement. As you may know, this is not a new approach but unfortunately it is often poorly implemented. Done well PDCA provides us with a methodology to raise both individual awareness of what is known and not known to solve problems and prevent future recurrence; and a long term system of improvement.

The second pre-requisite is to understand how to go about practical problem solving. That is the specific actions that promote critical thinking and an investigative approach to solving problems. This disciplined focus on the improvement process as well as the results will simultaneously develop people and improve the organisational problem solving process.

So pulling all of this together there are a number of Thinking elements of A3 Thinking that must be understood before completing an A3 report. These can be summarised as

– A logical thinking process
Results and process
Synthesis, distillation and visualisation
Coherence within and consistency across the organisation
Keeping a systems viewpoint

So the reality is, it’s not the format of the A3 that’s important; it’s the Thinking process that goes with it. When you are considering what format to use, think first about whether you have the pre-requisites to make it successful. Once you do start, having the pre-requisites in place will make the process a lot easier and the results a lot better.