How to use Toyota’s legendary A3 problem-solving technique

How to use Toyota’s legendary A3 problem-solving technique

If you came home one day and found your kitchen taps on full-blast and your house full of water, what’s the first thing you’d do? Grab a bucket and start scooping — or turn off the tap?

When it comes to problem-solving, many of us take a rushed, reactionary approach rather than fixing the issue at the source. So in other words, we see the water, panic, and start scooping. If this sounds like something you’ve done recently, then don’t feel too bad: when the pressure’s high, we often jump towards the quickest fix, as opposed to the most effective one.

This is where the A3 technique comes in. It’s a problem-solving approach designed to efficiently address the root cause of issues.

What is the A3 technique?

The A3 technique is a structured way to solve problems. It’s part of the Lean methodology, developed by Toyota back in the mid-’40s. This doesn’t mean you need to implement a Lean way of working to take advantage of this process — it can work as a standalone exercise.

Granted, A3 isn’t an inspiring name, but the story of its origins is actually pretty interesting. Rumour has it that Taiichi Ohno, inventor of the Toyota Production System, refused to read past the first page of any report. In response, his team created A3 address and summarize problem-solving on one side of A3-sized paper. The A3 technique played a huge part in Toyota’s success and all kinds of industries have since adopted it. Here’s how to get started.

How to solve a problem with A3

The first thing to remember is this: A3 is collaborative and relies on good communication. It’s not something you should do by yourself.

There are three main roles involved:

  • Owner (that’s you or someone under your charge)
  • Responders
  • Coach

As you’ve probably guessed, these aren’t roles that already exist in your company; you must create them for the purpose of this process. Here’s what they mean.

The owner is responsible for leading the exercise. They are the lynchpin between the two other roles, fostering good communication and keeping documents up to date. It’s tempting to think of the owner as the head of this trio, but that’s not true: everyone is equal here.

The mentor is someone with solid problem-solving experience. It’s their job to coach the owner and steer them towards finding a solution. It’s not their job to find the answers themselves.

And finally, there are the responders. This is someone (or a group of people) who have a vested interest in the outcome of the A3 project. Responders might include the client, stakeholders, or managers. A potential problem here is gaining access to them: if you work somewhere with a strict hierarchy — and you’re somewhere near the bottom of that structure — you may face challenges. There’s no easy way around this. Essentially, you need your organization to support this way of working and make it easy for you to access those at the top if needed.

How to create an A3 report

True to its origins, the A3 report is a one-page document. It typically contains 5-7 sections that systematically lead you towards a solution. These are the most commonly used steps, but feel free to modify them.

  1. Background: Explain your project in a few sentences, including its context.
  2. Problem statement: Explain the current problem. You can use process mapping to see the different tasks that surround the issue. This isn’t essential, but it will make it easier for you to locate the root cause.
  3. Goals: Define your desired outcome, and include metrics for measuring success. You won’t know everything until you reach the end, so you may find you need to come back and refine stages 1-3.
  4. Root cause analysis: This is a big stage of the process. You need to work out what you think the root problem is. You can use different methods to help you here, including 5 whys or a fault tree analysis.
  5. Countermeasures: Once you’ve worked out your root cause, you can start proposing solutions.
  6. Implementation: Work out how you’ll implement these solutions, including an action list with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Project management software is a useful tool here because it can help everyone on the team track each other’s progress in real-time.
  7. Follow-up: Using your metrics for success, decide whether the problem was solved. Report your results back to the team/organization. In the spirit of Lean (continuous improvement), you should go back and modify your plan if the results weren’t as expected. And if they were, you should make this process the new standard.

Final thoughts

A3 is an efficient, methodical way to solve problems at their source. When issues rear their head, rising stress can lead people to panic. Having a clearly designed system in place to guide you towards a solution minimizes the chances of people settling for a ‘quick fix’ or failing to act altogether.

Beyond being a guiding light in times of pressure, A3 is a great team-building exercise because it encourages individuals to work together towards a common goal — across all areas of the organization. Combine this with collaborative tools designed to help teams track progress and work together more effectively, and you’ll be unstoppable.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).