The term "A3" is the international designation for 11" x 17" paper. The A3 Report process and methodology is utilized by the Toyota Motor Corporation to solve problems and focus the organization on structured learning opportunities. One way to describe the A3 Report is as "standardized storytelling," which refers to the ability of A3s to communicate both facts and meaning in a commonly understood format. Like all stories, the A3 has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because of the format standardization, readers can focus easily on what is contained in the story. It becomes the basis for reaching a shared understanding.
A sample A3 is attached - it is deceptively simple. The report consists of a sequence of seven boxes. The A3s author or problem-solver attempts 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 situations to establish causality; (5.) propose countermeasures; (6.) prescribe an action plan for getting it done; and (7.) map out the follow-up process. Every report starts with a "theme" or title. The theme indicates the problem being addressed and is fairly descriptive. The theme should focus on the problem and not advocate a particular solution.
Current conditions are always based on facts derived from the gemba - the place where the work takes place. Real facts about the real work are derived from careful investigation on the part of the author. Visual methods are utilized to share information and thinking. This helps condense key facts into meaningful visual shorthand - storytelling tools that help pack a great deal of data into an elegant presentation. It is important to fully understand the cause of problems in the current condition diagram. One technique of root cause analysis is the "Five Why's Method." The problem-solver simply asks a why question approximately five times in series. Experience has shown that stopping at two or three whys usually means the inquiry has not gone deep enough.
Now that the problem-solver has a keen understanding of how the work currently gets done and how has a good grasp of the root cause(s) of the problems experienced with the system, one is now ready to consider how the system might be improved. Toyota calls the improvements countermeasures (rather than solutions) because it implies that (a) we are countering a specific problem, and (b) it is what we will use now until we discover an even better countermeasure. The A3s process explores a set of potential countermeasures rather than just one solution. By examining a range of potential choices, individuals uncover a broader and more meaningful basis for a dialogue analysis and agreement. Note that effective countermeasures can be produced only by speaking with everyone who touches the work. And so producing a viable plan requires meaningful input from everyone.
The implementation plan outlines the steps that must be accomplished in order to realize the target condition. The author lists the steps, when they need to be done, who is responsible. Since implementation is an activity, it should conform to the activity design principle (i.e., specify the content, sequence, timing, and outcome). Producing a realistic plan through the A3 process shifts the basis of decision making from formal authority to ownership of the problem itself. By developing a mastery of the issue at hand and involving the players in the process, the A3 author earns the authority to propose and move forward an effective plan. Every action plan includes a schedule or reflection, to identify problems, develop new countermeasures and communicate improvements to the rest of the organization. A3s are part of a learning cycle of continuous improvement - which is why a key Toyota saying is, "No problem is a problem." The ultimate goal of A3s is not just to solve the problem at hand, but to make the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in a manner that creates an organization full of thinking, learning problem solvers.