Chapter 3 - The A3 Problem Solving Report


© Durward Sobek and Art Smalley, All Rights Reserved

Toyota uses a simple, semi-structured one-page document as their primary tool to implement PDCA management across all departments and all levels of the organization.  Over many years of practice, it has honed the art of writing these one-page, or “A3,” reports to a high-level of sophistication.  The reports have transformed from an efficient communication medium to a powerful skill-building and mentorship tool.

The idea of short written reports (as in “briefs”) as a business or organizational tool is not new.  However, it seems to have recently fallen out of favor, particularly with the advent of ubiquitous computing, information and modern presentation technology.  We argue that A3 Report style communications (and the commensurate problem-solving and thought processes) are as important now as they have ever been.  The amount of information available at one’s fingertips is potentially mind-numbing, and growing at geometric rates.  This makes the ability to synthesize and distill information to the critically important increasingly vital in today’s hypercompetitive environment.  Further, the ability to document in a way that speeds communication is equally vital.

A3 Reports have been gaining in popularity of late.  To our knowledge, this problem-solving tool was first publicized outside of Japan in the course of the one of the author’s PhD research.  More recent volumes on Toyota have picked up on the tool providing additional details, and the A3 Report has even found its way into the lean healthcare movement.

We turn our attention now to the most basic type of A3 Report, the problem-solving A3.  We describe what actually gets documented on the A3 report during the course of the practical problem-solving process outlined in chapter 2, that is, the content and basic flow of the problem-solving A3.  We illustrate it with a disguised example adapted from an observed client situation which helped resolve a problem.  We then include a section on reviewing A3 Reports.  This section is useful for peers, managers and mentors as they engage in A3 implementation, with hints on how to review A3 reports to provide substantive mentoring.  It is also useful for A3 Report authors, as this section can serve as a self-check on one’s report.  Finally, we provide readers the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned, by describing a case example for which readers are encouraged to draft an A3 Report.  In subsequent chapters, we address common variations of A3 Reports, such as the proposal A3 and the status A3. 

Let’s take a closer look at the problem-solving A3 Report.

Storyline of the Problem-solving A3

A3 Reports are so named because they fit on one side of an A3-sized sheet of paper, roughly equivalent to an 11” x 17” sheet.  The flow of the report is top-to-bottom on the left side, then top-to-bottom on the right side, as shown in Figure 3.1.  A3 Reports are thus easily adapted to two A4 (or 8.5” x 11”) sheets.  Authors write the reports in sections, each clearly labeled and arranged in a logical flow.

According to retired manager Isao Kato of Toyota’s Education and Training Department, the A3 summary report tool was heavily influenced by several historical factors.  One influence was the emphasis of the basic PDCA cycle for management that was introduced to the company in the 1950’s through different channels.  Another influence was a formal Total Quality Control (TQC) program launched in 1962 at the insistence of former President and Chairman Eiji Toyoda.  This program introduced more rigorous methods for statistical quality control and a 12-step method for summarizing QC circle style activities in manufacturing.  A third influence was top management’s inherent preference for visual control and an inherent dislike of lengthy text-based reports.  The now famous implementation leader of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno, developed a reputation internally for not reading reports that were longer than a page in length; if he had a question, he insisted upon going to the shop floor to see the problem in person. 

These various influences and practices inside Toyota eventually resulted in the creation of a problem solving and report writing structure that became a de facto standard called generically the “A3” after the size of paper frequently used in the one-page summaries.  The earliest A3’s were simple problem solving summary sheets.  Later, the tool evolved outwards from this purpose to other applications beyond problem solving, and to other departments beyond production. 

The A3 Report is a flexible tool, and can be adapted to fit most problem solving situations.  In order to illustrate the tool’s inherent flexibility, we’ll demonstrate different types during the course of this book.  However, for a starting point it is best to understand the flow—what Toyota trainers like to call the “storyline”— of the original problem solving A3 Report.  In fact, this is how Toyota initially teaches the tool to new employees in the company early in their careers as a problem solving exercise...