By Jon Miller | Post Date: February 25, 2010 12:22 PM on Gemba Panta Rei
These days if you stand next to a Toyota building and listen closely you may hear the sound of many sheets of A3 sized paper being slowly turned into problem solving documents. There are a few big, complex problems that will surely result in improvements, great new processes, and learning for Toyota.
Closer to home, the letter A and the number three can be heard in conversations almost daily in the context of problem solving. It’s a handy shorthand that seems to have stuck. What we hear from time to time in person, on the phone or by e-mail are detailed questions on how A3 problem solving. Here are a few such questions about A3 problems solving we’ve answered for people:
How important is having the right paper size, template or format?
Not very. There is now A4 problem solving at Toyota and each A3/A4 problem solving document should be hand drawn to present the information effectively. Don’t use a single template or it will constrain your thinking.
What is the expectation for taking immediate action on an A3 report to correct a problem or improve an process?
Usually there has been a temporary countermeasure in place long before the A3 in finished, which is due within 24 hours for a quality spill issue. But not all long term countermeasures are implemented automatically.
How are A3 problem solving documents used to build a file for future reference?
They have a “Lessons Learned” database for problem response, engineering and design knowledge and so forth. Having the knowledge base is just half of it, having processes and checks to make sure it is actively used is the important part.
How long does Toyota keep their A3 reports?
Until the next major model change that the problems could be of reference, so max 5 to 6 years.
Is there a time when an A3 should not be used?
Don’t use an A3 if your machine is on fire. If your customer or regulatory agency demands a different reporting format, conform to it. The A3 is the summary of problem solving activity, not the start of it. Go to the actual place, talk to people, see the situation, gather information then work through the PDCA process by writing a good problem statement. If the A3 keeps you from going to gemba, don’t use it.
Questions like these above are evidence that we are asking “What is our process for solving problems and managing through A3 thinking?” We enjoy these questions since they tell us that people are making deeper use of the A3 problem solving process. At the surface level the use of A3 allows people to ask “Have we taken root cause countermeasures?” and “What were the results of countermeasures?” When the Check is done properly, A3s help us ask “What was the process that got us those results?”