Re-imagining the “Heart of Toyota’s Success”

Novel idea; light bulb; Toyota A3 thinking

Writing in MIT Sloan Management review, John Shook identified the ‘A3’ as “the heart of Toyota’s sustained success.” He described A3 Thinking as Toyota’s way to solve problems, generate knowledge, reach agreement and mentor people to ‘learn how to learn’. Isao Yoshino (the Toyota manager who coached Shook) sees the A3 as “a process, a tool, a way of thinking, managing and developing others.”

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So, it’s clearly important. But what is A3 Thinking?

Deming introduced PDSA (Plan Do Study Act) / PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) to Toyota in the 1950s, and in 1965, the Deming Prize Committee voted to present the 1965 Deming Application Prize to Toyota’s Total Quality Control system. Around this time, seeking to improve their performance by helping teams collaborate to solve (and prevent the recurrence of) the root causes of problems which surfaced in everyday work, Toyota developed this method.

Beyond simply solving problems, they also wanted to share the learnings across their organisation to standardise and improve faster (Yokoten). At the time, the best tool for communication across the company was the fax machine. The largest international paper size their fax machines could accept was ISO A3: 297mm x 420mm (11.7” x 16.5”). The size of the paper gave rise to the name of the method and the tool.

Toyota could have elected to have multi-page documents, but they chose to keep to a single page. This therefore pushed teams to be concise, structured and use graphics / visuals rather than long lines of text to communicate efficiently.

Toyota A3 thinking; Deming

How does A3 Thinking Work?

A3 Thinking is a structured problem-solving and continuous improvement approach. A3s may differ slightly depending on their subject matter (e.g. projects vs manufacturing), but they all tell a story of how a problem has been solved, so that knowledge is captured, and others can learn. They seek to:

  • Document context and importance
    Make clear why is this a problem worth solving
  • Capturing current / initial conditions
    Get data – define the baseline from which we will measure improvement
  • Identify the desired outcome
    Define the target(s)
  • Identify the issues that currently prevent us from achieving those targets
    Gap analysis and determination of root cause(s)
  • Work through potential countermeasures / solutions
    Hypotheses and rapid experiments to assess their impact on target(s)
  • Confirm the plan of action to achieve the desired outcome
    Align teamwork, assign actions and responsibilities
  • Implement the plan, track progress and follow-up
    Know when we’ve delivered and sustained the desired outcome
  • Standardise and share
    Share the lessons learned and implement the new best practice(s) wherever a similar problem exists elsewhere in the organisation

How has A3 Thinking evolved from the original paper-based documents transmitted by Fax?

Some organisations are using PowerPoint documents and sharing by email or uploading to central storage. However, few have succeeded in embedding multi-media content, nor creating and sustaining filing systems that make the information easily searchable and readily available. Even fewer are able to link A3 documents to ‘upstream’ information (higher-level A3s / strategy documents etc.) or to ‘downstream’ confirmed results. For most, documenting the A3 story in PowerPoint is a time-consuming, non-collaborative, additional work completed retrospectively.

Fax machine

How is Changeway® re-imagining the A3?

Changeway® is a purpose-built continuous improvement platform which both empowers collaborative problem-solving (whether your team is fully in-the-room, fully remote or ‘hybrid’) and captures and curates your change & innovation data.

Changeway® draws heavily on fundamental principles of A3 Thinking:

  • Use the best-available technology
    We use today’s communication devices (mobiles, tablets, computers) enabled by a cloud-based software platform to capture data, collaborate, learn and share across your organisation.
  • Paint a rich picture to tell your story
    We enable the use of images, audio, video, tables, graphs etc. – especially helpful for those who cannot be on-site in person, or who are learning from your story some time after you first told it.
  • Go-See – don’t assume from afar
    Our mobile-first design supports a ‘go-see’ mindset (even if not everyone can physically visit each location). Take pictures, shoot a video, record audio – do whatever best captures information or tells the story.
  • Take the waste out of Problem Solving
    We have embedded workflows which support the organised A3 Thinking approach and help you tell the story in a logical sequence. Steps are linked to avoid much of the waste in manual workshops processes.
  • Think expansively, summarise concisely
    We provide linked space for teams not only to collaborate, but also to summarise their decisions. (This happens instantly, automatically and ‘in-flow’.)
  • Do more than just ‘solve the problem at hand’
    We integrate problem solving, planning, knowledge capture and cross-fertilisation to make sure there are wider benefits for your organisation.
  • Make the process of problem solving transparent, scalable and teachable
    We help coaches as they teach, help teams use Lean tools and develop people. The structured approach allows you to train more people more quickly to facilitate events.
    We promote digital fluency and engage the ‘digitally native’ workforce.
  • It’s a story, not a report. (Write with a pencil, not a pen…!)
    We are live, not static. Information is always current, with no ‘version control’ issues. As you work, you are building and improving your story summary – not waiting until the end to write a report!
  • Organisational learning – Share your insights, tell people what you’ve learned
    We structure the data you gather or create. This additional context and richness allows you to unlock much greater insight (initially through manual searching and later by harnessing AI / Machine Learning) and to share effectively.
  • Do more of what’s working
    We link results delivered and sustained to the A3 improvement projects, allowing you to determine and share best practice across your organisation.
  • It’s a team sport
    Everyone can access the platform wherever they are, using whichever device is best for them at that time (Android / iOS / desktop / laptop). Everyone can add their ideas, like/vote, contribute to decisions and prioritisation etc.

What’s the ‘point’ of A3 Thinking?

John Shook advises: “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.” And it follows that organisations who learn faster improve faster.

Equipping and empowering teams with a robust, comprehensive tool that is true to the original ethos of A3 thinking is a great way to achieve this goal.

Find out more here.

Richard Jenkinson
Richard Jenkinson
VP Business Development, Changeway EMEA