Enhancing A3 Problem Solving with Technology

by Doanh Do

22nd August 2017

A3 problem solving has been popularized by the Toyota Production System. At its core an A3 is simply a standard sheet of paper that is 11” X 17”. Despite its simplicity, an A3 is a powerful tool for problem-solving and communicating complex ideas in a simple manner. In this blog post we will describe the benefits of applying A3s and how technology can enhance this tried and true method.

What is A3 problem solving?

A3 problem solving is an integral part of the Toyota Production System. The A3 name and size of paper came from simply a constraint of early technology… was the largest size of paper that could fit through a fax machine. In Toyota’s manufacturing facilities, A3s are use for recognizing problems, solving problems, and as a means for communicating solutions with stakeholders. Developed as a way to get the most critical ideas on one piece of paper, AT A GLANCE, people can understand key points, follow our thinking process, and give feedback.

digital A3 Problem Solving

Figure 1. The A3

In the AEC industry, the A3 serves many purposes including:

  • Being used as a problem-solving process
  • Documenting opportunities for improvement
  • Documenting key decisions
  • Documenting standards and best practices
  • Sharing lessons learned

Benefits of A3s - why are we doing this?

A3 thinking fosters continuous improvement and creates lean cultures. It is one of the most important concepts to grasp in your lean journey. Developing an A3 allows for complete understanding and communication of ideas, improvements, and reports. Plan-Do-Check-Act your way to the ideal state. When you understand your target condition and compare it with to your current condition, you can identify a gap that becomes your challenge. Use the template and tips below to follow the PDCA cycle and create A3s.

Figure 2. Plan Do Check Act

How Technology Can Help

In practice, we find that too few organizations consistently apply A3s despite its many benefits. The lack standardization means that every group has its own A3 templates. The difficulty of sharing insight often leads to people solving problems that has already been solved before. Over time, it is difficult to maintain and sustain the initiative as there is little incentive or insight about the effectiveness of the program. A knowledge sharing platform can help with A3 development and documentation. Here are some of the ways that information technology can enhance this process.

1. Standardize Processes – Make it simple
Although there are many different ways to create an A3, we have found that all A3s share in few components:

  1. Problem - what is the issue that we are trying to solve?
  2. Solution - what is the proposed resolution?
  3. Outcome - what happened when we applied the solution? Was the outcome as we had expected?
  4. Impact - what is the overall impact to the project or organization?

Information technology allows you to develop and maintain a standard across the whole organization. This makes the process significantly easier to apply and lowers the training barrier.

2. Enable Knowledge-sharing
Learn from the insights of your colleagues. By having all your A3s in a database you can search all the A3s that were created in your organization. This allows you to never solve the same problem twice. Your A3s are valuable knowledge that can be turned into operational standards and best practices. By having access to your company’s knowledge, you can learn and innovate faster.

Figure 3. Knowledge Database (courtesy of The Lean Way)

3. Add Videos, PDFs, and Photos to your A3s
We are visual creatures. A photo or a video can capture the situation much better than any words that we have. Technology can allow you to attach videos, photos, and other files to your A3s so that other people can understand the full context of the problems that you are solving.

Figure 4. Planning Meeting (courtesy of The Lean Way and DPR Construction)

4. Make The Process Social
Technology allows you to work with your colleagues on A3s and reach out to others in the company for help. Many companies have hundreds or thousands of employees, more than anyone of us can keep track and meet on a daily basis. A social network allows ease of communication, social incentives, recognition, and gamification, and a sense of unity.

5. Measure Impact
There are several quantitative measures (cost saving, revenue increases, and time savings) as well as qualitative measures (quality, safety, and satisfaction) that can be included in your A3s. The A3 is a living document that needs to be updated regularly. The problem with paper based or Excel based A3s is that you either forget to do that or it becomes hard to find and update the A3s.

Figure 5. Define Impact (courtesy of The Lean Way)

6. Transparent Reporting & KPIs
Using aggregated reports on the impact of your company’s A3s you can measure the effectiveness of your lean and continuous improvement efforts. Many lean managers have a hard time quantify the impact of their continuous improvement efforts. The lack of good data limits your ability to effectively improve your process and make good data-driven decisions.

Figure 6. Transparent KPIs (courtesy of The Lean Way)

Figure 7. Aggregated Impact (courtesy of The Lean Way)

Developing a Lean and Continuous Improvement Culture

Technology is not the end goal. It is an enabler. Just as the map is not the terrain, our goal is not to create A3s. Rather, our goal to develop a continuously improving culture that effectively solves problems and communicate those solutions efficiently. In this sense, technology and the A3 serves as a catalyst for this process.

Figure 8. Building and Sustaining a Continuous Improvement Culture

In building a lean and continuous improvement culture, there are 3 main steps: 1) problem awareness, 2) improving processes, and 3) building the culture. Many organization do just the first and second step. As a result, they will get efficiency gains from low hanging fruits (i.e., waste reduction); however, there is no long-term sustainability.

Many resources such as the Lean Construction Blog provide the information for you to become aware of the problem. As you become more aware, you also become more dissatisfied with the status quo and take action to improve processes. Only by involving the entire organization can you achieve the long-term benefits of lean. As the culture evolves you will improve your understanding / awareness of the problem and continually improve processes. This is a cyclical process that never ends and should never end. The A3 and information technology are effective tools for starting and sustaining this process.

Use The Lean Way to apply A3 problem-solving with your team. Get started with a free 14 day trial.


Doanh Do is graduate of UC Berkeley. He is a co-founder of Paramount Decisions, Inc. and The Lean Way, Inc. Through his research and software companies, Doanh's goal is to help the AEC industry be more innovative and lower the barrier to applying the best practices in Lean Construction. Paramount Decisions helps companies make better design decisions through Choosing By Advantages. The Lean Way helps companies start and sustain their lean and continuous improvement efforts.