Aug. 20, 2021

Apply A3 Thinking to Improve Project Delivery

Apply A3 Thinking to Improve Project Delivery

Since the popularization of quality circles in the 1960s, companies around the globe continue engaging front line employees to improve their work using variations of PDCA, a scientific method for problem-solving using four steps:

  1. Plan a change or test aimed at improvement.
  2. Do experiment.
  3. Check (study) the results.
  4. Act (adjust) to adopt the change, abandon it, or repeat the cycle.

Lean design and construction practitioners use PDCA and A3 Thinking to enter continuous improvement cycles and impact operational performance to improve project delivery.


What is the A3 problem-solving method?

The Lean Construction Institute Online Glossary describes A3 as:

A one-page report prepared on a single 11 x 17 sheet of paper that adheres to the discipline of PDCA thinking as applied to collaborative problem solving, strategy development, or reporting. The A3 includes the background, problem statement, analysis, proposed actions, and the expected results.

I recommend reading Managing to Learn: Using the A3 management process by John Shook. The following A3 template from the author is available as a free download using the book website link above. And you don’t have to use every section in your A3. The template is a framework to help organize your PDCA approach. The format is far less important than the process and thinking behind it.

A3 template

Q.) Why are A3s so popular? A.) Toyota

The company's success and influence on what we call "Lean" today are undeniable. In my studies of Toyota including talking to people working there currently, they live by a core set of values. These values are foundational for why they do what they do and how they do it. My favorite two among them include:

  • Respect for People (putting the customer first, valuing individuals, teamwork, and holding sacred what it means to be human)
  • Continuous Improvement (seeking perfection, kaizen mindset)

In 2014, during a Lean Enterprise Academy workshop, Mark Davies, Senior Manager at Toyota Lean Management Centre UK, took session participants through Toyota's process for problem-solving that has been in use for decades and includes practitioners like John Shook and Isao Yoshino. 

Toyota’s 8-Step Process:

  1. Clarify the problem
  2. Breakdown the problem
  3. Set a target
  4. Analyze the root cause
  5. Develop countermeasures
  6. Implement countermeasures
  7. Monitor the process and results
  8. Standardize successful processes


Visualize your project, take aligned action, and improve the outcome.

Design and construction teams are using A3s to problem-solve every day.  Their single 11 x 17-inch sheet is typically organized into several sections to allow the problem solver (author) to grasp the issue fully, include relevant business background information, explore the current situation, and set goals. With other sections including root-cause analysis, countermeasures, and an action plan, the author has a unified place that helps visualize the whole process, gain alignment with others, and sustain improvement.

Teams in design and construction are using A3s for the following processes:

  • Request for proposal (RFP) responses
  • Request for qualification (RFQ) response
  • Set-based design alternative evaluations
  • Value engineering
  • Choosing by Advantages for sound decision-making
  • First-run Studies for work sequencing
  • Process mapping and future state improvements, also for value stream mapping
  • Analyzing Last Planner System variance
  • Improving site logistics and flow
  • Business strategy planning and execution
  • Company-wide initiative planning and execution
  • New job role creation
  • Succession planning
  • Training (new and improvement of existing)
  • Personal and professional development
  • Sharing conference learnings with peers
  • Improving Lean adoption


How do I start using A3s?

Begin with a complex problem that involves a few people or more. I often begin by trying to answer these questions from John Shook:

  1. What is the problem or issue you are trying to solve?
  2. Who owns the problem?
  3. What are the root causes of the problem?
  4. What are some possible countermeasures?
  5. How will you decide which countermeasures to propose?
  6. How will you get agreement from everyone concerned?
  7. What is your implementation plan - who, what, when, where, how?
  8. How will you know if your countermeasures work?
  9. What follow-up issues can you anticipate? What problems may occur during implementation?
  10. How will you capture and share the learning?


The secret of using paper and pencil 

Studies found that handwriting increases neural activity, sharpens our brain, helps us learn, and unleashes creativity.

So it comes as no surprise that experts in A3 recommend starting with the humble pencil on a piece of paper. See the first example below by Eric Ethington, a decades-long A3 user, and coach, using a file folder and pencil.

My A3 skills dramatically improved after attending a joint Lean Construction Institute and Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) A3 workshop led by Eric. I learned how to coach and guide others to dive below surface-level problem-solving and do a deeper analysis to expose and eliminate underlying root causes while allowing the A3 author to keep responsibility while learning.

Hand written A3 Plan

You can search the web for fancier A3 examples, but I recommend starting with a piece of paper and pencil. Get comfortable with the thinking and doing process before trying to use software.

Best practices and what to avoid

I have worked with projects teams and individuals engaged in PDCA using the A3 problem-solving approach across the United States for years. I have been involved in A3s that have helped improve multimillion-dollar projects and multibillion-dollar enterprises.


Do's and Don'ts based on my A3 experiences.

  • Ask questions, use the full PDCA process steps
  • Practice patience with yourself and others
  • Start on a whiteboard or with pencil and paper
  • Engage with others, go and see the current state firsthand
  • Fill out a template alone, skip PDCA process steps
  • Rush the process or assume others can follow a template
  • Try to use fancy software right away
  • Assume you understand based on second-hand information


Find a complex problem and start your A3 today. Let me know if I can encourage you. Drop me a line here

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