Discover why the A3 methodology is much more than a paper printing format—it's a continuous improvement enabler.
In manufacturing, problem-solving happens every day. Operators and workers face different situations that require a comprehensive understanding to do the right thing. This need is compounded by the fact that we see more and more equipment with complex automation to drive competitiveness.
Workers need to know what to do, which leads to fewer problems and raises confidence—this supports one of lean manufacturing’s pillars; standardized work. So, dealing with issues and developing ways to eliminate their recurrence requires competency when executing continuous improvement in day-to-day manufacturing such as Kaizen meetings.
A3 was first developed in the 1960s by Toyota and is one of many Lean manufacturing tools developed by the Toyota Production System (TPS). The name A3 refers to the paper size corresponding to 11-inches by 17-inches or 29.7cm x 42cm. This methodology played a significant role in Toyota’s success, which bolstered its popularity across various industries.
A3 is convenient. A3 quickly gets to a standard problem resolution process. It has been embraced by advocates of Total Productive Maintenance, Six Sigma, Lean and other continuous improvement philosophies. This problem resolution process must be ingrained in the organizational structure, especially for companies embracing lean principles.
TPS proposes in-line quality, which means when abnormalities happen at a work cell, the equipment will stop, and workers will immediately get notified. So if your production process generates problems, a process and a team culture should exist in support of continuous improvement and problem-solving.
The A3 format is broken down into four major sections:
The main components of problem definition consist of determining the goal or outcome and which category they fall under. A non-exhaustive list of business and manufacturing goals is presented in the picture below. Also since we operate in manufacturing and value stream analysis can be part of the process, the same value potential examples are also listed.
Of course, there is the old saying, "what does not get measured does not get done," so measuring the impact of the problem and its resolution to key metrics is necessary. In the absence of metrics, one should question the relative importance of the issue at hand.
Once the problem and its category, the associated metric and value potential have been defined, the Kaizen or continuous improvement team can move to cause analysis. Root cause analysis (RCA), using the fishbone method, is widely used in manufacturing continuous improvement activities.
The man and method fishbone branches are often identified for lean originating issues of particular significance. Often, operations and process abnormalities come from outdated standard work instructions or procedures.
Troubleshoots is another term for countermeasures. Troubleshoots can help get "promoted" to standard work instructions of procedures. To simplify and categorize troubleshoots, they should align with standard work, as shown in this picture.
Troubleshoots are reviewed by a group of functional experts or subject-matter experts (SME), who all sign off on the countermeasure. Not all countermeasures require the same level of change or cost to mitigate. These can be itemized when presented to management for budget approval. Finally, countermeasures need an implementation plan to get operationalized to production.
Closed-loop problems and issues management require a process to measure troubleshoot efficiency. Having a metric to measure the countermeasure results and a method to identify countermeasure "controls" must be added to the A3 document.
Controls can be a promoted countermeasure or standard work instructions, a statistical process control chart (SPC), or a visual control like an annunciation board or work cell traffic light. Finally, action plans to revisit outstanding items and ensure sustainability make up the last section of the A3 document.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the challenges in manufacturing is that abnormalities and problem-solving are a fact of life. It’s simply a daily reality. Another challenge is that solving problems can be complex and require multiple stakeholders to resolve them.
Performing continuous improvement and problem-solving at scale is also a reality for high-performing organizations. This is where technology comes into play. Technology will provide a suite of benefits, starting with visibility across teams and factories.
A successful troubleshoot or countermeasure implemented by a more mature factory can also benefit and scale to other sites. Continuous improvement becomes more impactful and a robust change agent. Data standardization, localization and analytics, are also technology attributes that greatly support the A3 methodology.
The A3 methodology is much more than a paper printing format—it's a continuous improvement enabler. The simple structured approach makes it an excellent vector to bring manufacturing innovation to the surface and provide organizations with the benefits of leveraging front-line workers' expertise and knowledge.
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