What is an A3?

Many discussions of A3 reports in Lean omit one basic fact: A3 is a paper format. In millimeters, a A3 sheet is 297X420, roughly equivalent to 11×17 in inches. It is the size of two A4 sheets side-by-side, and half of an A2 sheet. The A-series of  paper sizes is used all over the world, except in the US…

An A3 report is not just a story on one sheet of paper, but on one sheet of paper of this particular size, which has been found right to tell a manufacturing story with just enough details without turning into a victorian novel.

It can be posted on bulletin boards or above operator workstations. Operator instruction sheets are actually supposed to be on A3 paper.

Size does matter. If you shrink an A3 to A4 or letter size, it is no longer works as an A3, because the print will be too small for viewing on a board. If you show it on a PowerPoint slide, it is not an A3 either, because it does not have the permanence of hardcopy and, unless you have really advanced IT, you cannot annotate it manually.

36 comments on “What is an A3?

  1. That’s a good & comprehensive explanation of an A3 report.

    If I may add, what makes an A3 report stand out is the category of contents, dosage of information on each category and the order of the data and information, which MUST lead to a conclusive resolution.

    A3 is NOT only a storyboard for the sake of having told a story but a very systematic and step-by-step approach at arriving at a sustainable solution.

    Many organizations employ only the size and not the intent, mind you!!!

  2. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    A one page 11×17 storyboard for PDSA problem solving. I disagree with Michel. Size does not matter. The sources that helped me are working with Toyota supplier organizations and the book “Managing to Learn”.

    The purpose is to concisely describe to someone how the problem was found or why it is a problem, what is causing the problem, and the actions taken to remove the problem. There are Many formats. So do not be concerned on the format to use, rather be concerned that you investigate it well and involve the stakeholders to determine root cause and best possible corrective action.

    We do not do this to satisfy paper size. We do it for problem solving. So paper size does not matter. Using the term “A3” only signifies the methodology. So this is where you and I differ.

    • For a management technique named after a paper size, it would indeed be strange if size didn’t matter. Neither too small nor too big, neither a postage stamp nor a bedsheet, A3 or 11×17 is the goldilocks size for one-page management story telling.
      This is not a whim of mine. The biggest booster of A3s, John Shook, talks about the “A3 Management Process,” which is possibly an overstatement.

      The following is from the description of his eponymous book on Amazon:

      “The A3 Report is a Toyota-pioneered practice of getting the problem, the analysis, the corrective actions, and the action plan down on a single sheet of large (A3) paper, often with the use of graphics. A3 paper is the international term for a large sheet of paper, roughly equivalent to the 11-by-17-inch U.S. sheet.”

      Cover of John Shook's book

      I rest my case.

  3. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    I am not arguing where A3 came from. Just that size is not important. I’ve worked with Toyota people who have done it on other size paper. I am strongly suggesting do not get hung up on the size paper. The process of investigation and good PDSA documentation is what is important, which is what John Shook’s book was also getting at. Perhaps this is differing opinions on what is most important about A3 (which to me is a thought process, not paper size) based on our experience.

    P.S. I do agree with the use of a single sheet of paper.

  4. Sheet size has to do with the amount of information a reader can capture at a glance, what a group of people can see from a distance of a few feet rather than a few inches, and how easily a document can be moved, posted, or annotated. The choices of A3 or 11×17 is no more capricious or trivial than Steve Jobs’s decree that 10 inches in diagonal was the ideal screen size for a tablet computer. I couldn’t understand where that was coming from but, in hindsight, he was on to something.

    It is like the number of machines in a cell, of operators in a team, or of suppliers on a milk run. The rules we follow may appear arbitrary but, outside of fairly narrow ranges, we can observe that the concepts just break down and performance degrades.

    My first exposure to the A3 concept was with operator work instructions. Traditionally instructions come in thick binders that, after years, are still free of grease smudges or coffee stains on the pages but have dust on the outside. One exercise I did was to take a 25-page spec for a machining operation and boil it down to an 11×17 sheet. This entailed the following:

    1. Getting rid of the obligatory pages of boilerplate text repeated in every spec,
    2. Translating the bureaucratese into instructions with just one action verb and one object.
    3. Designing graphics to summarize long explanations.
    4. Filtering the detail that is not necessary for routine production.


    It was work, but it showed that you could provide more useful information on an 11×17 sheet posted above a work station than in a traditional spec. It also made me realize that this format was not best for all kinds of instructions. For example, if you are a maintenance tech who moves around the plant and crawls into machines, you are better off with a little black book that fits in your jumpsuit pocket, and that is what maintenance technicians tend to develop on their own and rely on.

    Then I discovered other uses of the A3s, for example, to structure managerial and technical communications. Of course, A3s used in Hoshin Planning or in managing engineering changes are only useful if the content is well generated and the readers know what actions to take in response. And, again, not everything fits in that format. For example, 3×5 cards are convenient to carry around on the shop floor to take notes or sketch ideas, and flip charts work better for one-point lessons.

  5. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for… on LinkedIn:

    From lean.org:
    The A3 Report is a Toyota-pioneered practice of getting the problem, the analysis, the corrective actions, and the action plan down on a single sheet of large (A3) paper, often with the use of graphics. A3 paper is the international term for a large sheet of paper, roughly equivalent to the 11-by-17-inch U.S. sheet.

    At the company I currently work for and the companies I worked for in the past, we offered A3 training prior to GB training.

  6. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    Michael, I agree. The methology and process of addressing the problem is the great benefit…. all elements captured on one sheet makes it an easy straight forward, simple to understand process!

  7. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    I love the simplicity of left side vs. right side. Left side equals ‘grasping the situation” so that we fully understand…and only then have you earned the “right” to move over to the right side were we propose the solution, etc. People seem to latch onto that simple logic.

  8. Comment in Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on Linkedin:

    A3 is a basic problem solving and continuous improvement tool, first employed at Toyota. It got its name by the size paper 11 x 17 that is is commonly printed on. It is a basic tool in the lean practitioner’s tool kit, but not used as much as it should be in most organization’s and by most practitioners because the “power of this tool” is misunderstood and thought to be “complicated” when in fact, it will help simplify problem identification and analysis.

    Mike, it would be good you could provide more detail on the A3 for our members and examples of how it is used and why it should be used more. Thanks for the post

  9. Comment in Leadership and Lean The Top 5% discussion group on Linkedin:

    Hello Michel, and Daniel,
    There are books written on this topic, and maybe better to ask a bit more specifically? What do you wish to know? Not just the size of the paper or how it is laid out like a Japanese bento box to “eat with your eyes” and summarize everything on target one page etc., right? What do you wish to know or do?

  10. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    @Karen.
    Art Smalley is another good source. Art of Lean
    One part of the discipline in using A3 is to not use many words.
    Sensei says, Don’t talk too much on paper, or you talk to much on paper.
    Use of pictures, handrawn better, photos ok.
    Graphs and diagrams, with few words.
    Facts with Data
    The point: Less is more in the words per page department. : )

    Target is to share your thinking and observations of facts with data of improvement in target area through humble and respectful Challenge, open, candid and unencumbered dialogue with others for the benefit of others.

    One target condition is for creator of A3 to perform discipline of Nemawashi.
    Creator takes A3 and shares thinking upstream and downstream of target area to gather new thinking the creator may have not thought of during intial creation.
    New learning takes place.

    Subsequently building out of story in A3 comes not in creating A3 in solitude but in sharing of the condition of abnormality and the target condition that can be created by alternatives for improvement with many. Strength in numbers. Ringi decision making.

    Respectfully,
    Todd McCann
    KAIZEN spirit “The art of making much with little”

  11. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    Karen. An A3 to me is a way of removing waste from the process of problem reporting. It offers the person attempting to solve the problem an opportunity to reflect and carefully select the most relevant information for inclusion in the document.
    It also means that whoever is to review the problem solving activity can do so efficiently as they are only dealing with the wheat and not the chaff. This also facilitates more pointed challenge and therefore depth of learning on how the process was followed and performed as the waters are not muddied.
    Toyota has helped me learn the most.

  12. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    I agree, this has been a great discussion. Michel has done an outstanding job of defining and describing the A3 tool and methodology, and the two best resources (in my opinion) for more information have been mentioned: John Shook [Managing to Learn] and Art Smalley [Understanding A3 Thinking]. To build on the the discussion, I would suggest that “A3 Thinking” is a critical skill for every leader, even when they aren’t going to use the paper.

  13. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    @Michel – I agree with Greg – thanks for taking the time to share your deep knowledge with us. @Greg – I’ve read both books and think they work really well together. Art’s book is a structured treatment of the topic, and John’s takes the storytelling approach. Managing to learn has some memorable lessons, and A3 Thinking is a great reference to consult for the “how to.”

  14. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    Great discussion – it should be helpful to someone new to lean. Thanks for all your experiences. Not closing this thread down, just wanted to thank everyone.

  15. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    I am amazed at the time spent discussing paper size. But……. its there! and there must be a good reason. From where does it originate? What was the motivation to launch this? If it was meant in the context of e.g. “Tell me the story but no more than a page”, then I understand. On the other hand, if it is a very precise environment using standardized paper sizes for precise fit on standardized display boards, then I can understand the reference to A3 paper size.
    Acronyms:-
    Time and time again, I see liberal use of acronyms. The onus is on the sender of the message, not the receiver. Do not assume others know what the acronym means. In fact, when one doesn’t know what it means, the mind sees the worst, e.g. it’s a highly intricate process in a black box too complicated to even think about. My suggestion? On the first mention of the acronym, say in brackets what it means, e.g. A3 (a standardized paper size used to display on our standardized display boards). When the reader comes across it again, he/she has the opportunity to revert back to the first mention and remind him/her self what the meaning is.
    Michel, I have learnt from your input. Thanks!

  16. When discussing A3s, my colleague Kevin Hop pointed out that 99% of business and technical documents are printed in letter size in the US and A4 everywhere else. This means that office printers and paper supplies are standardized on this size, and that this is a mundane, yet tangible obstacle to the introduction of A3s.

    Ironically, in Getting the Right Things Done, Pascal Dennis advocates using A3s as part of the Hoshin Planning process, but the format of his book is 6 3/4 by 9 5/8, and he uses two pages for each example of an “A3,” which does not add up to the 11×17 or A3 format… In the text, he does explain that it is supposed to be in that format, but I can see how a reader could miss it.

  17. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    I would echo portions of both Michel and Todd’s posts. I learned about the A3 process around 2001. However, in 2006 when I was given the opportunity to learn from two fantastic sensei from previous Toyota management, my knowledge and understanding significantly increased.

    I was trained on the principles of more pictures, less words: draw, graph, stick people, flow diagrams, VSM, etc. Do it in pencil to learn the process. The A3 is a visual tool to strengthen the PDCA (or PCSAM as I was trained) thinking. It is a one-page, brief, simple, but clear description covering the business case (why), current state, future state, plans with accountability to achieve the future state, and defined measures that will demonstrate success or failure of the action plans to resolve/improve the business case. It (both the document and the thought process) should be created with a cross-functional team, including suppliers and customers of the process (VOS/VOC). It is the way to keep all parties engaged on solving the problem presented by the business case, keeping focused on the process, not “us vs. them” mentality.

    The choice of A3 paper, as taught to me directly from my sensei, was that before e-mail, the largest sheet you could fax was A3, therefore you had to compile your thoughts on a sheet large enough to be followed visually, yet small enough to send across geographic lines efficiently. The 8.5×11 sheet did not allow for clear communication, graphically or effectively.

    Is that still an issue today? The message was always understand the tool, understand the concept behind the tool, and understand the theory behind the concept. The tool is the sheet off paper. The concept is visual story telling so the message is simple and able to be followed – in the case of “A3”, simple meaning 1 page (not a 250 page dissertation), which allows for ease to follow, correct level of focus on a problem, and attention to a problem. The theory is the PDCA/PCSAM – scientific problem solving – approach in all that you do.

  18. Comment in The Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on Linkedin:

    The original term appears when Toyota (Japan) made a visit to Toyota (Burnasten, Derbyshire, UK) and saw this problem solving sheet in the UK standard size A3, the Japanese guests asked what is this paper size and they were told A3, and so they adopted it as the name for the problem solving form, hence A3. The main aim is that everyone can read the 1 page document (as our members have stated) and the idea is to have a common understanding of the problem and the solutions given on the one page document, we call them 1 pagers, to show common practice, speed of understanding, and a mature approach to either problem solving, quick changeover, etc.
    If anyone wants a copy, send your e-mail address and I will provide a free copy.

  19. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Hi,

    A3 big impact – really easy to use – defines relationship between coach and problem solver.

    I have completed a few and coached numerous – really helps develop people “thats key”
    It can be used at all levels within the company – it is a defined method of problem solving – action planning & information sharing – also anyone else who wants to get on board can have a positive input pretty quickly.

    Last key point – it is a historical summary of the topic and how it was solved – that means we can go back to it at any time – or another member of staff can start there if working on the same topic a few years later.

  20. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Steven
    I agree with your point about the relationship between the “coach” (I’ll say “mentor”) and the problem solver — that is, indeed, absolutely KEY.
    It’s all about developing people, and, by extension, “the culture”.

  21. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I have found “Getting the Right Things Done: A Leader’s Guide to Planning and Execution” by Pascal Dennis to be an easy read with pages of fold out visuals on how to effectively use the A3 format to deploy your business strategies.

  22. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    As for sources on learning about A3, I have found that the “Understanding A3 thinking” text by Sobek and Smalley has been a good resource. Just wanted to add that in here.

  23. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Sorry for this but… what is the reason why people tend to complicate the easy things? After reading all your comments my conclusion is: A3 = Problem description, find and analyze the cause, establish the corrective actions. Let`s sell a new method but honestly this is a very common and logical work method. The important thing is about the content and how well it has be done. Besides if you are able to summarize, you are very good. But size is not the point. No offense. Regards

  24. @Esther –

    Even if it requires you to buy a new printer, using the A3 or 11×17 paper format is the easy and uncomplicated part. You just do it.

    The challenging part is using a single sheet to summarize a problem and its solution, or operator work instructions, or strategic directions for a division, all in a way that is clear and simple for others to read. This is difficult and takes practice.

    Once you have posted such documents over work stations and on communications boards, and gone over them with teams, you will see the point.

  25. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    To me, A3 is the oddest of all the large and still growing features of lean that owe their origins only to the claim that Toyota developed it long ago or more recently; and did it or does it in Japan, or everywhere, or somewhere.

    I say that because, having been around for a long time, I’ve seen the same sort of thing in numerous other companies. You go to Company A and find out that all documents of a certain type must be reduced and distributed on a 5 X 7 size card. At Company B it’s a standard sheet of paper which must have the issue stated in one paragraph, then the proposal about it in the middle, and the expected results at the bottom. At Company C they magnanimously allow a legal-size paper. In each case, you learn, the reason dates back to when a newly hired executive (usually CEO) has laid down the law: no more rambling multi-page so-called “memos” around here—which require inordinate decipher time and confuse more than inform. (These days, no doubt, there is a company somewhere now requiring all such communications to be tweet-sized.)

    Most everyone, including me, respects these efforts to standardized communication formats, and to condense-out the bull and long-windedness. It’s good management. But it’s hardly major enough to be housed within the lean agenda, there to be considered as elemental for lean literacy. Nor does the A3 version of it have any particular advantages over those developed, say, at G.E., or Emerson Electric, or IBM, or Honda.

    Richard Schonberger

  26. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    However you format it, I would add the emphasis on drawings, graphs and pictures taught with the A3 method. Paragraphs of verbiage aren’t the same.

  27. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:
    My take:

    The A3 process is the “tool” developed by Toyota to enforce organizational learning.

    If one hopes to achieve organizational learning, at a level anywhere near the level at which Toyota has achieved it, then I’d say a commitment to the A3 process is the established best practice, and the best bet for success.

  28. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    At Ford we had work station visuals placed that describe the correct work process and tools in a quick visual format that takes only a minute to read and understand and follow. This visual often filled the gap to provide the operator quick self training and point on how to do the job correctly when a coordinator or trainer could not always be available to assist them or when you have several new operators all at once and could not afford the costly down time to train each individually. Pictures do work most often better than words from my experience.

  29. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Thanks for the insights about A3, im struggling to see how I could incorporate an operator work procedure that is currently nine A4 pages into one A3, and still standardise the work. A team of two operators complete this process for nine of every 12 minutes, all the work is conducted at one work station, which makes it difficult to break into smaller tasks. We also looked at splitting the operation between the two operators and this created issues for job rotation. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

  30. The purpose of posting an A3 work instruction sheet above a work station is to help a supervisor notice any difference between the standard procedure and what the operator does. Your nine A4 pages won’t do this job, and you have to decide what you can put on your single A3 sheet that will. You can have drawings, photographs, and symbols like traffic signs, and whatever words you include have to be readable from where the supervisor may stand.
    You will probably have to iterate before you get it right. You could possibly improve quality by splitting a nine-minute, two-person, single-station job into multiple, one-person jobs at stations arranged in a cell, each with one A3 instruction sheet. Objectively, it would not degrade the operators’ work experience in any way, but it is for you to establish this with them and their supervision.

  31. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Guys, I know that TWI JI breakdown is used for training purposes. What I was trying to indicate that the question seemed to be about not knowing how to pare down too much information down the critical amount that may be required. My point was if you were knowledgeable on how to create a breakdown sheet, then following that particular line of thinking could lead you to get the correct amount you needed to present as visual assistance. Which, like Toyota could then also be utilized for quick and easy auditing.
    All I was pointing to, was a method to get to the information desired or required.

  32. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I agree with Peter. Although it is important to know what A3 and other acronyms mean, it is easy to get caught up in the paralysis of analysis and describe how a swiss watch is made instead of just telling someone the time. The problem with over analysis is we end up “drowning in data” with then feeling we must “torture the data until it confesses. I do find it interesting though that so many people think the Japanese companies thought up the 11 x 17 size. In my first “real’ job as a designer in the early 60’s we found that 11 x 17 was perfect for diagrams and mechanical instructions because it could be 3 hole punched, placed in a binder, folded back on itself and then folded back to the right again with the title clearly visible and was very easy to pull out to full size. Funny how long it took others to decide that was a good idea.

  33. Comment on the Association for Manufacturing Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    At Toyota, an A3 (size) format elements consisted of utilizing the PDCA method with:

    • Definition of the problem statement using data & the business case identifying the constrained resource (cost, time, personnel, safety) &/or current deficiency in policy
    • The current situation ( preferable graphically expressed using matrices or charts).
    • Cause & Effect with Root Cause Analysis.
    • Proposal & Scope of Improvement, Design, or Design Request for approval & buy-in with mge.
    • Implementation Plan or Action Plan utilizing a Gantt Chart for the Initiative & reviews
    • Follow-up & Closing: Milestone Reviews & Confirmation or Verification of the action plan of the problem statement (i.e. CAPA)

  34. Pingback: Beyond A3s: Options for Shopfloor and Management Communication | Michel Baudin's Blog

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