Beyond A3s: Options for Shopfloor and Management Communication

A3s are still being touted as nothing short of a management revolution, but few organizations actually use them for operator work instructions, problem-solving, or hoshin planning. This raises the question of whether the objectives pursued with a paper format may not be easier to achieve with more recent technology. In this post, we consider options for operator work instructions. The other applications of A3s deserve separate treatment.


Three years ago, after a 4-paragraph post entitled What is an A3? was described by Hormoz Mogarei as a “comprehensive explanation of an A3 report,” it elicited 33 more comments over four months, by Wesley Bushby, Chinue UeckerBill BakerNick MasciDaniel StoelbHarold ArcherTodd McCannTroy TaylorGreg WilliamsKaren WilhelmPeter PonzioMike ThelenRobbie HowarthStephen Boyd, Paul Quesada,  Tonya PorterPhilip NemethEsther Vázquez CarracedoRichard SchonbergerBill RyanShaun Borsody-NagyPat BoutierRobert Hawkins, and Timothy Whobrey.

Today, there are multiple books on the subject including the following:

A 20th-Century Approach

According to Mike Thelen, “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.”

It is an interesting story, first because, obviously, there is no reason to be bound today by technical limitations from the FAX era but, second, because it is not strictly true. Perhaps, it applied to the models Toyota used, but, otherwise, low-end machines would only take documents up to A4, and high-end machines could handle the blueprints of a chemical plant. I saw one in 1980, which occupied a whole room at the headquarters of Mitsui Trading in Tokyo and was used on a project in Saudi Arabia.

Now FAX machines belong in museums, and we live in an environment of screens on smart watches, smart phones, tablets, laptops, and LCD monitors of ever increasing size and definition. In addition, more and more, all our screens connect us to the same information. On all your different devices, you read the same emails and social network updates, view and update the same calendar, and edit the same documents, bringing us ever closer to John Seely Brown‘s vision of ubiquitous computing.

Walkie-Talkie 200x300

AS400 CLI screenshotAt least, this is the environment of our daily lives, not of the manufacturing shop floor. Walk onto it and,  in terms of information systems and communications, you go back a few decades. There, real men, of any gender, won’t touch a smart phone; instead, they use walkie-talkies they carry in a holster. At least with these, the other party can’t talk until you say “Over,” and you can be sure to say your piece without being interrupted. In Production Control, you still encounter systems with command-line interfaces. And bar codes are perceived to be the state of the art.

Tablet, 2,500 BCE

That Manufacturing is the neglected step child for information technology (IT) is not new. Since ancient Mesopotamia, the latest IT always went to the people who worked with money. The oldest writings on clay tablets we have are accounts of a governor’s silver, not instructions on how to smelt it. Understandably, IT is more essential in Financial Services, where information is in a leading role, than in Manufacturing, where it is supporting the transformation of materials. You cannot make goods without effective manufacturing processes, but you can without the state of the art in IT. The question is how far behind you can be before it becomes a competitive handicap.

Paper or Screens?

A3s are used in operator instructions, problem solving, continuous improvement, and hoshin planning, applications that have little in common beyond the value of presenting the key information in a structured, single-page format that is large enough for sharing as needed, yet supported by commonly available desktop publishing software, compatible with many copiers and printers, and with paper available as routine office supplies.

As discussed in an earlier post, at a few cents/page, paper A3s are difficult to beat in cost as a medium for operator instructions. The administrative cost of instructions in the form of paper A3s, however, rises with the number of different products and processes that need them, the number of worldwide locations in which the same instructions must be provided in the local language, and the pace of engineering changes.

In high-volume/low-mix production, with mature, stable processes, paper still wins, but, elsewhere, screens can eliminate the slow and error-prone process of manually updating posted instructions and disposing of obsolete versions. But there is more to this transition than just providing electronic images of paper A3s.

In low-volume/high-mix production, we have already seen an example of using iPads, QR scans, Sharepoint and Infopath to deliver assembly and test instructions for measurement instruments at Schlumberger.


From A3 to Infographics

The functional need that was met by A3s remains, but the best way to meet it needs to be reviewed. They are special cases of infographics, and their use with screens does not have to be limited to a static display; they can include motion and interactivity as needed to best fulfill their purposes.

Mercury map
New York Times infographic about Mercury and the Messenger spacecraft

On 4/30/2015, the New York Times published on line an infographic about the Messenger spacecraft with a map of Mercury that you can rotate with your mouse on a laptop or your fingers on a tablet, orbit charts of the spacecraft, photos and videos of its 2004 launch and six planetary flybys, of the Earth, Venus, and Mercury, with just enough words to understand the context.

This is a news story, but you can easily imagine how these tools can be used to enhance the interaction between a shop floor operator and a supervisor who has noticed that the operator is not following instructions. In place of Mercury, you can rotate a detailed picture of the workpiece, with callouts. You can have video snippets of tricky parts of the operation, and you can explode each key point into greater details…

Of course, it is more work to generate such infographics than just a sheet of static instructions, and you don’t have a staff like the New York Times’s, but you don’t need the same artistic or technical level.

Youtube has short instructional videos on prying loose a stuck garbage disposal, the quick and easy way to cut a mango into cubes, or the way to change batteries on a 20-year old Panasonic shaver, not to mention forging a gun barrel with 18th-century technology.

[wp_youtube_gallery category_slug=video-instruction-examples]

These videos produced by amateurs with limited equipment and camera skills, who just feel compelled to share their know-how.  They save you time and money on household maintenance or satisfy your curiosity, with information that would be nearly impossible to convey by other means. There is no technical reason why similar video snippets could not be an integral part of shop floor instructions.

Instruction Data Management

Creating materials for the whole world to see in stand-alone form is different from creating technical documents in an organization, making them available to the members who need them while protecting them from prying eyes, updating them in a thorough and orderly process, while maintaining a history of previous versions.

In whatever media are used, instructional materials must be linked to and consistent with the product nomenclature, bills of materials, routings, and engineering data. These are issues that the author the garbage disposal repair video did not have to worry about.

Further Reading