A3 Idea Exchange: 4 Steps to Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement

By Tara Barrett, Project Manager, Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech

Have you experienced the powerful changes that a team of employees can accomplish during a focused kaizen event, but then struggled to see that same impact in day-to-day operations? Team members do not suddenly become problem solvers for an event, only to lose that ability once the kaizen team is dismissed. Every person in your organization is a problem solver by nature. So why do companies struggle with change in day-to-day operations? The key is developing a system that allows ideas to be generated, exchanged, approved and implemented without scheduling a formal event and without a heavy hand of administration to inhibit it.

To move past an “event focused” culture to a true culture of “continuous improvement,” each individual must be aligned to the company’s vision and goals and also be equipped to act upon ideas to reach those goals. The A3 format is a tool that allows anyone within an organization to develop an idea and then receive quick approval and support to implement that idea. By providing the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” structure, an A3 ensures that meaningful ideas are implemented without creating a heavy burden on management resources.

Begin with the Target

The exchange of ideas must focus on the gap between the current state of a process and the target condition, which is the framework for idea generation. This exchange helps create a picture of how we want a process to look in the future, orienting all problem solvers to focus on the vision, target or need identified for that area. Without a stated target condition, new ideas will be misaligned or too vague to create impact within the organization. For specific functions within your company, it’s important to bring together a team to thoroughly evaluate the current standard, identify waste and establish goals for that production area. The end result should be a broad description of the target condition for that process, leaving out the details on how you will achieve this goal. Doing so will lead to an exchange of ideas on how you can reach this target.

Here are some tips for ensuring that everyone understands the target condition:

  • Visit your internal customer, allowing your team to understand the requirements of their process from the customer’s viewpoint
  • Ensure that standard work exists for the area
  • Make measureable goals a part of regular communications to the area team
  • Include visuals of the metric used to assess progress in the area and have the team self-manage these visuals to show real-time progress

Create the A3 Exchange

The term “A3” refers to the size of the paper that Toyota used to record “stories for improvement.” The paper size is approximately the same as a “ledger” sized 11”x 17” piece of paper. The goal was to capture an entire improvement idea on one sheet of paper. Visuals are preferable to words on the A3, making the document very easy to understand and enabling quick decision making.

The A3 document should contain very specific information including:

  • Background information – what is the expected standard for this process?
  • Current condition or problem statement – define with data what is happening now.
  • Target or goal – what should be done, to what, by what measure, by when?
  • Cause analysis – what is causing this problem or condition?
  • Countermeasures – ideas to reach target condition.
  • Implementation plan – how will we make these changes?
  • Follow up – plan for when and how to evaluate success.

The person on your team who generates the A3 would need to include details for each section leading up to the countermeasures/ideas before submitting the A3 to leadership. This A3 system filters ideas by asking for more than just a sentence describing the idea, so that only qualified ideas should rise to the top. By providing detail on what is currently happening as well as how they would like to change the process, the person who is managing that area could very quickly react to the information presented by engaging in a conversation to move toward implementation. There may be several exchanges with an A3 to clarify the proposed idea before a final approval is given to implement it. This is desired because with each exchange, you are building more employee engagement in the management of their area. The employees are acting as the architects or the engineers of their work, enabled to experiment on the process and see their own improvements used, allowing for buy-in from the start.

Getting Started

If you have not used an A3 in the past, here is a quick checklist on how to begin.

  1. Choose an area to begin. The area should have a clearly defined standard. If none exists, allow the operators in that area to create and define the standard for their area.
  2. Once the standard is in place as the baseline, check to see that some goals have been established for this area. The goals should be aligned to the production process and tied to the items over which the line employees have direct impact. An example could be “increase production from 14 units per hour to 16 units per hour” or “complete changeovers in 30 minutes or less.”
  3. Once these foundations are in place, train the personnel on the basics of the A3 form. This includes operators and those who directly manage their activities, whether a team leader, a supervisor or a manager. Coach both parties through some first attempts, including both the person who will be generating the A3 and the one(s) who will be responding to the ideas. Ensure that the A3 is filled out completely and that the ideas are aligned to the stated goals.
  4. Make it visible and visited. Post the A3s on the shop floor near your production areas and schedule regular reviews (at minimum weekly) with production teams as well as broader reviews with higher levels of management.

A culture of continuous improvement rests on the exchange and implementation of ideas. Companies often stop at the event-based model, only seeing improvement when a formal team is gathered to focus on an area. But to build a true lean culture, you must invest in a system that facilitates change daily at the local level. The A3 method is one proven way to channel ideas consistently and rapidly through your organization. Create the framework by defining a target condition, and then allow all employees involved in the process to follow the steps of A3 to improve those areas. It is the full exchange, on a daily basis, allowing ideas to come forward, approvals to be given quickly and change to happen rapidly, that ensures future success.

To get started, download the GaMEP A3 form.

This is part of a series of articles for manufacturing improvement. Download a pdf of A3 Idea Exchange: 4 Steps to Creating a Culture of Continuous Improvement.