A3: People First, Improvements Second!
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
I'm not sure there is a more misunderstood lean concept than A3. I have heard it referred to as a form. I have seen people judge A3 improvements strictly by "return on investment". I have seen people's improvement ideas squashed because some manager decided the improvement wasn't worthy. This is all short-sided thinking!
A famous Toyota Production System mantra is "build leaders then build cars". Most companies FAIL when attempting a lean journey because the focus is on the improvements and not on the people making them!. The "lean journey" doesn't even make it out of the driveway.
An A3 program starts by asking everyone in the company 1 question. "if you owned the business, what change would you make to your job right now?". I have asked this question thousands of times, and amazingly, people never answer it selfishly. The response is always some obstacle that keeps them from doing their job productively.
The A3 form itself teaches people how to become really good problem solvers. The boxes on the form are laid out to mirror the scientific method of problem solving: define, then measure, analyze, then improve, then control. Imagine competing against an entire population of people getting better and better as problem solvers? Yikes!
People who lead A3 are practicing the skills we would expect from good leaders. First they need to recruit and lead a team of 3-5 people. They learn to take these people through the DMAIC. They learn how to do root cause analysis, leverage diversity of the group and gain agreement. Then, after the improvements are made, they are asked to get up in front of the whole company and teach everyone what they've learned (at the A3 closing). People learn how to be good team leaders and members, and they learn they can overcome their fear of public speaking. Mangers have an opportunity to encourage and thank these growing leaders.
Toyota is right. Lean is about building leaders. The improvements are icing on the cake!