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Mark Rosenthal

Six Sigma

Toyota Kata A3 Problem Solving

As the A3 form unfolds, systematic thinking evolves

Published: Monday, February 24, 2014 - 09:55

Over the years, I’ve observed a number of efforts at various companies to implement A3 problem solving, an approach based on the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle that summarizes the problem and solution on a folded form, usually 11 in. × 17 in. I worked for some of those companies; I’ve observed others. The results are nearly always the same.

Here are a couple of examples. Let me know if any of these match up with experiences you have had.

Example 1: The company had put many people through “practical problem solving” training and was (ironically) trying to measure how many problem-solving efforts were underway.

I was watching a presentation to management by one of these problem-solving teams. Their A3 was on a computer, projected onto the screen. They were reporting their “results.” Yet there were large discontinuities in their problem-solving flow. The actions they were taking simply didn’t link back (through any kind of identifiable cause) to the problem they were solving.

The management team listened carefully, applauded their efforts, and moved on to the next topic of their meeting.

Example 2: A different company had a form to fill out called an MBF or management by fact. Judging from the labels on the boxes of forms, the activity of filling out the form was clearly intended to be part of structured problem solving. By the time I worked there, however, MBF had become a verb. It was a solo activity: filling out the form at the desk and reporting on it during a staff meeting.

Example 3: Well-meaning former Toyota team members, now working for a different large company, wanted to “train everyone in problem solving.” They put together a “class” that presented the purpose of each block on their A3 form with the expectation that people would adopt the process.

All three of these examples had something in common: They didn’t work.

Recently, I’ve been included in an email exchange about the relationship between A3 and Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata (McGraw-Hill, 2009). My small contribution was apparently enough to get my name onto the cover of a slide share, “A3 and the Improvement Kata” (see clip below). I think this presentation does a really good job of summing up the relationship between Toyota’s kata and A3. Thanks to Rother for taking the initiative and putting it all together. I also want to give a nod in the direction of a Jenny Snow-Boscolo for instigating that inspiring email exchange.

“A3 and the Improvement Kata”  from Mike Rother

One of the difficulties with gaining insight into Toyota’s management processes is that they really aren’t codified. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Look at your own company, and ask how much of the culture—the reflexive way things are done and interactions are structured—is written down. In fact, if it is written down, I would contend it’s likely your actual culture has little resemblance to what is written about it. Those things tend to be more about what we wish the culture was.

Culture, any culture, is learned through daily interaction. This is all well and good when people are immersed in it from the beginning. But the rest of us aren’t operating in a problem-solving culture. Rather, we are trying to create it. And as the former Toyota team members from Example 3 learned, it isn’t a simple matter of showing people.

Rather than two different things, we are looking at a continuum here. At one end is the culture described on slide 9 of “A3 and the Improvement Kata.” There isn’t any formal structure to it; the process for teaching it isn’t codified. It is learned the same way you learn the way to get the job done in any company; they just learn different things than you did. But in another organization, there is no immersion. If there is anyone who is steeped in “The Way,” they are few and far between.

In these cases, we want to start with something more overt. And that is the purpose of having a rote drill or kata. It isn’t something you implement. It is a structure, or scaffold, to learn the basic moves. Just as mastering the musical scales is only a prelude to learning to play the instrument, the kata is the foundational structure for learning to apply the underlying thinking patterns.

If you are working on kata, it’s critical that you reflect on your thinking patterns as much (or more) than you reflect on your improvements. It might seem rote and even busywork at first, but it’s done to build a foundation.

First published Jan. 29, 2014, on The Lean Thinker blog.


About The Author

Mark Rosenthal’s picture

Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal is an experienced lean manufacturing/quality director and manager with more than 20 years of experience implementing continuous improvement in diverse organizations. He brings deep understanding of the Toyota Production System and a proven ability to see any organization’s potential. Rosenthal is a change agent who facilitates the process of discovery to quickly make an impact on the way people think, enabling them to cut to the core issues and get things moving by engaging the entire team to develop solutions that affect the bottom line.