John Shook on A3 Reports in Sloan Management Review


The Magazine » Toyota's Secret: The A3 Report « MIT Sloan Management Review

John Shook had an article published in the latest SMR, based on his book Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor, and Lead.

Hopefully this provides some good exposure to the broader business community. My understanding of A3 has been strengthened during my time with LEI, but I'm still a “Porter” (“learner”) not a “Sanderson” (mentor) — those names are the two main characters in the book.

As with many Toyota tools, such as kanban or 5S, the true value is hidden beneath what you can actually see.

“The ultimate goal of A3s is not just to solve the problem at hand, but to make
the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in a manner that
creates an organization full of thinking, learning problems solvers.”

Not just solving problems, but developing people. Building people before building cars. Good stuff.

The article is a nice overview for those who are brand new to A3s, or those you might want to expose to the approach.

Recently, I've seen a number of hospitals using A3s for planning problem solving purposes – in The Netherlands and the UK. One hospital in the U.S., claims to have produced and used over 5,000 A3 reports, that the method has been taught to their entire staff.

The one challenge I'd see to this is providing enough “Sandersons” to make sure people are being mentored and using A3 in the best way possible, not just a superficial way.

Have and experiences to share?

Here is John's blog post about his article and the other related piece in SMR.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. One interesting thing about the A3 is that the formats vary so much. I've seen them all the way from 9 boxes down to 4, which is just PDCA pasted onto an A3. The main thing is to choose a format that's best for one's organization. One good point I recall a CEO making over a year ago was to not be a "slave to the boxes." In other words, to be flexible in your approach as the situations dictate – don't get caught up into filling out boxes. Good advice.

    I agree it has been good for transparency & learning, but for the most part, it seems to be PDCA broken out into it's various stages and made visible – a good thing for building culture.

  2. Mark – great point. I'm still very much a beginner and student of A3. We use A3 quite extensively at LEI and I"m getting coached on getting better at it.

    I'm being coached, also, to not be a slave to the format. And, you can use different formats depending on the purpose of the A3: for problem solving or for planning purposes.

  3. Many years ago I had a department manager that required a weekly report from his workers (supervisors). If he did not get it, he would call you up and find out what happened to the report. If he found something of interest, good or bad, on the report he would follow up on it. A3’s would have worked great in that environment. Why? Because the culture of report and follow-up was firmly in place.

    Where I work now, my manager leaves me alone until he needs something. Admittedly, it’s a poor system. I don’t think A3’s would work here. And it’s not the A3’s fault. It’s just the culture here. Do I want to institute A3’s here where I work? It means more work for me and my manager.

    I submit this comment here because it seems to me that the prevailing culture is much more influential to the outcome than any lean tool can ever be. Just something to think about.

  4. I'm not sure I understand your comment that the prevailing culture is much more influential to the outcome. Do you mean that your current culture is concerned strongly with outcomes without an appreciation for the process that led to the outcomes? If that's the case then the A3 would probably be seen as just another "tool of the month" and advocating it would be a waste of time, sadly.

    It's amazing to me how the more a person earnestly and patiently learns Lean – the philosphy & tools – the stronger one believes in it. That's been my experience, anyway. I'm hopeful that for the rest of my working life I'll be working in environments that are at least trying to adopt the philosophy.

  5. "Do you mean that your current culture is concerned strongly with outcomes without an appreciation for the process that led to the outcomes?"

    No, I was just lamenting about how every time I try to implement a lean change, here where I work, I get resistance from the existing culture. If I let up on the gas pedel even a little bit, the existing culture un-does the change. The existing culture I refer to says, “Things are working just fine and that’s the way we have always done things around here.”

    Don’t get me wrong. We make progress with lean. It’s just that every time we need to make changes we first have to change the way people think. With A3’s we would need to create a good Plan, Do, Check and Adjust culture. We would need the manager to say, “show me a report on that project your working on”.

    Also, I agree, the more I learn about lean the more I believe in it.

  6. Re. Mark Welch's comments at the top:

    A3s are explicitly PDCA made visible, and broken down into components. If PDCA is the heart of kaizen, then the beauty of the A3 is that it introduces one of our familiar reliable methods – making things visual – to the scientific method. Visual controls for knowledge workers and managers!

    Pascal Dennis showed me the way some years ago in a class on Policy Deployment when he said "At Toyota, a manager's job is to practice and teach PDCA". Then we went on to learn and apply A3 thinking. It has changed my life. He told me what my job is (more clearly and usefully than anyone before) and he gave me the tools to do it.

    Now to Mark Graban's question on our experience:

    We are totally immersed in A3s at the policy deployment level (think PDCA on a grand annual planning cycle) but have not gotten them working in the less formal, problem solving format laid out by John Shook. Where I've tried, it has run into what seem to be limits of individuals' ability to visualize and express themselves and/or my (in)ability to teach. I hope to do the LEI class soon and expand my capabilities.


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