Saturday, March 28, 2009

What is an A3? Does your company embed this "Lean communication tool" in their culture?

When I started at TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing KY) in Georgetown, KY, back when we were still building the plant, I can remember our japanese trainers discussing "problem solving" with my supervisors and how important it was for us to "practice" this thinking in our daily activities. I also remembered overhearing the acronym or term "A3" and wondered exactly what that meant in regard to solving problems. Now you have to remember, in 1988, we didnt have computers or printers in the workplace so it wasn't a well-known reference as the "size of paper" we know it to be now (11 x 17). I can remember thinking in my mind what does A and 3 stand for? (grin)
When my trainer referred to it as a "storyboard" it started to make a little more sense, and I was very intrigued to learn more about this unique methodology. I was only 19 years old when I came to TMMK so solving worksite problems and documenting them in the PDCA format wasn't commonplace to me, nor was it for the majority of team members I worked with.

My group leaders and japanese trainers quickly developed my/our "thinking" process (PDCA) and how it would be part of my/our everyday activities at the Gemba. We were taught that it was our responsibility to "think" and make improvements within our processes and area. Problems were to be looked at as our "friends" at Toyota; instead of the traditional mentality where we covered them up to make ourselves look good. When you cover up problems its guaranteed to increase costs and could possibly effect the quality of the product.
Being so young and growing up with this "culture" of visible problems, its hard for me to understand how a company could have long-term growth and sustainability without this "way of thinking". Now at the age of 40, it has become part of my life both within my work and home life; you could say its part of my character.

Toyota takes this process of "thinking" and "problem solving" to the next level. The expectation of all team members at every level within the company is to use the PDCA thinking process to tell your "story", and relate why this problem was "value-added" to the company.
I consider an A3 as a "Lean Communication Tool", to basically share with someone "how" I thought through this problem and "what someone needs to know" to understand; not everything I did to get there, which could be in some cases a very large document to read through.
For Toyota this is not respecting people and their value-added time, therefore a Lean communication tool such as the A3 is necessary to eliminate waste and can also be used as a development tool to teach others in the PDCA thinking. I've been blessed to have been "raised" in a company that expects this from its employees and to know how valuable it is to sustain long-term and development the next generation workforce.
Stay tuned for future blogs where we will dig deeper into the 8 steps of an A3.
Till next time
Tracey Richardson

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