Monday, May 17, 2010

A3 reports: templates and observations

As I mentioned last time, I recently delivered a course on Lean software development in Oslo. One of the exercises I set people was to produce an A3 report.

A3 reports, for those unfamiliar with them are a mechanism used at Toyota to analyse issues and suggest solutions, or rather “counter measures” . The term “counter measures” is preferred over solution because no “solution” is ever the end of the story. One day there will be a better solution, er, I mean better counter measure.

Put it another way, as Peter Senge says in The FIfth Discipline, “tomorrows problems come from todays solutions.”

Anyway, the purpose of writing about this is to share my A3 report templates with anyone who is interested. There are actually two templates:
  • A3 training: An important part of A3 writing is to “go and see” the actual work happening, and talk to the actual people who do it. In a classroom you can’t actually go and see the issue, you can’t talk to the people performing the task or check the company data. Therefore I allowed students to make assumptions as long as they noted them on the report. Afterwards we could talk about how the assumptions could be validated to prove, or disprove them.
  • A3 report: this is the same report template without the extra space for assumptions and notes. This is the template to use for real outside the classroom.
Strictly speaking there isn’t a specified A3 format. This confused me when I first started digging into the A3 method: I was looking for templates. It turns out that you can just start with an blank sheet of A3 paper, but it also seems there are some standard elements and structures people use when writing an A3. My templates are what I think are the key elements.

But the actual A3 report, the thing you can see is only half the story. The A3 report is not just a thing, it is a process. The process of creating the report, the observation, investigation and mentoring, is probably more important than the end result.

If you want to know more about A3 reports John Shook’s book “Managing to Learn” is good, although you have to order it from the Lean Enterprise Institute, its not at your local online bookshop. For a shorter version check out Shook’s article in the MIT Sloan Management review, “Toyota’s Secret: The A3 report”.

One thing that struct me while reading Shook’s description of A3 is their similarity to patterns: both involve a context, a problem, the things that make the problem hard (forces or analysis), both propose a better way (solution or counter measures), both value brevity and both allow the authors to change the format to suit the problem.

More importantly, a key element of A3 reports is the mentoring of A3 writers that occurs during the creation process. This sounds just like the shepherding process that any pattern paper being present at a conference goes through. Having shepherded many pattern papers - and won a couple of awards for it, I might say - the A3 mentoring process seems exactly the same.

Back in the Oslo classroom I learned: allow plenty of time for the A3 report writing. Its not something to be rushed.

I recently experimented with A3 formats on a coaching assignment with a client. I asked several manager to complete one. Most of the time, if you are going to ask someone to do an A3 you need some position of respect, or at least authority. They look odd to manager schooled in long report and PowerPoint reports, they require a depth of thinking they are not accustomed to and they look funny.

If anyone tries using these reports please let me know what you think and what your results are. And if anyone wants to do an A3 with me, I will be running the Lean course again in Oslo in November. This course was two days, I’m planning to increase it to three days next time so allow more time for this and other exercises.