A3, Einheit, and the conceptual spiral

Boyd didn’t like to leave anything to chance. While he recognized that uncertainty is the atmosphere of conflict, it affects all sides, like the weather. Unlike the weather, however, you don’t have to take what nature gives you; you can pump up uncertainty in the other side. Boyd’s suggestion for doing this was to conduct experiments on your opponents, learn from these experiments more rapidly than they do, and then use your updated orientation to better shape and adapt to the situation. By doing this, you can throw more novelty at them than they can handle, while at the same time handling theirs with aplomb.

All of the above is the subject of Conceptual Spiral, available along with my commentary (“John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the Meaning of Life”) from our Articles page.

A very good technique to add to your own repertoire is often called the “A3.” Here’s a description from John Shook, the first westerner hired by Toyota at Toyota City, Japan, and a true master of lean:

At Toyota, there exists a way to solve problems that generates knowledge and helps people doing the work learn how to learn. Company managers use a tool called the A3 (named after the international paper size on which it fits) as a key tactic in sharing a deeper method of thinking that lies at the heart of Toyota’s sustained success.

A3s are deceptively simple. An A3 is composed of a sequence of boxes (seven in the example) arrayed in a template. Inside the boxes the A3’s “author” attempts, in the following order, to: (1) establish the business context and importance of a specific problem or issue; (2) describe the current conditions of the problem; (3) identify the desired outcome; (4) analyze the situation to establish causality; (5) propose countermeasures; (6) prescribe an action plan for getting it done; and (7) map out the follow-up process.

However, A3 reports — and more importantly the underlying thinking — play more than a purely practical role; they also embody a more critical core strength of a lean company. A3s serve as mechanisms for managers to mentor others in root-cause analysis and scientific thinking, while also aligning the interests of individuals and departments throughout the organization by encouraging productive dialogue and helping people learn from one another. A3 management is a system based on building structured opportunities for people to learn in the manner that comes most naturally to them: through experience”

From “Toyota’s Secret: The A3 Report” By John Shook, MIT Sloan Management Review, July 1, 2009

As Terry Barnhart, a colleague and master of lean himself (check out his new book, Creating a Lean R&D System: Lean Principles and Approaches for Pharmaceutical and Research-Based Organizations) put it:

Problem solving, real problem solving, involves forming and testing explicit hypotheses.  Make these explicit to everyone (transparency) and rumors quickly dissipate.  Have this on one sheet of paper, and you can engage in both the forward and backward looking save of many things.  A3 is a wonderful weapon in this war.

Actions in a conflict are a form of problem solving. Note the conceptual spiral in the first sentence: Boyd observed that the spiral not only generates novelty but also updates our orientation. What Terry is pointing out is that by using devices like the A3, you can update and harmonize the orientations of whole groups of people. The result will be not only better problem solving in the abstract sense but a group that’s primed to act. Because with a common implicit orientation, you can

give subordinates freedom of action and maintain coherency of ongoing action.


A common outlook possessed by “a body of officers” represents a unifying theme that can be used to simultaneously encourage subordinate initiative yet realize superior intent. (Patterns 74)

Develop Fingespitzengefühl for using the A3 and you’ll be a giant step ahead.

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