There are at least six answers to this question:
- The "missing link" of the Toyota Production System. The A3 process is an integral component of hoshin kanri, or policy deployment. Hoshin kanri (or "hoshin" for short, is the "missing link" (as it were) of the Toyota Production System. As I have stated in previous blogs, hoshin is also known as the "balanced scorecard," a derivative of hoshin kanri that supercharged the strategic planning commuity in the 1990s, but failed to set practitioners upon the Toyota Way or "path to enlightenment," organizationally speaking. Somewhere buried in Jeffrey Liker's Becoming a Lean Enterpirse, John Shook says, "Hoshin kanri is just as important as just-in-time," or words to that effect. In other words, the Toyota Production System is not about "production," it's about management. Read on.
- A scientific process of discovery. The A3 process is based upon the scientific logic of plan do check act (PDCA). The layout of every A3 document reflects the PDCA structure of the Deming Cycle. A3 users, assuming they are properly trained, act as scientists as they design (plan), execute (do), and validate (check) experiments, and then publish their results (act) in the form of new, improved standard work (i.e., replicable step-by-step procedures and methodologies).
- A quasi-legal process of agreement. The A3 process is a negotiation--called "catchball"--leading to what lawyers call a "meeting of the minds," the basis of all valid contracts. In his epic book, The Toyota Way, Professor Jeffrey Liker teaches us (Principle #13) that Toyota makes decision slowly by consensus, and then executes quickly. This is "nimawashi" or "root binding," and the A3 is at the heart of it. Another word for "nimawashi" might be "alignment."
- A process of management. The A3 process is a process by which managers delegate responsibility to their subordinates and monitor their performance. When John Shook showed up for his first day of work at Toyota, he found an A3 that was for the most part blank. All it contained was an "issue statement" (which in my book Hoshin kanri for the lean enterprise I call a "problem statement"). John's job was (as he interpretted it, and he is a very smart fellow) was to solve the problem. Actually, that's only half of it. See point 5 below.
- A process of leadership development. The A3 process is a process by which leaders develop the next generation of lean thinkers. As John Shook says in Managing to Learn, "It takes two to A3." By initiating the A3 process, a manager takes on the responsbility to coach his/her subordinates in the art of lean thinking, the art of planning and executing strategy, the art of the A3. Who knew that "management" really means "helping others to take responsibility for solving their own problems"? If you have doubts, please see Steven Spear, "Learning to Lead at Toyota," Harvard Business Review (May 2004). Although Spear doesn't mention the A3, if we can trust John Shook--and we can--the A3 was there.
- A programming language that enables massively parallel organizational computing. The A3 process is like a computer language that enables parallel computing by "factoring" or breaking down problems into smaller and smaller problems that can be solved by more and more managers working in parallel. This avoids decision-making "stackup" at the top of the organization, and greatly improves the adaptability of the organization as a whole. See Jeremy Hope and Robin Fraser, "Who Nieeds Budgets," Harvard Business Review (February 2003). Hope and Fraser beat me to the punch by labeling this development as "radical decentralization." It is a brillant formulation. For many years, of course, others have referred to it more simply as "empowerment."