Toyota Leadership Lessons: Part 8 – “The A3 isn’t a magical tool”

When I was back in Japan last month for a visit – my second visit since moving back to the U.S. in June 2016 – I spent the day with my friend and Toyota mentor, Mr. Isao Yoshino. As always, I keep my notebook at hand to capture the many insights from our rich conversations.

You can click here to get a PDF of the top 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino shared me in 2015 & 2016. I’m due to make a new edition, as the learnings and insights keep coming each time we get together.

My Tokyo-Nagoya learning route

See the man in a suit stooping to walk under the tunnel? Imagine how close the ceiling is to the top of the taxi!

It was great to be back on my familiar travel route from Tokyo to Nagoya:

  • Taxi to Shinagawa station (including traveling under the almost unpassable tunnel that burrows under the expansive array of railway tracks),
  • single file escalator up to the second level to purchase my non-reserved ticket (bullet trains in that direction come at least every 10 minutes!),
  • stop at City Cafe for a latte and a pretzel croissant (delicious),
  • navigate the stream of people pouring out the station and down the platform to be awed when the Shinkansen pulls into the station, which never fails to thrill me,
  • 92 minutes exactly to Nagoya Station, 400 kilometers away.

But back to Mr. Yoshino

Mr. Yoshino and me, recreating the selfie he and John Shook took last year

Since moving back to California in June 2016, I’ve missed my regular visits to Nagoya to spend time with Mr. Yoshino. At least I was lucky to have him visit the U.S. twice in the past twelve months, including this March when he was out for the Lean Transformation Summit.

On this visit in Nagoya, we met for lunch as a small local restaurant near his office at Nagoya Gakuin University that I’d been to with him before, followed by more conversation in his office.

I was honored to see that a photo of the two of us was on his door, along with three other photos including one with John Shook. We decided to take the same selfie as he did with John (see photos).

Over the course of the afternoon, we covered many topics, which I’ll share in upcoming posts.

In this post, I want to some insights and stories from our discussion about A3 thinking with you.

Isao Yoshino and John Shook

Mr. Yoshino’s insights on A3 thinking

Those of you who have followed this blog for awhile will know that Mr. Yoshino was John Shook’s first manager at Toyota in Nagoya, when Toyota had made the decision to expand operations to the United States and acquired the NUMMI plant.

Mr. Yoshino was one of the managers John Shook modeled his manager character “Sanderson” in his book about A3 thinking “Managing to Learn”.

The A3 isn’t a magical tool

I was most struck by a comment that Mr. Yoshino made early in our conversation, which first steered us onto the topic of A3 thinking:

“The A3 isn’t a magical tool!”

A3 Thinking was even a challenge to get started at Toyota

Problem solving A3 thinking flow (remember, the template is not what is is important!). Source: “Managing to Learn” by John Shook

Mr. Yoshino went on to share a story with me from 1979 when he was the assistant manager in the group that was responsible for teaching A3 thinking to Toyota’s non-manufacturing areas.

This program, called the Kan-Pro program, was Toyota’s countermeasure to bring A3 thinking and the Toyota Production System to their office and knowledge management areas.

For more history and context about the Kan-Pro program and A3 thinking, see my earlier post: “A3 Thinking and Insights from John Shook and Isao Yoshino” and the Lean Post article Shook and Yoshino wrote “How the A3 Came to Be Toyota’s Go-To Management Process for Knowledge Work”.

Write your A3 by your own hand

One of the requirements in the Kan-Pro program was that every manager had to write his A3 in his own hand (and yes, it was only men pretty much who were managers back in these days in Japan- and even today!).

But I’m too busy….

Yoshino rememebered one manager who was particularly resistant to writing his own A3s. He recalled this manager complaining to him that he didn’t have time to work on an A3.

This manager would tell Yoshino:

“You send me another requirement [“do an A3”] when I am so busy with my work!”

“It looks like a waste of time, but it works”

Mr. Yoshino and his team would respond to to this manager and others that,

“Yes, sir. We are asking you to do this. It looks like a waste of time, but it works.”

Mr. Yoshino and his colleagues insisted that the managers write their A3s and get coaching from them.

Thinking cannot be delegated

Even though many leaders complained like this one manager, they ultimately complied.

The Toyota managers came to realize that by working through an A3 with their own hands and minds, that they were actually solving problems and getting their work done even better.

So, like most things in life, Mr. Yoshino found that the ones who complained the most often ended up being the biggest supporters and and promoters of the thing they were once resistant to.

It isn’t magic – it takes dedicated practice to become a habit

I find it reassuring that A3 thinking isn’t something “magical” that “just happened” at Toyota.

It started as a top down requirement that managers would use the A3 process, and required dedicated practice with a coach, to engrain the thinking process as an organizational habit.

Does this Mr. Yoshino’s experience sound familiar to any of you? 

It did to me and felt like Mr. Yoshino could have been describing my own experiences trying to introduce A3 thinking in organizations.

I’ve had to politely, but firmly, tell many leaders that if I were to write their A3 for them, they would be missing out on the most important part of working through an A3 (plus, they are the ones who know – or who should know – the details of their problem, not me).

Share your own experiences in the comments area below.

More thoughts from Yoshino on A3 thinking

Mr. Yoshino also made other comments during this conversation about his experience with using and coaching A3 thinking.

There is no perfect A3

Mr. Yoshino also said that if you look to a Toyota A3 as the “perfect example” (or any other A3 for that matter) you may be disappointed:

There is no perfect A3.”

Remember: The A3 is not the end goal – it’s about getting started on deeper thinking

Mr. Yoshino emphasized “doing a perfect A3” is not the goal of working through an A3; thinking more deeply is.

“Writing and developing an A3 is only the starting point [to solving a problem].”

Get started, keep working, and you will develop the habit

Developing multiple iterations of your A3 and getting input (through “catchball”) helps develop your ability to think more deeply.

“You have to have something on paper to START the conversation. Keep writing until you have developed the habit.”

Remember – it’s about the thinking!

Remember that the A3 is just is a framework for thinking and communicating. The framework can provide structure, but when it becomes a form or template to fill out or “make perfect”, we lose sight of it being a process to drive deeper thinking.

To quote John Shook

“Never to forget: the A3 is not the point. The point is the science. The PDCA. The problem solving. And the improvement and the learning.”

The important part is to do it (the thinking)!

Want to learn more?

Here are some earlier articles that might be of interest to you:

A3 thinking and other problem solving processes:

When to “A3”? – 3 problem solving tools to match the complexity of your problem

Toyota & Lean Leadership Lessons from Isao Yoshino

I hope you enjoy these articles and words of wisdom from Yoshino-san! Stay tuned for further editions to this series of insights from Mr. Yoshino.

You can also click here to get a PDF of the top 10 Toyota leadership lessons that Mr. Yoshino has shared me in 2015 & 2016. A 2017 edition will be forthcoming soon.

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 128 Articles

Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.

  • manikandan manoharan

    Dear Katie,
    Thanks for sharing the experience you had Yoshino San. It took me more than a month time to make my first A3. Indeed it is a great opportunity to open up your mind in a wider and deeper understanding of the problem, root cause, counter measures and sustenance methods. You need to be patient especially during the multiple iterations of your A3 which passes through many eyes and mind. Since the space is limited you have to do 5s in your thinking and write only the concise but easy to understand by anyone who is not familiar with the subject.

  • Arnout Orelio

    great timing! This post on A3 thinking. I just had a short A3 thinking for the leadership team of an home for the elderly. Their reactions: “this is hard work. It really makes me think!”. I’ll share this post with them to support them in their efforts. Thank you and Mr Yoshino so much!

  • Manikandan – thank you for your comments and for sharing your experience with A3 thinking. I agree completely! A3 thinking cannot be done in one day – it is through the iterative learning cycles that clarity comes and can actually “fit” onto the A3.

  • Great! Let me know how they respond to the post! I hope it is helpful to them – and to you!

  • Great post! You recreated the selfie, but I noticed that you and your visits make Mr. Yoshino smile more than John does, apparently 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the great tips!

    It’s so true, especially, that “thinking cannot be delegated.” Lean can’t be delegated from the senior ranks. Strategy can’t be outsourced… yet people try. And so it goes…

  • Thanks Mark! I aim to inspire deeper thinking – AND smiles!

    I’ve had so many experiences, especially with more senior leaders, of wanting either consultants or others in the org to “do the strategic A3″…it’s hard work, but cannot be delegated.

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  • Mark Smeets

    Hey Katie, your podcast with Ron was awesome and I appreciate the extra tool you’ve given us, I learned the A3 in my class up here but never thought about applying it like you have, just to work situations…

    I need to listen to it again a few dozen more times.


  • Mark – thank you so much! So happy to hear that you enjoyed the podcast. What are some of the points that stand out to you (I’m curious!)? Let me know how your practice with the personal improvement A3 process goes. Thanks for the comments and feedback!

  • Mark Smeets

    Hi Katie,
    Thank you for taking the time to reply, I appreciate!
    There we’re 2 really big points for me
    I never thought about using the A3 as a personal tool, using it to break down and get to your own root causes. I PDCA a lot when I work (if I’m writing vba in excel) but I never thought to look at myself using that method (your trigger comment was also a bit of a revelation…I need to work on identifying those, writing them down).
    At the end of your conversation with Ron, I found an interesting parallel between the answer that you and Dan Markovitz (Episode 90) provided, Ron asked you both a very similar question and both of you gave a very similar answer.
    What do you do when you find yourself in that position and can’t just walk out the door?
    That’s why the personal A3 is such a great idea, it’s not enough to just leave a role, the last thing anyone should/I want to do is find myself in a similar situation and not having at least looked within myself to address my own root causes and address what I can control (channeling a bit of Mack Story (Episode 174)).


  • Hi Mark – Dan Markovitz is a friend of mine, but I hadn’t listened to that particular podcast. I’m going to load it into my queue for later this week. I’m super curious to how Dan answers Ron. Thanks for sharing the info!

    Using the same rigor to look inward at ourselves, our actions, and our outcomes that we use to solve outwardly facing problems can be a powerful personal experience. Happy to hear that this concept resonated with you!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts, and for listening and reading about mine.

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