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Lean: The Not so New (but still trendy) Buzzword


Lean is not a new approach, but it is a popular one, with awareness of this delivery approach at an all-time high as it continues to be adopted widely. More and more organisations are looking to adopt Lean principles with the aim of gaining greater return for their investments.

Lean is now a well-recognised management term in its own right, but its methodology evolved out of the Toyota Way, a philosophy and culture developed by Toyota to eliminate wastes within its company. The core principles of Lean can be reduced to the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) model that promotes iterative cycles of work where constant feedback and learning drive continuous improvement. Numerous tools, templates and courses have been developed to help institutions deliver Lean, though in practice these learnings can vary greatly. A lot of people still think of Lean as just a toolbox, focusing too heavily on the Lean toolkit however, that being said, we all have our go-to favourite tools and one of mine is A3 thinking.

What is A3 thinking and why have you (probably) never used it?

In my experience the A3 doesn’t appear to be used widely, often overlooked as it is not well understood. Most of the time it is named incorrectly and this plays a big part to its misconception and lack of use. It has been referred to as A3 Planning, A3 problem solving, A3 Reporting etc, all of which are correct, however, this seemingly innocuous matter of a name can impact on the perception and usage of the tool greatly. Once it is called a report or a plan it will remain as just that. Worst of all, it will remain static.

A3 for continuous improvement and integration

The premise of A3 thinking is essentially thinking out aloud on a single side of A3 (US equivalent is Tabloid or Ledger size) paper following the Lean PDCA cycle. Anyone picking up an A3 sheet should be able to follow the story on the page as the format of these documents follow the same structure and philosophy. All A3’s should contain the following info in some guise.

There are no set requirements on how the A3 should look so long as a story can be told from the info on the page. Generally speaking, the points that need to be covered are:

  • where you’re at
  • where you want to be
  • what the known issues are
  • what is proposed to address them
  • what has been done to date
  • and what will happen next.

This follows the PDCA cycle and seeks to continuously refine what is already known.

Implementing A3 isn’t just simply introducing a management tool to an organisation, it is more a cultural change than a process one. It forces users to better understand what they are delivering as they are openly setting problems and hypothesis’ up for challenge thus promoting transparency and collaborative thinking. An important point to remember is that you want feedback when you show this to others, welcome them to critique and challenge your hypothesis and data. It might hurt a bit at first but it will be worth it in the long run.

Give it a go, see if you can put one together for the work you’re currently tackling. Use it when you next explain a situation to a colleague and see if it helps.

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