The A3 Report – Part 3: Limitations and Common Mistakes

A3 on ClipboardIn the last two posts I showed you the basics of the A3 report and the (possible) content of the A3 report. In this last post of this series, I would like to talk about common mistakes and the limitations of the A3 report. Overall, for me the A3 report is a minor tool to help organize the real work of problem solving, despite all the fuzz some make about the A3 report.

Common Mistakes

I mentioned many requirements and useful suggestions for an A3 report already in my previous posts. You should do as much  of the A3 on the shop floor as possible, ideally using an pencil and an A3 (or ledger or tabloid) paper size. But here are a few more things that can be done better or worse:

Computer vs. by Hand

Hand holding pencilFrequent readers of my blog know that I am a big fan of writing by hand rather than using a computer. (See my previous post The Advantage of Handwritten Data on the Shop Floor.) Same is true here too.

As mentioned above, it is probably best to use a pencil. Worst is probably a permanent pen, since it would require you to get the A3 report perfect on the first go. The computer indeed does make it easier to modify the report. However, a computer is a brain drain. Even if you do not notice it, creating and formatting the report takes a lot of effort, which all distracts from the actual problem solving. And, do not forget, solving the problem at hand is the real issue here.

However, I have to admit that there are instances when a computer-generated A3 report may be useful. It is much easier to share, present, and – depending on the handwriting – even read a computer-generated document than a handwritten one. Hence, again, make the tool fit the problem, not the other way round. If your task is primarily to solve a problem, use pencil. However, if it is (also) important to present a nice fancy spreadsheet to management, use a computer. After all, your job as an employee is to make your bosses happy, and if they want fancy graphics, give ’em fancy graphics.

Getting Stuck in the Details

Young man cuts English lawn with a nail scissors
Don’t lose your focus!

Another problem I often see is that people do get stuck in the details, and start to neglect the bigger goal of solving the problem. There are no strict requirements on the A3 report. If it is something simple, you could use a smaller A4. While technically speaking, it is no longer an A3 paper size, people all over the world frequently use A4 paper but call it an A3 report. While A3 is probably better in most cases, A2 is also possible.

I already mentioned that you can use a computer, and that you can adjust the content to fit your needs. Probably the only thing I would insist on is using only a single sheet of paper – and this is only because multiple sheets would have a different name and no longer be called an A3 report.

Emphasizing Form over Content

The A3 is a tool, and like every tool it has to fit your problem. Like you have different screwdrivers for different screws to tackle, so does the design of your A3 report adapt to the problem you have to solve. Do not let yourself be constrained by any template you find in literature. (However, if your boss insists on using a certain template, you better do it.)

Trying to Squeeze in Too Much Information

Scientific vector seamless pattern with math and physical formulas, chemistry plots and graphic schemes, shuffled together. Endless math texture. You can use any color of backgroundOne of the benefits of the A3 is to boil down the content to the core. Remove everything that is not essential, until it fits on an A3 sheet of paper. No cheating with magnifying glasses though! Less is more!

Whenever possible, use pictures, diagrams, sketches, and graphs in lieu of words and text. A picture is often much easier to understand than text, especially on a handwritten report.

Doing It Alone

Team of architects people in group on construciton site check documents and business workflow
The power of many…

Working on paper using pencil is also great in smaller groups. Try not to do an A3 alone. Rather, involve others and get their input and ideas on the paper too.  Generally, I like to work with teams of two to five people to have different opinions but still a team where all have to participate and cannot hide in the second row.


Limitations of the A3 report

A3 Monstranz
Watch out, here comes the A3 report!

It sometimes feels like the A3 report is one of the magic tools in lean, and simply using the tool makes your shop floor miraculously good. Hint: It doesn’t. And neither do any of the other magic tools like 5S or value stream maps.

Even if the A3 report is sometimes paraded around like a sacred relic, it is in my view only a minor tool. The main work is still identifying and solving the problem. If I have the choice between a sloppy root cause analysis on an A3 report and a good one on the back of an used envelope, I would go with the envelope any time. Using an A3 report will offer no advantage at all if the content is garbage!

Hence, put the effort of the A3 report into the content, not the format!

  1. Make a thorough analysis of the current state.
  2. Go deep when trying to understand the root cause of the problem.
  3. Ideally, get ideas for multiple solution approaches to your problem, and
  4. Then pick the most promising solution idea.
  5. Ensure a good implementation, and
  6. Verify with some delay if the implementation really solved the problem.

Fail any of the above and your risk of not solving the problem increases significantly. Again, it is not the format but the content that will make or break your project!

By the way, I did it again. I was planning to write a short 1,000-word article on the A3 report, and now I have 4,000 words over three posts. Whenever I touch a seemingly simple topic, I find lots of details and suggestions. In any case, this is my last post of this three-post series on the A3 report (for now). I probably could not fit all that text on an A3 sheet of paper 🙁 . But I do have lots of pictures 🙂 .Thanks for staying with me through this lengthy analysis. Now go out with a pencil and a single sheet of A3 paper and organize your industry!

Series Overview

PS: Also see the comment by Michel Baudin on my post:

9 thoughts on “The A3 Report – Part 3: Limitations and Common Mistakes

  1. Hi Christoph,

    I’m reading yours posts regular and I must say that posts are good. You have critical view or only different perspective to the “same” thing. I love it.

    And I fully agree with your conclusion in this post; not so important how to come to problem solution; much more important is, if we check problem solution after time (if we picked the right solution).

    All best.

  2. Many thanks, Matjaz. I always try to combine a critical view with common sense (although I found out that this is not always a popular skill in industry 😉 ).

  3. I’ve never read anything better about Lean than your posts. You must write a book. It could be real help to many Lean implementers. If you already have tell where to get it.

  4. Sergey: Wow! I am blushing! 😀 Many thanks for the compliments. At one point I plan to edit my posts together into a book, but first I have another book in the pipeline. Currently I am editing the proofs of my first book “Faster, Better, Cheaper” in the History of Manufacturing which shows how the management of manufacturing evolved from the stone age, ancient times, medieval times, industrial revolution, Taylor, Ford, Computer, Lean (of course 😉 ), and into modern times. I worked on it for the last six years, and it has lots of cool anecdotes and details. If everything works out it will be available by the end of the year with CRC press. I will definitely do (a little bit of) self promotion here on the blog when it comes out. Again, thanks for the compliments 🙂

  5. Will certainly buy the book when ready….. what is your reading recommendation for lean in logistics, offices, data & info management ? Carry on. Many thanks !

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