Don't Present Your A3: Share Your A3

Ethington, Eric
December 11, 2012

In these columns we consistently stress how the A3 process enables collaboration, drives engagement and gets buy-in. In that vein, I wanted to take a minute to stir up some discussion on the actual act of engaging others: sharing your A3.Every time I teach a Managing to Learn workshop, the topic of how to best present A3s comes up. “Eric, I like the problem solving aspect, but I find A3s hard to read on the screen,” people say. Or, “I have to break my A3s into multiple PowerPoint slides so people can read them.”

I try to steer people away from the word “presenting.” The word conjures up images of conference rooms with a big table, an audience scattered about the room, empty seats up front and a projector with a screen. There you are, trying to communicate your message while the others in the room multitask. It's not the best environment to get others engaged.

Sometimes a simple word choice can help us to see a way forward. I would like to suggest that we think less about presenting A3s and more about sharing them.Sharing brings up images of a few people closely engaged on a common item. They are working with each other, not having someone show something to them.

That’s why I recommend that you think of your A3 as a small, portable whiteboard. We often discuss problems with others using an actual whiteboard--use your A3 in the same fashion. And don't wait for major milestones to engage your stakeholders. Share the A3 with them often (think "small lot" sharing). As you do this you can take meeting notes right on the A3 so the engagement doesn't get lost.

How about consensus?

Of course the time will come that you need to bring all the stakeholders together to ensure consensus. Now you will need to “present” your A3; but still think, “share.” One way to share effectively in this situation is to provide a copy of the A3 to everyone at the meeting. It’s only one page (versus 30 or more for a PowerPoint). The stakeholders can look at the screen to follow your story, but they can also reference the hard copy for any details. They naturally feel a stronger sense of ownership over something they can hold in their own hands. Keep one copy for yourself, this is for you to write notes on as the A3 is discussed and you gain additional input. Additionally, this provides you with quick and simple meeting minutes. 

The "right" answer

So in summary, SHARE your A3s, do so in SMALL LOTS, and use the A3 itself for both sharing and recording dialogue. What has worked for you? There is no one "right" answer to this issue. it will depend on your unique situation. So I encourage you to share your ideas. 

Who Owns Your A3? (Part Two)

Reich, Mark
December 4, 2012
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People often speak of "socializing" an A3 – going to stakeholders and getting their buy-in. Actual practice is deeper than that.

Assuming that all stakeholders own the A3 is an equal or worse mistake than thinking that just one person owns it. The A3, when used as a development tool, allows the Manager and Team Member to engage in a dialogue that develops the capability of the Team Member, and, hopefully, also develops the content of the A3 for productive change in the organization. As the A3 is presented to various stakeholders this input strengthens and imparts power to the paper so to speak. So in some ways, it's an easy assumption that the organization owns it.

Let's look at it from the perspective of my Assistant Manager and his goal of encouraging my learning. For human development to occur, the Team Member must own the A3 as a means of continually developing two key abilities: 1) learning how to properly analyze a problem using facts and logic and 2) learning how to build consensus in the organization as to how and why this problem needs to be solved (while establishing there is value in the stakeholders investing their time and resources to help solve the problem). Particularly regarding the latter ability, the writer of the A3 must feel the passion and drive to solve the problem that others can see and want to support. This requires him/her to invest deeply in the creation of the A3 - to own the problem.

So back to my original A3 experience (see last week's column). After that initial meeting with my Assistant Manager, I reluctantly revised my A3. We met again and I continued to gather more input. Eventually we took this paper to our team and Group Manager and there was more input (more revisions). I rewrote that first A3 about 15 times. Content and appearance all changed dramatically during the succession of revisions. In the end, we cancelled subscriptions to many magazines we weren't using and established a clear process for analysis of the magazines we used. This saved us hundreds of dollars a year, but more importantly, we developed a standard process for our team regarding what magazines to analyze and what information to look for. This improved the efficiency of our process for prioritizing and providing key information to design for new models.

This lengthy process produced much more for me than a powerful plan that had clear benefits for our group. It revealed to me the value of understanding who owns an A3. When I started, I had many things wrong in my head. I thought it was only my problem to solve in the beginning. I abdicated ownership for the problem when I expected my supervisor to tell me the answer. And I had no perspective that this assignment was not a minor transactional request—but was in fact an opportunity for me to learn deeply about how to learn.

In the end, I guess this A3 was owned by me and also owned by the group I worked in. I developed capabilities through writing it, but the team also owned it because they bought into the content and put the proposed solutions into practice. This basic lesson continues to inform my work today. In the past 20 years, I've had the opportunity to write hundreds of A3s and each has been a learning experience for me on the subject I'm writing about and the human interaction required to make actionable results from the words on paper.

Take a moment and think about "Who owns your A3?"



Who Owns Your A3? (Part One)

Reich, Mark
November 27, 2012
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When I was asked to write my first A3 at Toyota 23 years ago, the experience was quite frustrating. I had just joined the company, with the responsibility to do market and competitive analysis for new products – reports that were provided to engineering and other management as one input for design of new vehicles that would be sold in overseas markets such as North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia.

My first A3 did not appear to address a complicated problem. We purchased a lot of car magazines in the division where I worked and were not sure this was a wise investment. My Assistant Manager asked me to investigate, to determine the value of the magazines, and propose some ideas. Two weeks later, I had created a first draft (handwritten – all words/no pictures) based on my analysis of the current magazine subscriptions. Without going into too much detail, my proposal was to purchase more magazines and consider hiring a new analyst. Great ideas, right? Wrong. My Assistant Manager asked me if I had actually grasped the situation of how the magazines were used – simple question. I told him I knew how they were used. People referenced these reports and incorporated them into proposals that went to design.

Then he probed further. How many references did you find? What magazines were most used? I didn't have the answers to his questions – better to say, I didn't have the facts. I had not done the proper analysis of how the magazines were currently used, and failed to determine what information was truly needed or valuable in each magazine. More importantly, I hadn't even clarified what problem I was trying to solve. In other words, I jumped quickly to a solution.

I protested that if he knew the answer (which he didn't – he had some thinking, but not a fixed answer) or the path to the answer, why didn't he just tell me what he wanted in the first place? I told him that I felt I had added little value. His answer surprised me: "the value to the company was the learning you derived from this experience. We see the first 3 years in Toyota as a time for you to develop so don't worry about making an immediate impact. You are learning."

This insight was the first but by no means the last I would gather over the next 23 years, during which I wrote many A3s and coached many others in writing theirs. One of the toughest lessons for me to learn was also one of the important: who owns the A3? This question explores one of the most fundamental points of the A3 development and execution process.

One of the primary "rules" of A3 writing (and one that I'd always forget as a beginner!) is that the author place their name, and date of writing the report, in the upper right-hand corner of the A3.

So, based on that thinking, the answer is easy, right – the person that writes it owns it.

Actually, what I learned over time is that the answer evolves throughout the course of the development and deployment of the A3. And, without the proper input (it's often called nemawashi), the process is doomed to failure. My Toyota experience revealed to me that even the most deeply investigated A3 (with clear clarification and root cause analysis of the problem) is really only one person's view of the problem to be solved. And to effectively solve most problems in most businesses requires the insight, buy-in, and ultimately action of many people who own pieces of the problem.

What Exactly Is The Problem You Are Trying To Address?

Verble, David
September 25, 2012
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In my last column I reflected on questions that can help you start your A3. Now here’s another key question to explore: What exactly is the problem or need you are trying to address? On the surface this question seems easy to answer. You know what the problem is because you’ve seen or heard about it. You may have looked into it or have data to show it’s occurring. You can describe it to your satisfaction. You know what you believe is happening. So what’s so difficult about this question?

The difficulty comes when you describe it to others. The words that mean something specific to you don’t necessarily communicate an image of the same clarity to someone else who hasn’t seen or heard what you have. It is one thing to say you think there is a communication problem between your team and the next group in the project work flow that is creating delays. It is another thing to say your team has to redo of lot the data analysis charts it prepares for the next group because it is not clear how they are going to use the data in their reports.  But when we call attention to a problem we will often say only there is a breakdown in communication between the two teams.

It is a basic fact of human communication. The more general a statement is the more open to interpretation it is. And the wider the range of possible interpretations, the greater the likelihood you will get ones you don’t want. In a problem solving or proposal A3 the aim of the description of the problem condition is to help others see what you see and know as clearly as possible. That means using words that show rather than just name and using data, charts, graphs, tables and visuals wherever possible. The path to the least resistance in an A3 is to avoid assuming that others will see what you see, know what you know, and most important, that what makes sense to you will automatically make sense to others.  If you err in identifying a problem, err in the direction of showing too much.

Which brings us to Key Question number four: What do you actually know about what is happening in the problem situation? The key words in that question are “actually” and “happening.”  Yes, you think there is a problem but what do you actually know as fact and what are you assuming about what is occurring? It is easy for us to assume we know the conditions in a situation or what happened in an event based on previous experience or secondhand knowledge or recognizing similarities to other situations or events and seeing patterns in data or reports. 

We hear about an incident and assume it is similar to others we have seen and thus we know what we need to know about this example. We see a problem, hear there are others like it and assume there is a pattern. Or we look at error or defect data and assume that every error or defect in a category is the same. But every individual situation or event is a unique set of facts about a specific condition or occurrence. And the knowledge we assume we have based on prior experience or perceived similarities is seldom if ever sufficient to assume we know the nature of a specific problem, what is causing and what will fix it.  

There is too much information and data out there for us to be able to handle it all and we have to lump similar pieces together into categories and types. That is fine for data analysis but does not serve lean/CI/A3 problem solving as well.  It puts us in the position of operating on the basis of patterns and trends we see and things we infer from them but do not actually know as specific facts.  And when we are in that position we can see an entire A3 story lose credibility when others can show our facts are not consistent with actual conditions or we are missing critical details unique to the problem situation. 

The key to not finding yourself out on the end of A3 limb is having “questioning mind.”  Questioning mind is like a self-check or error-proofing device. It is the habit of asking yourself a couple of critical questions when you start assuming you know something.

The first is, ask not only what do you know but how do you know. That challenges you to look beneath what you think is an accurate picture of the facts of a situation and ask what is that impression or conclusion based on. In other words how do you know your interpretation is fact and not assumption?  You have put the brakes on our human tendency to rush to conclusion and then solution. Then you can do the second self-check of asking what do you need to know to be sure your impression or interpretation is based on fact and how do you learn what you need to know. 

An A3 lays the entire story of your problem solving – the conditions you claim exist, the conclusions you have reached about those conditions, and the actions you are suggesting need to be taken – out there for everybody to see. If you don’t check your impressions and your thinking against the actual facts and conditions of the problem situation someone will know something you don’t and use it as a basis for questioning the actions you propose and the reasons you propose them.

Questioning mind and the habit of asking yourself simple questions such as those suggested here can help you prepare a sound and effective A3. The A3 format is a problem-solving tool but it cannot do your problem solving thinking for you. The A3 format is based on the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. PDCA itself is essentially a scientific process of experimental learning. A famous scientist said that “fortune favors the prepared mind.”  In the case of creating an A3 the mind that prepares itself by being sure it is thinking and speaking from the facts is better able to tell a sound and engaging A3 story.

What Is Your Purpose? Who Is Your Audience?

Verble, David
August 8, 2012
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Getting Started, Part Three

Here is a great starting question for you before you start writing: So what exactly is your purpose in doing the A3? Obviously you want to use the A3 to get acceptance and support for what you propose. The real question is: how are you going to use the A3 to get agreement to proceed? Are you going to use the A3 as a “business case” to “sell” your idea, or as the "story” of a problem situation and what might be done about it to “engage” others in thinking with you about the possible courses of action?

The distinction between selling and engaging is critical because it sets the tone for how you present information to your audience. Are you telling them what needs to be done or showing them what’s going on so they get reach their own conclusions about what would be best to do? The approach you take in your A3 will have a big influence on how they respond. If you tell them what needs to be done they are likely to push back with what they know and think. If you focus on showing them what’s going on and its implications they are more likely to share what they know that you don’t and join you in trying to figure out the best thing to do.

With that distinction in approaches in mind let’s move on another fundamental question I posed in the last column: Who is the audience for your A3 and what do you know about them?

Asking who is in your audience opens up two important considerations.  First, what do you know about the people in your audience and what they know about the situation you want to address? And second, what exactly do you need from the people your communication needs to target?

Let’s begin with the second consideration since answering it will help you answer the first. The important thing is to recognize is that the people who will be reading your A3 don’t have an equal stake in the situation you describe. It is helpful to think of them in terms of three groups:   

  • Those who have to agree to or approve the changes you propose or you cannot proceed.
  • Those who cannot stop but can resist your changes and thus need to accept them so you can proceed without interference.
  • Those who just need to know what’s going on so they aren’t caught by surprise and raise concerns out of reflex.

The basic principle of effective communication here is simply this: it is essential that you have specific people in mind as you are creating your A3 and make sure you provide the information and address the concerns that are important to them to help you get their agreement and support. You can’t be effective talking to yourself in an A3.

Remembering that you will be speaking to specific people and not just a general audience leads to wanting to know two key things about those people: what do they know and believe about the situation and what is their stake in the situation and the way things are now? 

If the people in your audience need to approve, accept or agree to the changes you propose that means they likely have both a perspective on it and a stake in it. (If you are advocating for countermeasures or improvements then you are proposing changes in the situation, not just suggesting “good” ideas.) They have their own information about the situation (a lot of which you don’t have) and their own ideas, beliefs and assumptions about the way things are and the way things need to be. If your grasp of the situation does not acknowledge their perspectives or if you challenge their beliefs about what needs to be done you are likely to provoke resistance and shut off their ability to hear to the logic of your story.

What is the path that will get least resistance? It is ultimately the path that says your grasp of the situation and story for change are not complete and you are open to information others have that you don’t and ideas and perspectives that you haven’t considered. It is the path that uses your A3 story to engage others in thinking with you rather than arguing for what you think needs to be done.

How do you avoid provoking others to protect what they know and value? You might ask and seek their help with a few basic questions:

  • How does their view of the situation align, or not, with yours?
  • What is their perspective based on what they know that you don’t?
  • What are they responsible for in the situation that your changes or improvements will affect?
  • What are they trying to get done and how does it align, or not, with what you are trying to achieve?

The fact that you are seeking their input with these questions can help reduce negative reaction to your proposal. 

People don’t expect everything to go their way but they do like to be heard and considered. Preparing the ground for an A3 is a matter of seeking the path of least resistance. You cannot know where that path lies unless you are aware of what others in the situation know, think, value and want. 

Think Before You Leap

Verble, David
July 25, 2012
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Getting Started, Part Two: What Do You Know About Why You Are Doing This A3?

Last week I talked about the need to think before writing when starting your A3. The first thing I would suggest is to put the paper away for now. Here are some questions to consider before you ever start trying to write: What exactly is your purpose in doing the A3?

  1. Who is the audience and what do they know about the problem situation?
  2. What is the problem or need you are trying to address?
  3. How much do you actually know about what is happening with the problem or need?

Why think about these questions before you start writing what you have in mind to say? Two basic reasons: First, in creating an A3 you are not going to be able to simply write down your thoughts. You are going to have to communicate—to present your thinking in a way that is evident and understandable to others. That is the most critical part of doing an effective A3.

Why question how much you actually know about a problem and what your audience knows?  Because you know what you have seen and what you know but others don’t know the same things you have seen and know. In fact it is very likely they have seen and know only part of you what have seen and know. You are going to have to think about what you have seen and experienced that they most likely have not and then try to describe your problem, its cause(s), the value of your countermeasures and the key features of your plan as clearly and concretely as possible so they can “see” what your proposed actions are based on.

And you are going to have to be prepared for your audience responding with information and questions about things they have seen and heard about the situation that you have not. Remember that everybody’s view of a situation is unique to their experience and perspective. Often the push back about an A3 is because the author and the audience aren’t looking at the same facts.  Finding out what others in a situation know that you do not is one of the primary reasons for going to the gemba.  When you are there you should not only see firsthand; you should also listen with open ears and an open mind. And sharing your A3 in draft form as you develop it in the “nemawashi” or vetting process is just as important as a way to fill in the gaps in your knowledge of the actual situation of a problem condition.

The second reason for asking others what they know that you might not is your credibility. Your grasp of the problem situation and your analysis for its cause(s) must be based on facts that you can demonstrate (not just your ideas). Is it readily apparent that that the countermeasures you suggest are appropriate and feasible? And is your implementation plan practical and supportable with all else that’s going on in the organization?

That’s what you need to show in your A3 because as soon as you share it others will rush forward with their own information, questions, opinions, assumptions and ideas for solutions. And your A3 will have to stand on its own merit – the soundness and thoroughness of the problem solving work and thinking behind the story it tells. And you will have to be open and prepared to align your perspective and thinking with what they know that you don’t. So you need to be sure you know – and can show – what you think you know.

Are you thinking you didn’t realize creating an effective A3 was so challenging and perhaps starting to wonder how you got into this? That’s not such a bad thing to be asking yourself if you have a choice to do or not to do an A3. In fact that relates to the next—and fundamental—question to explore: “How clear are you on your purpose for doing this A3?” Doing and sharing an A3 are a lot of intense thinking and work. If you are not clear and focused on the purpose of your communication you are not likely to be effective in telling your problem solving story. 

How Do I Start My A3?

Verble, David
July 18, 2012
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 A3 Thinking is Slow Thinking 

Are you having trouble getting started with your A3? When I teach workshops on A3 thinking, creation, and use, this comes up as one of the most challenging parts of doing an A3. So if you find yourself looking at a blank sheet of 11x17 paper wondering where to start, here are some thoughts from what I’ve learned doing and teaching A3s for years which I believe may help you.

The first lesson is simple if counterintuitive. When people ask, “where do I start to write an A3?,” I reply, “Don’t start with writing.” They generally respond by asking, “then where do I start.” And my answer is always: “start with the thinking.”

There are two key points to keep in mind here. First, the A3 storyboard (the written document that is produced) is the result of A3 thinking not the process of A3 thinking itself.  It is a way to capture and organize the thinking you do in PDCA problem solving but the format does not automatically lead you to sound A3 thinking.

And second, A3 thinking is a way to systematically work through how to address a problem or need. Getting to that decision involves the activities of understanding the problem or need at a concrete level, understanding the factors in the situation that are barriers to moving to desired conditions, and determining the best options for making changes in the direction you want. And it should involve lots of asking, listening and communicating along the way to be sure you are getting the knowledge, thinking, concurrence and support of others who have a stake in the situation.

That’s a lot of work and thinking. And it can’t be accomplished by simply starting to fill in the boxes in the A3 format. Your thinking process needs to be well under way before you use the A3 document to tell your problem solving story. You could use the format to work through the problem solving process a box at a time doing the thinking and investigating and then doing the writing. But you should be prepared to go back and revise earlier boxes as you get deeper into the problem. You will continue learning about your problem as you write an A3, but do not expect to do all of the problem solving thinking as you write. 

Why is all this prep work necessary to create an A3? Because to tell a problem solving story that is convincing to others – that brings them along in a thinking process that demonstrates the actions you are recommending make sense – requires getting as many of the facts as you can in a reasonable time and having the right facts to support the claims you are making about the situation. Such a story cannot be created with fast thinking, what comes to mind story telling.  It has to be developed through slow thinking.

The difference between Fast Thinking and Slow Thinking, and the importance of the difference between the two, is described in a recent book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman was given a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his behavioral research on human judgment. The book summarizes twenty-five years of study by Kahneman and others of the basic patterns in the way we humans solve problems and make decisions. In it he contends that our brains are divided into two distinct thinking systems, one that works fast and one that proceeds slowly.

System 1 houses our emotion and intuition, and it processes information and makes decisions automatically. “What you see is what there is,” basically describes our minds jumping to conclusions, drawing simply on what is in front of us without looking for further evidence or data. This is our Think FAST system.

System 2, the Think SLOW system describes the part of the brain that gets engaged in rational, logical thought, concentration and fact-based judgments. It saves us from many of the unchecked kneejerk reactions of System 1, but its influence on our problem-solving and decision-making habits is limited because of our automatic reliance on System 1.

If Kahneman’s claim is valid, and he makes a pretty good case for it with the research that led him to it, there are a couple of important messages in it for anyone who is about to put themselves on the line as the owner of an A3. First, go fast, jump to solution or action, take what you see and run with it thinking seems to be our default problem solving and decision making processes. That means we have to be very, very good at seeing and very, very right in our impression, assumptions and intuitions to hit the mark with our solutions and decisions. 

Second, the alternative of slow, systematic, getting the facts and knowing the actual conditions reasoning is not a natural act for most of us. That means we have to make an effort to slow down when we start work on an A3 because our preferred thinking style is not likely to produce the kind of problem solving story that will stand up to scrutiny when we make claims for what action should be taken based on it.

I have had the experience of being out there on an A3 limb making claims without the facts to support them and unless you just like pain and embarrassment it’s not fun. That is why I advise anyone needing to do an A3 to prepare for the work ahead by trying to activate the slow thinking system in their brain. Next, in this series, I’ll share suggestions for some questions you can use to check to see if you are ready to start writing about your A3 thinking.


Don't Call It...Anything

Richardson, Tracey
July 10, 2012
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Most companies that I visit to teach lean/continuous improvement/problem-solving/Toyota-methods (you get the picture?) misunderstand and misuse the word “lean.” It’s not just that a label like this rarely captures the essence of this approach. The problem has to do with coming up with a label in the first place.

I believe that the best approach would be not to label this practice at all—but I recognize that you need to put this knowledge into words and ideas that can be passed along to others. That’s what I do when I need to translate my 24 years of experience with Toyota’s approach into something that others can grasp.

So what’s wrong with a specific name or label? For starters, I have found that the more companies that I visit, the more I realize that calling this "Lean" or some other phrase generates enormous skepticism from people doing the work. Confronted with what they see as a new "add-on" practice, a flavor of the month management fad, they fail to see that what we are really talking is about is changing how we do business and how we think as a company.

My thinking about this has evolved over time. When I first started consulting, I felt the work was all about the “tools.” Companies wanted to learn tools that they could easily put to work, and so of course, that's what they got. I think that at the time many of us consultants believed this was the best approach. And yet, as I have matured as an instructor/consultant, my thinking—like many I suspect—has evolved.

The reason for this goes back to my training at Toyota. When I started work there, our Japanese trainers led us with their questioning approach. It was not about learning a prescribed body of knowledge. As new leaders (or potential new leaders) we were both being led, and at the same time were expected to lead others. Their approach was all about embodying "respect for people" and developing the workforce as a team. As a matter of fact, in those early Kentucky days the trainers were learning as much as we were. It was a daunting task to try and translate a culture of thinking in a different language to a culture that wasn’t necessarily used to it.

In my time at Toyota (Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, or TMMK 1988-1998), I can’t recall one time ever that we labeled what we were doing with a specific word like "Lean.” Nor did we ever really think or talk about our daily actions as a "culture" during those early years. It was just in the atmosphere. There was nothing much written for us, so we relied on the actions of our leaders and their leaders. It wasn't until I left Toyota to teach others that words and labels and so forth have surfaced—and surged. We have somehow felt the need to give this approach a name. It could be tied to finding a way to spread the ideas, or market it, or other reasons. But I am not sure that what is labeled—and above all what newcomers perceive it to be—rings true with what I learned through experience. That’s a huge reason why calling this anything can have a hindering effect to a company trying to implement this thinking process.

When I start my training sessions these days, I do an ice-breaker to get a finger on the pulse of the group by asking each participant to define the words Lean and Culture. We put all the ideas on a flipchart and analyze the results. It's been amazing to see that a very high percentage of companies define it only as elimination of waste, or a "do more with less" mentality. Which by definition can be a correct assessment of lean, but in my experience the KEY element they are excluding is…..?

Take a guess? How about PEOPLE?

The engagement, involvement, and development of people is an essential element that is sadly overlooked the majority of the time within an organization. To me, it’s the common thread I see missing in the vocabulary of companies trying to implement Lean, especially with high to mid-levels of leadership. Reducing this approach by labeling it and dividing it into productive tools and approaches invariably loses the essential aspect of the overall system—which is teaching others a way to teach and learn.

I focus on three key points when coaching others in helping this work take root:

1.  Without people and buy-in the tools with NEVER be sustained over the long-term.

2.  If you try to label your daily work as "lean" then it can be seen as the add-on.

3.  People do not seem to feel that have the time to add this work to their current workload.

When I hear this last objection in my sessions I share a quote from the late John Wooden:  “if you don’t have time to do it right the first time when will you have time to do it over?” Most leaders readily admit that they spend the majority of their time on rework or do-overs in a reactive manner. They find it hard to take the leap of faith needed to do this work NOW, and repeatedly.

Whatever you choose to call this work doesn’t need a label. It just needs an action. And that action is no more than a leader being present at the gemba, asking questions about the processes that produce their output. Does that really need a label? Do we have to call that something?  I know, how about “my job”!  Imagine that concept.

It’s very simple: lead by your actions. If you lead in a way that fosters the thinking and development of people by simply being on the floor and asking the right questions, then lean, lean culture, continuous improvement—it will simply happen by default. And guess what? You don't have to call it anything but HOW WE DO BUSINESS. If you embed it into your values it will be atmospheric as it was for us at Toyota. 

Hey, it’s simple, it’s not easy!! No need to label. This was an expectation of our job, not a choice. Now go ask questions at the Gemba and involve those people and watch change take place. It’s that easy, I know. I lived it!

Are You Being SMART?

Richardson, Tracey
June 28, 2012
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When I ask this question in my A3 / Problem Solving classes across various industry groups in the U.S, many of my students give me a few peculiar looks, while a few recognize it as something they try to embed into their thinking process.

Being SMART is about paying attention to the five qualities of this acronym, and is necessary to create a solid A3 story using PDCA thinking by following a specific questioning process at the gemba. Remember that the A3 is a tool and it’s always important to follow the “thinking” behind the tool. As John Shook shared in Managing to Learn, “the A3 is only as good as the dialogue that creates it”.  So be SMART, generate good dialogue, and you will end up with a strong culture of understanding gap to standard.   

So what does SMART stand for you may ask? The following qualities:

S- Specific
A- Attainable-Achievable
R- Realistic
T- Timely

When you are out at the gemba using the problem solving process to create your A3s you must go process the actual work that is happening, gather facts, involve the team members doing the work, and remember your SMART goals within each step.  


  • You may ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish in your problem solving activity?
  • Ask why you’re trying to accomplish it, and how it relates to the company. (Purpose)
  • How you are going to accomplish it? (How much and by when)
  • Don't use vague words like some, many, few, a couple. When a good trainer comes across these fuzzy terms they will always ask you, "What does that mean?" “How do you know?”


One of the first things my Japanese trainers taught me in Problem Solving was, "Tracey-san, “if you can't measure, don't do it".  His actual words were, “no measure no do” because he was learning English. I often use that short phrase in my sessions and it actually sticks in participants minds at the end. If you can't quantify your GAP, then how do you know how effective your countermeasures are addressing the root cause?

Part of being specific is determining a quantifiable gap in framing your problem; therefore you are measuring on the right side of the A3 if you are addressing the root cause.  I use a process called “reading in reverse”, which is a great way to determine the measurability of your countermeasure back to your gap.  Here are the series of questions to read your A3 in reverse:

  • Did your countermeasure address the root cause?
  • Did addressing your root cause allow your process to flow without the point of occurrence(s) or issues?
  • By improving the process did you address the prioritized problem you had broken down in your gap?
  • Did you meet the target you projected for this prioritized problem?
  • How much of the gap did you eliminate by addressing this portion of the gap?(Note some problems need to be broken down into manageable pieces)
  • Did you improve a company key performance indicator by solving this portion of the problem?

By asking these questions back through the A3 you can test the logic of each stage of the A3 to determine it was based on facts, not assumptions and prove measurability.


How are you setting your goals when your problem solving? Are they within your control or influence? Do you involve your stakeholders when making the decision? Are you relating/aligning them to a key performance indicator within the company? (Quality, Safety, Productivity, Cost).

When you set the targets/goals they need to be attainable with a slight "stretch" to them, ensuring you are always thinking about continuous improvement or raising the bar on yourself. I often see folks set very challenging targets without understanding all the processes involved. It’s not out of the ordinary to adjust the targets once we learn more about the process involved and how it could affect others as we progress.


Some may refer to this as "do-able". It's not realistic to set goals that can't be met due to lack of resources or possibly skill set at the time. You want the Problem solving experience to "push" or "stretch" someone as they are learning, but not frustrate them to the point of giving up. Sometimes there is a fine line. It is up to the mentor to assist with what is "do-able" at times by knowing their people. As a leader I try to always understand my people and know that a “seasoned” problem solver could be up to a challenging problem, versus a novice tackling that type of issue. We may often find ourselves at a dead end path of a design change or material change. Those issues would need further discussion with stakeholders to fully understand what is involved and potentially undergo a cost benefit analysis. The last thing you want is to spend non-value added time on such a problem, which is why it’s good to have good discussion ahead of time (nemawashi- consensus, buy-in, sharing of information) 


Set a proper time-line for the goal or a target, for example by the end of the week, year, month, in 3 months, 90 days etc. Coming up with a solid goal gives you a time-line to work with.

If you don't set a time, the commitment becomes too nebulous, or it tends not to happen because you feel you have forever to solve the problem. Without a time limit, there's no urgency to start taking action now.  This could go back to being specific as well.  Why are you solving this problem?  What will happen if the problem isn’t solved?  Is it affecting a worker in a negative way?  These type of questions help guide us to setting challenging timelines.

Time-lines must ALSO be measurable, attainable and realistic.

So in closing everyone can benefit from goals and objectives if they are SMART about them when they are problem solving.  This can take place as an individual as well as groups working together.  So the next time someone asks you if you’re SMART you can say, "As a matter of fact--I am"....


What is Your Line of Sight?

Richardson, Tracey
April 16, 2012
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What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this question? Does your organization recognize that this question can be used to create—or define—gaps that can be addressed? That’s because having a “line of sight” orients people towards a specific direction with a goal in mind. In the case of a business or an organization we frequently call that True North. Unfortunately, in my travels, I find that not every place I visit has a clearly defined True North. And the repercussions of lacking one are serious.

When I worked at Toyota our True North statement was always there as our company’s guiding beacon. No matter what an individual did or what level they reached in the organization you could tie your daily work into that statement. For example, a True North statement could look similar to this:

We will always put the Customer first, while making the highest quality product, at the lowest cost, in the shortest lead time, in the safest manner, all while respecting our people.

This statement enables you to visualize the key performance indicators such as quality, cost, productivity, safety, and human resources. These indicators drive the company to improve their processes, which in turn boosts those results we all focus on. This type of True North is evolutionary, meaning that if you achieve the lowest cost, you can then raise the bar and continue to improve. I’ve seen True North statements say something like, “To be #1 in the market.” That feels misleading to me. Does this statement put the customer first? Is that the first thing on their minds? We often have to be careful with such a results-oriented direction. It’s more so about the processes that get us there.

Our Toyota True North allowed us to look at our own work as the business goals cascaded downward from the 50,000 foot level of the organization down to the 1000 foot level. It helped everyone articulate what they were doing, how they were contributing, and what they should be measuring.

Let’s take a look at how a sequence of questions can keep us aligned to that True North focused on adding value. During my training sessions I always ask people about their line of sight. This is often eye-opening for people—a way to challenge them to reflect on how much of their work is actively contributing towards the company goals in the best way they can.

The first question I ask is What is your role in the organization? This makes people think about their role or scope of work. This may seem like a simple task to many, but it’s deceptively simple as we continue to ask more questions. Believe it or not, some struggle with articulating their specific role. It’s rarely defined by our leaders from day one.

The second question is What is my work responsibility?  This allows you to think about what you are truly responsible for in your daily work in regard to your role. What is involved with all my responsibilities? Sometimes I ask, “why did the company hire you?”  Or, what is your true responsibility in regard to the business goals?

The third question I ask is What is your job’s purpose?   Most people come back and say, “what do you mean what is my purpose, my purpose is to do what I’m told?” I chuckle inside as they continue the exercise, because it continues to challenge them further and gaps begin to surface. It’s hard to take sometimes but we all should drive our purpose towards specific standards, which contribute to the business need. Otherwise we are spinning our wheels. Just as we all have seen the “Got Milk” ads in the past, I ask, “Got Purpose?”

The fourth question I ask is What are the goals that guide your job’s purpose? Am I making this more difficult or what? I normally see people staring to the left or to the right depending upon what side of the brain they are pulling information from. It’s an interesting process to witness because some have never thought of it in the context I’m making them think of before. Some say, “What do you mean the goals that guide me? - I meet the results!”  This is where I give them a hint towards their key performance indicators. Everyone’s job has to be aligned with those key performance indicators we discussed before. If not, then how do you really know if you are creating value? How are you measuring your own work back to the company’s goals? This is why true north and cascading goals are essential in a culture focused on people, purpose, process and problem solving!  See the previous column on the 4P’s

The last question I ask is What are the company goals?  This empowers people to align themselves with true north and how they contribute. As I stated before, how do you go from the 50,000 foot goal to the 1000 foot level? It’s an upward cascade regarding your work that parallels with the downward cascade of the strategy deployment of the business plan. Once I finish the series of questions I tell them to write “My own Ideal Situation” to the side. What we have created in essence is that very thing. If we know our role, purpose, the goals that guide us, and the company goals then we should be able to articulate with our daily actions where we are against that standard at any time. When you lower the river to see the rocks it’s your own personal development towards the company’s goal which in turn proves your contribution to long-term sustainability and growth due to your actions aligning. When they don’t align you can always ask why and understand what is keeping you from those goals. (Almost like a background A3 running in regard to your own performance- imagine that)

Let me show you a very simple example that I often use in my sessions that I did for my own line of sight as a problem solving instructor.  Yes I practice what I teach.

My role: Problem Solving Instructor

My work responsibility: to learn, understand and practice the problem solving process /thinking (PDCA) and also how the company values/principles are intertwined with that thinking to deliver training sessions to various organizations.

My job’s purpose: to effectively deliver the problem solving process to any level /role within the organization that ignites a culture of ongoing thinkers who are able to see gaps against a standard.  (Note that I underlined effectively in the sentence above, I measure my effectiveness as an instructor during and after a class to see if I’m meeting their expectations).

What are the goals that guide my job’s purpose: for my participants to learn, understand, practice, and develop their people in problem solving in order to fulfill the company’s values and true north vision.  (Note that I underlined develop in the sentence above, it is part of the goals that guide me that I teach at a rigorous level so participants can not only learn themselves but also eventually develop others)

What are my company goals: to fulfill the customers’ expectations by providing, high quality training, which enables them to do business differently by changing how their people think and do business.

So this is my personal line of sight, which I consider my ideal situation. It’s evolutionary and constantly makes me improve how I teach based on the customers’ response. In essence it’s a gap creator for me that I always look at as my standard and where I am at against it.

In closing, I hope this column gives some insights toward your personal line of sight within your company and your role. Moreover, I hope that this helps you understand better the importance of everyone having one that leads upward to the company true north. This makes it much easier to cascade your business plan down through the organization. If people don’t understand it, they tend to be reactive; reactive isn’t something you want to develop has a habit. Now let’s start aligning ourselves!

Are You Having Problems with Your Problem-Solving?

Richardson, Tracey
March 30, 2012
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As I teach problem-solving to companies, I find many common mistakes by people who are learning/using the process. It's easy when you are in the learning process to quickly develop bad habits, and important to recognize them and develop better ones. Here are questions to help you avoid some of the common mistakes people make. 

Does every individual in your organization understand the Purpose of their work? Or, better put, do they understand how their actions in solving their current problem relate to the company KPI's (Key Performance Indicators in terms of Quality, Safety, Productivity, and Cost)? Each individual should ask themselves, “Why am I selecting this problem to solve?” They should understand how this problem is aligned with the Company Business Plan (Hoshin). They should also ask: By solving this how am I contributing to the improvement of the company? Is this a value-added problem?

Is everyone utilizing the power of the GEMBA? Or, is everyone going to see the work/process? I often see teams working together in a conference room trying to solve the problem by using their experiences, hypothetical guesses, assumptions and opinions. I quickly disperse the huddle to "GO-SEE" and visualize with their own eyes, the current situation. You will always improve your ability to describe the current situation when you have talked to the worker and can confirm this with facts. Then you can utilize that information to see where you are related to the standard or ideal situation. The difference between the two would be your gap or problem. So get out from behind your desk and GO-SEE, set the standard as a leader.

Are you digging down to find root cause? Productive problem solving is based on persistently asking "WHY" until you get to root cause. Often times, because we get focused on results, we only get to the symptom level of the problem. This can only produce a short term fix at best, and ensures that the problem is destined to return.This is not a sustainable practice with your problem solving so please ask WHY more than once!!! The 5 -Why is just an expression the Japanese trainers would say to us to create a habit of asking more than once. So please don’t take it literally. Sometimes it takes two whys and sometimes ten or eleven; every why chain is unique to the gemba and is designed to gather the facts of the situation. To do this it’s essential to involve, engage and challenge the workers to assist in your investigation.

Are you measuring in specific performance terms? There are two questions that should ALWAYS be asked when you begin problem solving. First, what should be happening? Second, what is actually happening? The next level is to quantify the difference between those two questions. If you do not have a measurable gap, then the A3 or Problem Solving report will be very difficult to measure on the right side of the A3. How will you know your countermeasure is effectively addressing the root cause unless you have a quantifiable gap on the left side? When coaching A3s I often find the current situation stating that this happens a “few” times a week. When I used subjective words like this my Japanese trainer would always look at me and say, for example, “a few, I do not understand – please explain”.  What he meant by that was to get the data, do not make assumptions.  A “few” could mean various things.

Are you doing this everyday with everything you do? The last common mistake I will talk about in this post is crucial in my opinion. I often see companies "put on" Kaizen weeks, Kaizen Blitzes, Rapid Improvement Events, and so forth. These can be called many different things, and the descriptions give off the impression that problem solving is only done on "special occasions". If a company's desire is to be successful their motto should be: Problem Solving-Everyday-Everybody. This was a common practice for me during my time at Toyota. It is the biggest difference I see when visiting other organizations—this work is deemed as more "special" than the "everyday" culture. In my travels I’ve started to give a subtle nudge to not call it anything, I believe that is the root of develop habits. As Nike says, “Just do it”. No need for labels, make it a way of business.


How are Assumptions Framing the Way You Do Business?

Richardson, Tracey
March 22, 2012
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Are you aware of whether each decision you make at the workplace is based on a fact, or on an assumption? I believe you would be amazed at how many fall into the latter category. In fact, do you even make a distinction between the two? Are we so used to reacting to a situation that assumption-based thinking is the new fact? I find it alarming when visiting organizations to discover high-level leadership down through the team member level being reactive due to a result driven environment. Simply stopping to confirm a thought is frowned upon as inappropriate behavior. Who condones this? Why is it perceived as acceptable leadership practices/skills?

So I would like to share an acronym with you to break these debilitating habits.  I’m not sure if it warrants an official acronym label since its more of a questioning process but it may help you remember to think before you act and to question your decisions a little better. Let me share:

RATA (Results > Actions > Thinking > Assumptions)

To clarify:

What are our results that were produced by our daily actions that were driven by our thinking that were based on the assumptions we made?

So let’s breakdown this process down by using this (RATA) questioning sequence to understand how we may be doing business, or how we are “thinking” as an organization. When we talk about Lean for instance, I hear many different ideas from people as to what that means to them and their company.  One of the first exercises I do in my sessions is to get a “finger on the pulse” as to how people understand or perceive Lean. I ask them to define it for me, and then we go around the room and share.  I normally get all the “buzzy” words and ideas which is usually what I expect to hear. One key point that is usually absent is the integration of people, which starts my day one morning discussion because I recognize a gap already.

So if I’m a leader in an organization that is attempting to integrate Lean thinking within the current culture then I may need to begin by asking a few questions. What is Lean? Why are we trying to implement it? What problems are we having that Lean seems to be the countermeasure for? Lastly, how is it going for you? Or what is the status of your integration?

Here are some things one could ask that relate to RATA.

What are the results I’m getting? This can be a broad-scoped question as well as one dialed in to a specific process. A broad-scoped example could be related to the Hoshin or business plan. For example: How is our productivity in regard to customer demand? A more narrowly scoped question could be: what is the productivity for a specific machine that contributes upward to the larger productivity goals? Depending upon your specific level in the organization would determine which questions you may be asking, or it could be both. 

Results are a good indicator of how we are doing, but I would like to differentiate between what you measure, and the results that themselves. I spend some time in my sessions discussing “leading versus lagging” indicators. A lagging indicator is historical in nature—something we are tracking that has already happened, such as a safety incident. A person has been hurt, we have to track it, but it’s after the fact. A leading indicator would be something process oriented that allows us to possibly prevent the incident, such as a near miss. Then we can examine what in the process allowed this to happen; it must be studied at the gemba (where the work is being done). My personal opinion is there should be a balanced scale of some type in regard to process and results (leading and lagging). If the scale is tipped heavily to the result side then we are more than likely a result-oriented company (manage by numbers). What I try to embed is that all results are affected by some type of process, so those are your leading indicators you must visualize and improve continuously.   

When I then start to ask the questions about my results, and can assess what I’m measuring then I would ask, what actions are taking place on a daily basis that are producing these? Our actions as leaders are very important because they define how we are managing our specific scope or area; it also defines how our people view an abnormality when it occurs. First off, can they see it? Is it visible to them? Is there a known standard? These are ways to assess our actions that lead us to a particular thinking process that is either learned or considered what I hear often as “tribal knowledge”.  How we answer the questions above could in turn tell us how reactive we are (fire hose), versus stopping to ask specific questions that lead us to a process that isn’t meeting expectations for internal or external customers and countermeasuring the situation.

If we can develop a discipline to assess our thinking that drives these actions then we can get to the root of an assumption versus a fact-based culture. I believe that this is one of the keys to success for Lean to take hold like a stake in the ground where people and process are the essence. I will admit that the majority of the practices I see out there are based highly on assumptions. This thinking is neither repeatable, nor sustainable and leads to symptom fighting most of the time unfortunately—back to the fire hose. It is my hope that we, as senseis in the lean community, can begin to use this questioning sequence that can change our thinking and actions which in turns improve the way we do business.  It all starts with gemba visits and knowing how to get the facts.

4Ps Prove Lean Applies Everywhere

Richardson, Tracey
March 15, 2012
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“Your stuff is great,” say people who come to my sessions about successful lean implementation, “but I don’t work in manufacturing so this won’t work for me.”

Perhaps these people assume my lean teachings don’t apply because I was taught at Toyota by Japanese trainers and learned through ten years of experience in production. Or maybe they’ve heard too much about lean success at other manufacturers. But I know that lean applies everywhere—and it is my Purpose as a trainer to one day eliminate this question from occurring. And my plan to do this is to address it at the root cause—which I believe is a misunderstanding about the key principles that spurred the development of the tools, methods, and procedures of TPS. I’d like to help people translate lean thinking to any organization.

Many people get confused because they believe that lean is no more than a set of tools such as 5S and kanban and ways of reducing waste that are effective (and only useful in a manufacturing setting.) But that is far from the truth.

In the wonderful book The Birth of Lean, it is pointed out that Taichii Ohno basically developed the Toyota Production System (TPS) as a set of “tools” or “countermeasures” to help them be more effective, efficient and develop people. (“Ohno-san wasn’t consciously working on any system at first. He was simply [solving problems] and ended up creating a system,” according to Michikazu Tanaka, who learned from Ohno directly.) I chuckle when I tell folks that not ALL the tools worked even within the walls of Toyota. And it's not even the tool that matters most. What counts above all is the thinking behind the tool that I try to translate.

I’ve found that people can begin to translate lean to their organization—regardless of what it does—when they study four basic principles of lean, which I call the 4Ps. I am building here on Jim Womack’s argument that lean is about 3Ps: People, Purpose, and Process. To that I would add Problems.

So when people say to me, "this is just for manufacturing", I ask the following questions:

1.  Do you have a purpose to your organization?

2.  Do you have people in your organization?

3.  Do you have processes that create some type of output or service in your organization?

4.  Do you have problems within your organization?

When they answer yes to all these questions above (I am waiting for the day when someone replies to one of these with a no), I tell them they can implement the “thinking processes” to this thing we all call LEAN by working to differentiate the tools from the process or thinking behind it.  That’s when I see the light bulbs turn on. Let's look at each one briefly.


Purpose, to me, is all about True North: a guiding beacon that provides direction as a company and leads the company to successful thinking that fosters good leadership. At  Toyota our True North was:  Customer First thinking, making the highest quality product, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time, in the safest manner, all while respecting people. This cut across all our key performance indicators as a company and it was an evolutionary statement.  We never got there because if we did we raised the bar and improved. Purpose is why you are doing business!


Cliches may be suspect if they’re too familiar, but I’m going to let this one fly anyway since it happens to be true: people are the most important asset in your organization!  They determine the rise and fall of your business; and in the lean system, they are counted on as the key to long-term success. If we don't invest in our people then we are missing out on the extraordinary brainpower they have to make a difference. It is our job as leaders to develop their thinking every day at the gemba by asking the right questions. People are the heart and soul of lean thinking and without their buy-in, engagement, involvement, and understanding of how it ties to purpose and alignment of their work; then our gains will be short-term gains at best.  I remember when I was promoted into management at Toyota my trainer said to me, "Tracey san, do you realize that 50% of your job now is to develop your people"!  I'm here to tell you this is KEY!


Do you realize as human beings that our lives are centered around processes? When you get down to it everything we do has some type of process to it. If there is an output created then there is a process involved. It is our role as a leader to document these processes and standardize them so your people understand the expectations. We are creatures of habit. To get up everyday and get ready for work you have a process or a routine that is followed. By process I mean a sequence of events/steps that have to happen to create the outcome we want. For example most people enjoy their coffee in the morning; some may have coffee pots set for a specific time to start brewing at 5am. Some prefer to start this when they wake up.  If I like mine with cream and sugar then I insert a specific amount to meet a personal standard I’ve set for taste. When there are discrepancies that occur we should be able to track back through our process steps to understand how it occurred. As Taichii Ohno says, "without a standard there can be no kaizen!" 

So standards are just the processes we do. We may not do them in the same way, which requires you as a leader to uncover or create the best known method in order to gain consensus and buy-in (as discussed above). And then, if there is a better way we improve. So in regard to standards/processes as I was taught, you first must define what you feel the best know method is, then we must achieve it by looking at repeatability and predictability.  Once its achieved then we try and maintain, and if maintained for a certain period of time (in my experience 1-2 months it was the expectation to raise the bar and improve the standard which takes us back- define again- DAMI- Define-Achieve-Maintain-Improve. That folks is the heart and soul continuous improvement.

Please understand that a solid purpose, a workforce of engaged people, and documented processes that are recognized by everyone as Standards, all set you up beautifully to recognize abnormalities…which takes us to the last P.


When we have the ability to recognize abnormality at a glance we are light years ahead of most organizations. I often ask the question:  How do you know you have a problem?  I often hear, “well it happens a lot”.  I can remember once saying that to my Japanese trainer. He replied, “Oh, a lot I do not understand, please explain”.  This was his way of teaching me NOT to make assumptions without having the facts. What did I mean by “a lot”? If we don't have documented standards, then we can not see when things are abnormal, which leaves us to guessing, which turns into symptom fighting. This also tends to remove the ability to hold our people accountable for their actions. Having Standards that enable people to identify when things are not normal, and to recognize this gap from standard as a problem, provides an opportunity for a problem-solving method that trains, teaches, improves, fosters learning. Once the abnormality is discovered and properly framed, we can apply PDCA (plan do check act) thinking in the form of the 8-step problem solving process to eliminate the gaps. To me, problem solving is the glue that makes it all stick together! Without the 4P's you probably have a fire hose on your back.  Just a guess! :)

So if you have any doubts that lean is just a manufacturing based methodology, then I would like to challenge you to think differently about the thinking behind lean and that it can be translated into ANY organization. I promise!  


Leading with GTS²

Richardson, Tracey
March 8, 2012
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Most of my clients ask me: "What should our leaders be doing"?  They’re looking for tangible actions that direct their leaders in this lean environment they are trying very hard to create.  They want a recipe to follow—a magic wand to be waved for the transformation to suddenly happen.  I wish it were that easy. But as many of you know this isn't the case. Lean has to be lived, felt, seen, and experienced. Lean must be backed up by high-level leadership walking the walk.

When I was at Toyota the Japanese trainers would commonly use the word "behave".  To me that sounded like advice for grade school, but when I thought more deeply about what they seemed to be saying I realized that action can be interpreted as a behavior—which is what I believe they were talking about.

So my quick response to this question is that lean leadership requires a way of living, of behaving—as opposed to simply doing. I’ve coined an acronym to help communicate this, which I call GTS².  What does this stand for you may ask?  Well let's remember it and start to spread it, its essential if you are trying to transform your company with lean thinking.

Here is the behavior:

Go to See & Grasp the SituationGTS ²

The starting point for any lean thinking (and the beginning of producing an A3) is Go To See (GTS), which can also be captured as Go To the Source (GTS). This habit is very hard to form, since we tend to rely on assumptions formed from our experience or from what someone has told us based on "tribal knowledge".  My Japanese trainers would often say to me “Please--Go Looking!!” They may have known just a minimal amount of English but we knew what they meant. When I visit the Gemba with clients they can only rarely answer my questions because they don’t have the facts. They have many assumptions, but not the facts. It is only when we Go To See that we can uncover the truth.

But remember how this is GTS²? That’s because learning to see is just the beginning. Once we GO SEE, we must then Grasp The Situation. How do you grasp the situation? By asking the right questions! When I work with others as a trainer I share many questions with them to ask.  For now let’s begin with the 2 most essential questions a company and their leaders (at every level) should be asking:

What should be happening? (Ideal State or Standard)
What is currently happening? (Current state)

The first question is aimed at defining the Ideal State, or Standard. And the second question defines your Current State. Consider your Problem as the gap between these two conditions. These 2 questions should always be quantified!  For example:

Productivity should be at 95%
Current productivity is at 85%

This will give us a 10% gap that we will begin to breakdown and ask further questions!

From my experience as a consultant of 13 years now, I find that most companies I work with (even ones that you may think should know) can't answer those two questions. They don’t track the information or are simply in the habit of making assumptions, and as a result they cannot frame a problem as a simple gap between what should be happening and what is actually occurring.

Because I was essentially raised with this thinking at Toyota, these simple questions feel natural to me. But I constantly find that helping others develop this behavior—especially leaders—is challenging. Far too many people are running around trying to fight fires or make fixes based on loose assumptions. This type of problem solving is weak at best, and surely not repeatable for long-term sustainability.  

So in response to the question of what lean leaders must do, I will respond by suggesting they consider GTS². The challenge is less about doing lean than being lean—a way of thinking that starts by Going to See, and then Grasping the Situation. This won’t feel natural at first but it can be learned. GTS² works, try it!

Let Your A3s Lead

Ethington, Eric
March 1, 2012
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In a previous column I suggested that one of the best ways to get started with A3 thinking is to take the lead and basically "try" the A3 process. Run an experiment in the spirit of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle. This may be a challenge that forces you to take the lead as the coach or leader, something which may be daunting when you are not the formal boss. So here’s an approach to consider.

I’ve learned that a productive way to deploy an A3 is to take what you have learned and mentor the process upward with your boss. I have certainly confronted this in my own experience as I grappled with my own organization's inexperience and suspicion of the A3. When I was first working with the A3 process, I knew from experience that my organization would benefit if they would only use it. And yet a common response was “who needs another problem solving form anyway?”

So I chose to just start using the A3 process rather than convince my boss about its many benefits. In fact, with my direct boss, with process owners I was assisting and with project champions, I didn’t even refer to it as the A3 process at first. Instead I engaged them in the critical early work that is necessary, and recommend that you try this as well. The A3 was my "portable whiteboard" that I used to get the engagement of others.

So, the next time you are given a problem to resolve, take a few minutes to craft the BACKGROUND, CURRENT SITUATION and TARGET sections of the A3 (the specific headings are not as important as grasping the situation - see Managing to Learn by John Shook for more details on HOW to craft these sections).

Then, sit down with your boss for an informal meeting to review your initial A3. Explain that you want to make sure you understand the context of the problem before you spend too much time analyzing the problem. Why spend energy deeply analyzing a problem if we don’t really agree on the issue? Next move on to performing the analysis, again followed by a review. Point out, again, an important safeguard: Why start suggesting solutions if there is not agreement on how you have chosen to analyze the problem? Repeat this same process for the recommendations section and then the action plan. 

Personally, I have found this approach to be very effective. I once had a project focused on paycheck accuracy. This was a process that had high visibility, was important to everyone in the company and involved many stakeholders. An A3 was utilized with the team and with the project champion. We didn't focus on the fact that it was an A3; the focus was on engagement at all levels. I knew we were making an impact when the project champion called me one evening asking for the most recent copy of "our summary," as he had a meeting the next day and wanted to communicate the current status of the project.

Perhaps I am just lucky, but I have yet to find a boss or champion who did not like me keeping them engaged in working a problem, in a concise and easy to understand format. What's NOT to like!! In fact I have found this approach to always be successful with my bosses. They quickly came to appreciate having a synopsis of the status of the project that they, too, could share and engage others. More than once this resulted in A3s spreading within our department and then to the rest of the company.

Granted, your boss might not be the best at mentoring you with questions – but you can work on that later. Once your boss has begun to understand the power of the A3 process by seeing the specific benefit of using an A3 in a detailed manner, you can then introduce them more formally to the process either through books or training. 

Find One Second of Waste

Richardson, Tracey
February 23, 2012
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I was blessed with the opportunity to learn lessons from my Japanese trainers during the startup phase at TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky) in 1987-88. I was in production and we had to determine many things ahead of time in regard to standards, 5S, work instruction, and visual controls in order to meet the needs of our customer which was the Assembly shop. Each group was assigned a trainer (or two, depending upon the size) whose job was to mentor us every step of the way. At the time I didn’t appreciate how priceless their presence really was. They could be very annoying and deep down you wished you could have hid from them. (They seemed to ask WHY all the time—how annoying!) Yet looking back almost 24 years later I didn't realize how special those times were and how much I learned.

I’d like to share one particular lesson from that time, one that opened my eyes to how important the smallest actions are within your daily work processes, and how those changes affect the long-term company sustainability and capacity to learn.

Let’s call this the One Second Lesson.

I vividly remember the moment the light bulb went off for me, forever changing how I looked at waste. I was only 19 and have applied this wisdom ever since, a lifelong obsession with trying to see and eliminate muda, or waste. One day our trainer gathered us together and said, “everyone, I have challenge for you!” We were excited yet nervous about what he expected us to do. Their role as trainers was to get us to do what were didn't think we were capable of. Similar to my role now as a sensei!

Our sensei asked us to all look for one second of waste in our process. I have to confess that when he said that I felt like a deflated balloon. Really, I asked myself,  is that all? Sheesh, who really cares about one second? Our trainer sensed that none of us considered this one second target to be that important. And so he stopped to explain why this was so important. One of the ways that our trainers stoked our passion was to always explain the purpose of why we were doing something.  Many companies explain what they want you to do and sometimes even how they want you to do it, but leave you out in the cold about the purpose—why it’s so important. (See a previous blog post about the WHAT, HOW and WHY!

The trainer explained the importance of one second in terms of company savings. He said, "if everyone in the plant saved one second on their process we could make eight more cars a shift.” Once again I scoffed, saying “what” under my breath.

Interestingly, the Japanese Trainers NEVER tried to purposely point out what THEY wanted us to see. It was always a test or lesson for them to teach us to see it. They did that by asking questions. So they definitely saw the waste in the processes we were doing but their job as a trainer was to teach us to see it (so we could eventually “lead” that way). And they started by having us recognize the power of correcting just one second of waste. He studied our work processes and helped us see that if were we all to look at the “value” of one second of time—and translate that to cost, we could realize huge savings individually, as a group, and as a company. So if not only our group, but the entire plant found a wasteful second then accumulatively we could make 8 more products (Camrys) in a shift. This translated to a productivity improvement, profit improvement and development of people. 8 more products can translate into thousands of dollars that we DIDN’T make because we “accepted” the waste as “ok”.

Understanding that NO waste was too small to combat changed my awareness and daily work forever. I became hyper-aware of my steps, my reaches, my ergonomic position, and rework. I joined my colleagues in looking for waste everywhere: through the andon, our suggestion system, our quality circle program, task force groups for each key performance indicator or just by identifying the abnormality as we recognized it. It was an expectation of our job, not a choice that is what they were wanting us to understand- that it was an essential part of our job to maintain stability, sustainability and long-term growth and success.

Looking for one second of waste prompted us all to understand the importance of the Line of Sight.  The line of sight asks a series of questions that starts with:

What is my role?

What is my work responsibility? (my daily responsibility that links me to value added work)

What is my job’s purpose? (My scope to the Hoshin:  how do I know I’m doing value added work?)

What are the goals that guide my jobs purpose? (Hoshin = strategy deployment)

How does all this pertain to the company goals (True North)

So when the trainer was translating the 1 second lesson to us, he stated how it helped us in our daily work. He also translated it to the company level as well, giving us all a line of sight. 

So let's just say that each car was a profit of $1000 dollars (disclaimer** I am making up an easy number for Math) so that is $8000 that was "waltzing" out the door that we "rolled our eyes at."  No one should care about 1 sec right? Isn't that too picky? Give me a break right?  Well after that moment, I started saying "wow", 1 shift, how much is that in a week, month, year? --That adds up! That 1 second could be my job security one day. Really just 1 second!!  So from that moment I was looking for seconds everywhere.

So how do you translate this to your world? You might not be looking for one second like we were. But it could be:

1 hour of time
1 day of lead time
1 penny
1 dollar
1 week

Where is your waste? Are you seeing it? Can you translate it if you do see it?  This type of thinking is a requirement in my opinion not an option. How much has to hemorrhage out your door before you care?  “Go thinking” as my trainer would say!


An interview with Gary Convis on A3 thinking and lean leadership

Convis, Gary
February 2, 2012
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Last week’s column shared a story from Gary Convis and Jeff Liker’s new book The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, in which Gary learned the value of A3 thinking firsthand. He recently replied to a follow-up question, sharing his thoughts on the link between A3 thinking and lean leadership, and the way that this tool can be applied in a wide range of settings. 

Q) How does A3 thinking tie into lean leadership?

A) First of all the excerpt in the book talks about Ito’s (then NUMMI president) request to me to bring in our engineers to explain each 30-minute breakdown that took place. At our plant we had a lot of older equipment, and maintenance was difficult. The Japanese engineers set it up with no buffers, so one-piece-flow was what you had to achieve. And you can imagine in this connected plant that if one piece of equipment shut down then the next one shut down and so on throughout the plant. That’s the way the system works—the production system provides all the motivation you need because there are no crutches. JIT means just in time: everything has to work the way it should work because if it doesn’t you feel it immediately.

And I was struck by the ability of the guy who was not close to the floor, who had this uncanny skill to ask fairly logical questions that got to the core of what was in the engineer’s mind, or revealed a flaw in their thinking. I found it very interesting that you had a finance guy who could see the logic—see through a void in the logic—and ask a question based on the story being told in the A3. The A3 really forced the individual writing it to think very deeply and be able to express themselves clearly with few words following the context of what he did, what he intended to do, how he analyzed it. The power of it was dramatic.

And it wasn’t just at Toyota. This experience sold me on the value of A3 as a tool—a flexible tool that could apply to almost anything. I went on to use it at Dana, which was a totally different situation in scope and usage of the A3. But the power of it has infinite capabilities.

At Dana, which was emerging from chapter 11 at the time the global recession hit, we had 30,000 people working in 26 different countries with 113 plants and 5 different presidents. And when I got there as CEO in 2008, the operations guys and I developed 12 core key performance indicators (KPIs). We formed a team to implement them on a trial of two businesses in each region for a month to see if folks could buy into them. We wanted to check because we planned that these measures would become important drivers of performance. Eventually we made a few adjustments and these became the standard that we rolled out across the world. Next we added a standard meeting area with KPIs being on big boards—a big Obeya across the plant. Compared to what we had had before from a cultural point of view this was very different. Previously there were no standard KPIs, and if they did exist they were kept in a plastic folder that had yellowed, small font, and which no one ever looked at it. So we had a very clear goal of making the KPIs meaningful and visible to motivate the whole work force. (Later we rolled down the metrics boards to each supervisor’s area.)

 This allowed us to establish a baseline of performance in 2008 for the next year. To support this for 2009, in late 2008 I asked each of our 113 plants around the world to develop an A3 that focused on two things: improvement on conversion costs, and reducing inventory. I kept it narrowly focused—didn’t ignore safety or quality—but we were in the throes of the worldwide recession and needed to survive as a company. We needed to keep the focus narrow at the highest level. We needed to keep jobs and the business had to reduce costs as revenues were dropping. We needed cash to operate.  In this early cultural stage we at the top set their targets—that was not negotiable.

I used the A3 format as a way of seeing inside the minds of the 113 plant managers. One of the main things I learned at Toyota was hoshin kanri, which means aligning with the company goals and how am I going to achieve my goals. And I learned that Toyota really values the word kanri--HOW I am going to achieve my goals. Most Americans value the hoshin. And I didn’t want to go that way. I learned that the means and the process are just as important as the target. So at Dana I said that I want you guys to tell me how you are going to meet the conversion costs and inventory reduction target line by line. Who do you need, what resources are needed, and what is the schedule that will get you there? I wanted to force them to realize what it was going to take to actually reach the aggressive reduction of costs and expenditures set as a target.

So, in mid-December we set aside three days, and contacted every plant manager, setting up webcasts to communicate together. They sent their A3s to us and we reviewed them one by one, plant by plant, in different languages. We listened to them (group of five) from 7 in the morning to 11 at night for three days straight. We would make comments line by line as the review took place and send them to them electronically and grade them. Some were acceptable, some prompted questions, and about half, in the first round, were unacceptable. We shared feedback about why they were unacceptable, and said by January 4 they had to have the revisions to us, and we would do another call. After that I had someone who made weekly calls every Thursday from 7 in the morning to 11 at night to all plant managers to review their progress for the week and plans for the next week—asking the 5 whys and getting them to think deeply about what they were doing. This was critical or the actions would have been pushed out until near the deadline and there would not be ongoing learning.  We also had local continuous improvement specialists as coaches.

That process is how I used the A3 to drive our goals and to follow up and get the plants to focus on realistic attainable initiatives that would achieve the goals. Many of those A3s were rough the first year but we got through it. We achieved our targets of $200 million in conversion costs and $200 million in inventory reductions. That convinced people that this was a great process for learning and achieving goals and much more than a simple piece of paper. I believe that consistency is important with operations. Every year, even since I retired from Dana, they continue to do the same thing. Sometimes they start earlier. And now they have gotten the department heads to use the same A3 format. They use it for cost, quality, productivity, safety. It has become a commonly understood communications tool that is used throughout Dana now. For example, our Vice President of engineering had picked up in its power early on and used it to drive a lot of improvement in R&D.

I tell my managers that they should be able to take this paper home and explain it to their ten-year-old child. The words on the paper and the story have to follow some sort of reasoning that the person sees. They should see the background, see the things that they need to analyze. Above all the A3 should tell a story. That is the key point. The A3 with Mr. Ito was used to tell a story about a breakdown. The one I used at Dana was about goal achievement. I used it for just about every other phase of major business in our business. It’s a flexible lean tool.



Using A3 Problem Solving to Make the Thinking Process Visible

Liker, Jeffrey, and Convis, Gary
January 26, 2012
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The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, a new book by Jeff Liker and Gary Convis, represents a huge leap forward in the literature about lean leadership. Their book contains a wealth of information about the specific ways that Toyota develops lean leaders, and it presents these ideas in a way that will help readers improve their current practice in this area. And while this book shares invaluable details about the what and the why of the specific practices, by sharing stories from Gary Convis’s experience this new resource animates the ideas with evocative first-hand authority. The following excerpt from the book touches upon A3 thinking and leading. Next week we will publish an interview with Gary about his experience using A3s.

In his early days at NUMMI, Gary’s worst fears became a daily reality. Since there was no room for inventory in the body shop, getting the people highly trained and the equipment stable was a daily challenge, and TPS provided many, many opportunities for development. With the frequent breakdowns of the machines, fixing the problems at the root cause was essential to maintaining production. In Japan, the vendors who built the equipment regularly came on site to help fix the problems, but NUMMI in California was on its own.

Gary and his team struggled for years to solve one problem after another and did quite a good job of keeping the line running, but there was still a large gap between NUMMI’s performance and the level of equipment uptime in Japan. Ironically, the guy who brought the body shop up to a new level was not a manufacturing executive, but someone who came out of finance in Japan. Mr. Fumitaka Ito became president of NUMMI and was not satisfied with the uptime of the body shop. He also noticed the body-shop engineers spending too much time in the office, which of course meant the problems were not going to get solved. In one meeting, he asked Gary to start a new practice. Whenever equipment was shut down for 30 minutes or more, he wanted a personal report from the engineers, with Gary present. The report should be on one side of one piece of paper, the famous Toyota “A3 report” (after the A3 paper size used in the metric system). Ito did not offer a training course on A3, but rather asked for a “breakdown report” for each instance and suggested that the Japanese engineers in the body shop would be able to show the American engineers how to prepare it.

The purpose of the report is to produce, in a single page, a “problem- solving story” that summarizes the problem, its root cause, and the countermeasures taken to solve the problem. Toyota uses a standard approach to problem solving that is now known as Toyota Business Practices (see sidebar). The single-page report details the problem, the gap between the current and ideal states, the root causes of the problem, possible countermeasures, the countermeasures tried, the results, and further actions required. The engineers’ job was not only to fix the breakdown but to identify why the breakdown happened (for example, improper maintenance, user error, or defective inputs) and to address the root causes so that the breakdown would not be repeated. The engineers were to present the report personally to Ito and Gary within a week of the breakdown.

By approaching the situation this way, Ito was addressing several needs at once. First, he was addressing the production problems that NUMMI was having in a sustainable way (rather than putting production goals first and just letting the Japanese engineers solve the problems). Second, he was creating a development opportunity for the American engineers to practice their problem-solving skills. By instituting the policy of having the American engineers take the lead and be responsible for the A3 reports, Ito-san was forcing them to learn problem solving and learn the value of genchi genbutsu. Third, he was giving Gary an opportunity to be engaged in the problem-solving process and creating an opportunity to coach Gary in his responsibility to develop the engineers.

During the presentations, Ito would focus on asking questions and critiquing the reports. Was the problem statement clear? Did it lead to the Five Whys? Was the countermeasure clearly connected to the root-cause analysis? Ito had an uncanny ability to pick out key gaps in an engineer’s thinking, and to drill down with detailed questions that exposed missing parts of the story, despite the fact that he was not an engineer and did not know the technical details of the problem. Following the standard Toyota practice, he would take a red pen to the report, circling items, putting in question marks, and writing in questions. The goal of filling out the A3 report, of course, is not to fill out the form perfectly, but to serve as an aid to clear thinking and learning in the problem-solving process. By listening to the presentations and reviewing the reports, Ito could assess the capability of the engineers, how they thought, how they reasoned, and how deeply they thought about sustaining improvements. As every developing leader at Toyota learns, the reports are a powerful technique for developing problem-solving ability.

Despite observing Ito-san coaching this process several times, Gary was not picking up on his responsibility in the process. While Ito was critiquing the presentations and reports, Gary simply stood to the side, marveling at Ito’s insight and amused at the struggles of the engineers’ efforts to learn this way of thinking. After a few sessions, Ito asked Gary how he was coaching the engineers through the process before the presentations. Ito pointed out there was still a lot of red on the reports, and if Gary had been teaching the engineers properly, there would be less red ink. He was pointing out Gary’s responsibility for the engineers’ development; the problems with the reports were a reflection of Gary’s leadership, and he was more responsible for any failures than the engineers were. Quickly, Gary got more directly involved, and soon both Gary and the engineers were sharpening their skills and developing much more rapidly. Eventually Gary became quite skilled at seeing the holes in an engineer’s process and thinking and asking questions to expose these holes. He began to understand the reviews as a way to measure both the capability of the worker and his capability as a teacher and coach. Quickly the A3s got much better, and equipment uptime moved steadily up toward the levels in Japan.

Thereafter, when Ito issued compliments on a job well done, they were directed to Gary, but not because he was attributing the success of the problem-solving process to Gary. The real compliment was on the development of the engineers. Any individual report was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of developing leaders. The steady improvement in the reports showed the more important progress in developing the engineers and in Gary’s assuming responsibility for that development: to see how they thought, how they reasoned, how they were going to prevent problems, and how they were going to sustain that prevention.


Toyota Business Practices

The problem-solving process used at Toyota is currently called Toyota Business Practices (TBP), although it has gone by other names in the course of the company’s history (such as Practical Problem Solving). TBP is an eight-step process based on the Plan–Do–Check–Act cycle of quality guru J. Edwards Deming.

In summary, the process begins with a statement of the problem, including the gap between the actual and the ideal condition. This gap is then broken down to determine the most important problems that are actionable. For actionable items, specific targets for improvement are set. These specific subproblems are then analyzed to identify the root cause by asking why until the root cause, and not a surface cause, is found (a rule of thumb suggests asking why five times). Countermeasures are then identified (plan), tried (do), and monitored (check), until, after further adjustments (act), either the problem is solved or new approaches are tried. The problem solver does not leave his role and keeps checking and further adjusting the process until it has been demonstrably stabilized and has run without problems consistently for a period of time, usually months. Then the countermeasures are standardized and may be shared with other plants if they see a need.

The eight steps of TBP are

1. Define the problem relative to the ideal (plan).

2. Break down the problem into manageable pieces (plan).

3. Identify the root cause (plan).

4. Set a target for improvement (plan).

5. Select the appropriate solution among several alternatives (plan).

6. Implement the solution (do).

7. Check impact (check).

8. Adjust, standardize, and spread (act).

Notice that in the Toyota implementation, the first five steps are in the “plan” phase of Deming’s process. This reflects the company’s focus on ensuring that the right problem is being worked on and thus the problem will be truly solved. It also reflects the emphasis that Toyota puts on gathering information and building consensus for a solution. The target setting is also critical, as it presents the challenge.

Toyota believes that this problem-solving process is essential to leadership—every leader is expected to be a master of TBP, no matter what her role or department. Mastering this process allows a leader with a background in finance or human resources, for instance, to contribute meaningfully on the shop floor, and vice versa. True mastery of TBP means being able to ask the right questions of the domain experts who are doing the hands-on work to ensure that they are truly solving problems and moving the company toward perfection.



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