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Developing Better Habits Using A3 Thinking

by Katie Anderson
April 6, 2017

Developing Better Habits Using A3 Thinking

by Katie Anderson
April 6, 2017 | Comments (6)

I was first exposed to the personal A3 process by Margie Hagene, who at the time was my coach while I was the director of the Lean Promotion Office at a large healthcare system. Prior to then, I saw A3 thinking as a valuable process for solving organizations problems and gaining clarity for strategic direction.

Margie helped me recognize that the rigors of A3 problem solving could also be a framework for personal development. Using the A3 process focused on personal actions and behaviors could help individuals to identify, practice and strengthen their own habits, along with the support of a coach.

My personal improvement using A3 thinking

As an internal coach at the time, I found my actions were inconsistently aligned with what I knew were important behaviors that would develop problem solving capability in others, such as asking questions and modeling reflection (the Check-Adjust part of the PDCA cycle). 

Sometimes I felt really effective as a coach and leader, but at other times I knew I was acting in ways that took away the thinking responsibility from others.

I realized that in circumstances where I felt under time constraints to “get the work done,” or where I was running from meeting to meeting, that I was not as effective as I wanted to be as a leader and manager. The pressure “get it all done” heightened my natural extroverted tendencies to jump in and offer up ideas and my “solutions,” rather than slow the pace of work down to ask additional questions and allow people time to think and develop. (Does this sound familiar to you?). 

Margie suggested using a personal improvement A3 as a way take time for reflection and figure out how to change the actions that I found to be hindering the outcomes I wanted to achieve. We were actively using A3 thinking to solve organizational and strategic problems all around us; why not use this same thinking process to improve individually as well?

I decided to experiment with the personal A3 framework. By working through the A3 process and writing my current actions down on paper, I gained deeper awareness of strengths and limitations, and the reasons behind my actions. I also asked my direct reports to do the same, which allowed me to coach and support them in their ongoing improvement.

The title of my first (and several subsequent versions) personal improvement A3 was “Keeping the thinking with the problem owner” with a focus on getting out of my habit of telling and instead leading by asking questions and providing space for others to think and respond. [See A3.] 

Even though I knew that my role as a lean coach and leader was to develop problem solving capabilities in other people, and that to do so I needed to give them the opportunity to think, I observed that my habit, more often than not, was to jump in with my opinion. I might start by asking a question or two, but soon would get caught up in solving the problem in by saying “I think…” and offering an idea or suggestion. 

I started to collect data on myself by noting the frequency of my use of the phrase “I think…” or how often I interrupted someone make a statement. I usually did both at least once per interaction – and often more frequently. With my coach, I developed a focused plan of how to get “a little bit better” each day. Instead of just setting a macro-level goal such as “I want to be a better question asker,” I targeted a reduction into the amount of times I heard myself say “I think” or found myself interrupting to share my thinking over a three-month period.

I started this approach in individual coaching sessions. This included setting my intention immediately before each coaching interaction (remember: Don’t interrupt! Ask questions instead of saying “I think!”) and anticipating countermeasures of what to do if my stronger habits emerged (count to 10 after asking a question or when I feel the urge to interrupt, self-correct when I find myself saying “I think” and instead ask a question). This helped me stay focused and deliberate about my practice – and gave me a plan for when things when off course (which of course they did often).

By setting time for daily reflection on my practice and seeking out the support and feedback of others (including the people I was coaching), I saw dramatic reduction in the amount of times I used the phrase “I think” or interrupted someone.

Of course I failed a lot, but I learned from each instance more deeply about the triggers for my old habits. Over time, I gained greater awareness of my actions and it became easier and more natural. My new habits were getting stronger than my old ones.

Build upon improvement through multiple A3 iterations and practice 

Over a period of many months, I continued my deliberate practice to strengthen these habits. During this time, I also transitioned to being an external independent coach and consultant.

When working with my clients, I became increasingly aware about how often I - and other consultants - would jump in with our opinion during group working sessions. In this group problem solving environment, it was easy for us to fall into the role of problem solvers rather than coaches. Of course there were times when our opinions or guidance was appropriate to best support our clients, but if we first led with our ideas, we didn’t give a chance for them to think and develop their own perspective.

I revisited my earlier A3 and reflected on what was triggering my actions in a group environment. I then developed countermeasures to strengthen my habit to ask more questions in group environments before offering my opinion.

We never fully extinguish old habits – we just replace them with stronger ones.

Through applying A3 thinking on myself and creating a plan of what and how to practice, I continue to get better (most) days. Over the past four years, it has become easier and more “natural” to lead with questions and not reflexively give my opinion. However, my instinct to jump in with my opinion has never been fully extinguished. I have to stay focused each and every day, no matter the environment, to not let my old habits come out. 

Even this week, a physician leader whom I am coaching caught me self-correcting when I was about to give my opinion. When he asked me “what do you think I should do?,” my first instinct was to answer his question directly with my ideas.

I inhaled to start answering with “I think…”, but then paused, took a breath, and instead asked him a question so as to hear what had been exploring. He ended up answering his own question, and I shared only one additional points that he might consider for next steps. Afterward he reflected that this interaction had heightened his own awareness of his personal habit to rush in and how he might practice at getting better.

Coaching others for improvement using A3 Thinking

I have found that merely asking someone to reflect and write down their observations of their habits and the resulting impacts, can be a powerful accelerator for improvement—something folks call a “keystone habit.”  Just starting a personal improvement A3 can lead to greater self-reflection and introspection, and this into itself leads to improvement in behavior.

Additionally, as a coach, supporting someone through a personal A3 allows you the opportunity to model effective coaching skills through catchball. The learner owns their action plan for improvement; and you have a specific focus for how you can support your learner develop.

What problem are you going to focus for your personal improvement? 

How can you use this process to support the people you are developing to own their improvement and create an action plan that you can help support?

Keywords:  A3,  coaching,  problem solving
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Dr. FF April 07, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Dear Katie,

As my specialization is Work and Organizational Psychology, I have to tell you that this method is interesting from a lot of points of view, but it has limitations.

1) You need experience in assessing yourself as self-estimations are always mediated by personal conservation. E.g.: You might think you are good in a field, while the truth is you are average from other points of view. That leads you to ignoring that point, or even putting it in your strenghts. 

2) Actively ignoring a trait like interrupting the others in reality leads to your energy being depleted. It's something similar to when you put a program in auto-run. You think you have no need to check it but it keeps using energy to work. Also, when that has problems it's difficult to evaluate them. In human being this can also lead to a bigger focus on what you are trying to ignore (the famous "I shouldn't think about that" that leads you to a long night awake while thinking exactly about that thing).


To avoid these (points 1-2), I advice to always have a second and maybe a third person to evaluate your self-assessment (an external consultant would be great since that would be unbiased).


3) Your method is difficult to use (see above). Who isn't used to A3 or PS thinking can find it hard and, probably, it can lead them to the wrong conclusions.

Reply »

Katie Anderson April 07, 2017
3 People AGREE with this reply

Thank you for your comments. A3 thinking is best done with the support of a coach - this is true for externally focused problem solving A3s and for internally focused personal improvement A3.

As I shared in this article, I had a coach supporting me not only in the deveopment of my A3, but also to privide me with feedback about my current habits and during my practice towards improvement. I also enlisted the support of others to provide feedback to me after coaching sessions.

Coaches play a valuable role in the support of new habits. They can help the learner better understand their current habits by giving observations and feedback, can support the development of a plan, and then play an important role in coaching the person to practice and develop the new habit or skill. The role of the coach to support personal improvement through A3 thinking is the foucs of the workshop I teach with LEI.

The thinking process that is used to work through an A3 is aligned with the literature on the development of habits. It is not the only process or tool a coach can use, but for those who are practicing using A3 problem solving thinking to solve operational problems, it can be another way to practice this problem solving process - while also supporting personal development.

I've written more about the role that a coach plays in the personal A3 process on my blog in these posts:




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Jordan Tinkler April 10, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Very interesting read :)

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Katie Anderson April 12, 2017

Thanks Jordan - Katie

Ajay April 05, 2019


Found the article interesting 

Any book you have written in this subjust 

Would like to try one a3 this season on personal a3.




Reply »

Katie Anderson April 08, 2019

Ajay - thanks for your comments and interest in using A3 thinking for Personal Improvement. I haven't written a book, but have written several articles on my blog about it. Check out this tag for links to relevant articles: https://kbjanderson.com/tag/personal-improvement-a3/


I also teach workshops through LEI about the process.


Best wishes!

Reply »

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