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How Do We Sustain A3 Thinking in our Organization?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach

My firm has been investing a lot of time and energy this year in teaching A3 thinking to our staff.  The workshops have been going great, but how do we keep this work going when people return to their daily work? How can we “pull” A3 thinking through the organization after the formal training is over?

Some time ago a CEO I know decided to train all his middle managers in A3 problem solving. The company had been doing lean on the shop floor successfully for years, and yet middle management continued to resist this lean approach and kept complaining about kaizens. And so the CEO asked his HR department to develop a mandatory three-day A3 training program for all middle-managers. While doing the Check of this work, we found that the results were disappointing. Most of the evaluations for the sessions were positive, yet there was only negligible change in behaviors.

As I said then, and will repeat now, it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that the training was a waste of time. I’ve been observing lean transformations for longer than I’d care to admit and I’ve come to terms with the feeling that you’re always failing with what you are doing right now—even though you might be succeeding over all. At least 50% of the time I visit the Gemba to observe people working on 5S, red bins or pull systems (just to name a few), I get dispirited: the 5S has gone to the dogs and needs to be restarted, or the red bins are no longer being treated with the respect they deserve, or the pull system is down again. And so on. This, I’ve painfully come to accept, is normal. We’re not constructing a building. We’re training a team. A team of people, which means that we will have ups and downs, none of which means that we aren’t making progress. Especially when we keep in mind the main thing: what we are really doing here is beefing up our firms problem-solving capability. Short-term stumbles are fine as long as we are clear on our long-term goal.

Learning to Learn

Again, the real issue here is developing an awareness of the real purpose of teaching A3 thinking. One way of saying this is the capacity for reflection, learning from doing, hansei. There’s a great story in the new Jeff Liker and Gary Convis book The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership (which I highly recommend for sharing a missing piece in our collective understanding of lean.) When A3s were introduced at NUMMI, where Gary was plant manager, he was deep into trouble-shooting at the time. He was asked by a new Japanese president about the rate of progress on the machine capability front. He also asked the engineers to present an A3 report on any downtime of more than 30 minutes to him and Gary. At first Gary did not realize that the aim of the exercise was not so much to look at the solution, but to check whether the engineers correctly understood the problem, whether they started to ask themselves “why?” At the time no one had heard of A3 thinking. It was just presenting problem solving on an A3-sized piece of paper.

At first, the sessions are something of a bloodbath as the president challenges, redlines, questions every part of sloppy thinking. Gary watches on, vaguely amused to see his engineers backed into corners by their president on issues they should know better. And then the president pointed out that he is the one who let his guys show up with poorly prepared reports. Gary then realized he didn’t know how to train his engineers to make better A3s. And so he started working with them before presenting to the president. This is how HE learned to write A3 reports.

The story stayed with me because it’s so similar to the story in Managing to Learn about how Porter and Sanderson interact, which highlights another critical aspect of teaching A3 thinking. There are two key aspects to A3 thinking: the problem-solving and the relationship. And for some bizarre reason we obsess with the former and keep being blind to the latter.

Why A3s work

This misdirection was certainly present at the company I referred to earlier. As a result, I told the CEO to ask specific managers for A3 reports on narrow technical topics, and reviewing them together. And all of a sudden something radically different happened to these A3s. They began to rapidly improve in precision and depth of thinking. Now, the CEO can’t personally review every A3, but having him work closely with these individuals helped everyone see the problem differently. Our issue was no longer teaching A3 problem solving to every middle-manager, but establishing productive coaching/mentoring (Porter/Sanderson) relationships within the management line.

They key here is understanding what A3s produce and why they work. There’s no value in nicely prepared forms. The real value exists in deepening the thinking behind the report. This enables everyone to: (1) better frame the problem, (2) seek root cause (3) explore alternative countermeasures and (4) study these countermeasures so that (5) you can understand the problem even better and deepen your knowledge of the situation.

This deep thinking is very hard. Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, has recently published Thinking Fast and Slow, where he explains elegantly that we operate with two distinct – albeit related – reasoning systems: System 1 and system 2.

  • System 1 is intuitive, automatic, fast, with no effort or voluntary control and explains most of what we do all day long, how we respond to immediate situations and to a large extent the opinions we hold about ourselves and the world.
  • System 2 allocates attention to mental activities requiring effort and complex computations. System 2 is about thinking things through, making touch choices and requires heaps of concentration.

We mostly rely on system 1. Coming up, say, with an after-the-fact rationale to justify the positions derived from intuitive reasoning. On the other hand, deep thinking, such as required to solve difficult engineering problems requires system 2. And this is hard to access, tiring, and, well, not that natural. I once coined the phrase “Law of Least Mental Effort” in an attempt to describe the fact that real thinking is hard and rare.

People will naturally rely on system 1 to write their first A3. Just write whatever comes to mind on the page, and you’re done. Which is exactly what Porter first does in Managing to Learn. However, the A3 only becomes interesting (and fruitful) if you engage system 2 in writing it, but that’s hard, hard, hard. Which is why Sanderson gets involved.

The role of the boss or the sensei in A3 writing is to make sure that (1) system 2 is plugged in, which brings all kinds of motivational issues; and (2) that the thinking sticks to facts and doesn’t deviate into philosophy (system1 corrupting system 2). It’s tough, and relies largely on a relationship where the learner accepts to be taught, just as much as the teacher accepts to have the patience to teach.

Now the beauty of this is that repeated conclusions by system 2 will be eventually inscribed in the intuitive working of system 1. The chess master can say check in three moves at a glance because she has practiced for years and can recognize the obvious strong move automatically by now (so that it looks like intuitive magic). Similarly, the machining expert can take a sniff at your machine and ask whether you’ve checked for bacterial contamination in your cooling liquid. They weren’t born with this knowledge. By practicing system 2 learning years on end, it has become inscribed into system 1.

I realize this might not be a very satisfactory reply, but I suspect that there is no good answer to your question: I doubt that you can get there from here. The key is to look at A3s as a physical support for managerial relationships based on expertise and teaching. In most companies I know, this isn’t a satisfying answer because managers have been chosen for their generalist “get it done” skills, not for their technical experience.

So where to start? I’ll confess that I don’t know exactly, but suggest you start from the top and work downwards. On the emotional front, having your A3 reviewed by someone two or three paygrades above you has a strong impact, and you can then teach the immediate managers to make sure the A3s stand up to be looked at seriously as per Gary’s story. I know a few CEOs who’ve started with this and it’s not pretty, but the results in terms of depth of thinking are surprisingly good.

In practical terms this would mean looking at the chain of teacher/learner relationships and organizing set times for A3 reviews with the most senior people possible. Even if they don’t have the necessary technical expertise, they’ll bring in another perspective and, on the other hand, learn something as well. More importantly, their time is money, so the writer of the A3 will have concrete evidence of how important this is. At the end of the day, in lean, we develop people in order to develop products.

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