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Why don’t middle managers practice A3 thinking?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m a lean consultant, and have been hired by a large service organization to develop an A3 problem-solving training program for their middle-management. Why is it so hard to engage middle-managers in rigorous analysis? It’s not that they don’t understand the concepts or that they don’t feel it could help. They often just don’t seem to get it. How can I do my work here?

Are you solving the right problem? We need to start here, because while I don’t know what your client organization is like, it's crucial that your approach be based on how it looks from its middle manager’s point of view. What do they see if you stand in their shoes and look through their eyes?

Middle managers struggle with a unique set of roadblocks to productive problem-solving and kaizen. Many of the middle managers I’ve worked with were once excellent front-line managers. And now they no longer manage teams, they manage teams of teams. Once they could simply direct someone to do this or that. Now that they have to go through one or several managers and team leaders it’s not so simple. Additionally, they have to implement strategies they haven’t created or defined, often for unknown reasons. To make matters worse, these middle managers are held accountable to report and in fact control performance numbers, regardless of whether they have any real influence on them or not. Not a comfortable place to be.

Let’s try to view this problem more directly from the Gemba of the middle manager. I’ve observed three key areas that touch upon the A3 gap:  

Reporting: The first survival skill is understanding and nurturing the reporting systems. Nobody wants a senior executive to suddenly asks for a figure they don’t know—especially when that number isn’t a crucial one to their daily operations. Yet political considerations frequently place them in that position. That’s because mainstream organizations are built around their reporting system, following a (forgive my geeky metaphor) Star Trek model in which all the information flows to the control room where all the big decisions are made. This is very different from a Star Wars “Gemba” approach where you see the pilot constantly running all around the ship to figure out what’s really happening. The middle-manager is an essential part of this architecture, so Lord help him or her if she hasn’t done her reporting properly, or twisted operational arms in delivering the appropriate figures.

Project-management: The second survival skill of a middle-manager is to be able to develop allies across the board, other middle-managers, frontline managers and technical experts, to keep their projects moving.  In order to execute strategy, middle-managers are given “missions” to run, usually mid-to-large scale projects that more often than not reach beyond organizational functional borders. This requires the political acumen to develop allies who keep people working on key tasks beyond their routine roles, particularly when unexpected snags occur. Every middle-manager competes with other middle-managers for teams’ time and attention. In one smallish non-profit organizations we got all the middle managers together with the CEO (no more than six of them), they counted a total of seventy live “change” projects on top of the day-to-day work of the organization. Just counting the projects gave them pause. The middle-managers knew they were not making any headway. The CEO had no idea that he had created this situation.

Coordinating the teams they’re in charge of. Kicking the can to the next office is not a workaround for a middle-manager, it’s a survival skill to live to fight another day. In practice, this often means ensuring that whatever new rule that has been cooked up by some specialist function will be implemented. It means dealing with the ups and down of team motivation and fighting the endless turf-wars of unclear boundaries with other areas. It means deftly handling the occasional individual crises which inevitably crop up without revealing this to top management. It’s no wonder that many middle-managers feel they have put out daily fires with their arms tied behind their back.

So is it any surprise that middle managers stumble with the daily demands of clean A3 thinking and problem-solving? In a complex organization they face daily problems caused by politics, opaque reporting systems, and weak spans of control. Middle managers must manage people over whom they have no direct power, who have other more pressing responsibilities, who are naturally skeptical to new orders, and who naturally resist. I’ve seen how A3 problem-solving can help people and teams frame problems and work through them with great clarity and power. But let’s also sum up the challenges when middle managers apply this approach:

Step 1: Clarify the Problem

Consider the ultimate goal and the current situation and visualize the gap between current work and the ideal situation.

Yes, but:

I’ve been asked to implement this project or policy, I’m not sure what the ultimate goal is nor what the current condition really is.

Step 2: Break down the problem

Breakdown large problems into smaller, more concrete problems and clarify quantitatively the point of cause at the Gemba to prioritize which problem we will tackle first.

Yes, but:

I’ve been given a rollout implementation plan to apply in every department. What I need is agreement from frontline managers they will proceed with roll out, not a million reasons why they won’t.

Step 3: Target Setting

Set challenging short-term targets to get to the goal step by step.

Yes, but:

How can I build buy-in if the very first step is too challenging? I need to move carefully, and make sure others don’t find the early step too challenging, or they’ll flat out refuse.

Step 4: Root cause analysis

Thoroughly investigate the process involved in order to clarify the root cause by asking why? What is actually happening? How do you know that? Why do you think that is?

Yes, but:

Now you really want me to rile people and get their hackles up! Besides, I know the root cause, I’ve always said that so-and-so has been the problem from the start. But I can’t start grilling people like that and question their professionalism. I’ll lose them completely.

Step 5: Develop countermeasures

Draw up alternative countermeasures that address the root cause (as many as you can), and evaluate which is the most likely to succeed on a variety of factors such as lead-time, quality, cost etc.

Yes, but:

What I foremost need is joint agreement to do simple things. If I start looking into different alternatives, I’ll just confuse them all, and they’ll use it as an excuse not to do anything.

 Step 6: See countermeasures through

Set up the right (visual) reporting so that every one involved can see progress and obstacles can be tackled one by one as they appear.

Yes, but:

More reporting? Don’t you think we have enough as it is? Do you realize how hard it is to change anything to the reporting system? Oh, I see, you want me to set up a parallel reporting system on the wall – is that it? Good luck with that!

Step 7: Monitor results and processes

Evaluate both the overall results as well as the processes used and share this evaluation with all involved.

Yes, but:

I’m doing this already – we are tracking the implementation of the action plan and sharing this with everyone through e-mail. We are at above 80% on most items – but you and I both know what that means about task completion. At least it keeps senior management off my back.

Step 8: Standardize successful processes

Figure out what conditions are needed to make sure the new process will stick and share the standardized process with other people and divisions.

Yes, but:

Isn’t that precisely what we’re trying to do in the first place? Why go through all the 7 steps and not do that from the start? That’s what we’re already doing.

I personally feel that training middle-managers to A3 problem solving is totally the right thing to do in order to, n David Verbles terms, “lead from the middle”  and I’ve witnessed many successes of this first hand.

But I also understand your predicament. Let’s start by reflecting more on the challenges of middle-managers. In my experience, these are smart, moderately ambitious people in difficult jobs. They perfectly understand what A3 problem should do but, by and large, fail to see how that applies to their situation, and how it would make things better for them.

Next week: 5 keys to make sure the A3 training program connects with middle managers./em>

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Althaf May 30, 2013
I think A3 as part of an Lean Eco System.  It cannot stand alone & survive.  Build a strong visual management system, from where normal & abnormal is visible, define support groups & roles to address abnormalities. When support group fails to address adnormalities within defined time limit, A3 problem solving should trigger in.  A3 development is leader's job.  When middle level managers feel they dont have official power to make changes, they shriek from taking problem solving lead. You may need to work at structural issues as well.   At the end of the day, even if middle level managers are willingly taking A3 problem solving,it may not sustain, as other elements of eco system are missing. If you are leading the lean effort, you need to sequentially keep launching lean initiatives, that at end would become a system.  You may call it as production system, which Toyota  calls as TPS.
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