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Why don’t middle managers practice A3 thinking? (Part 2)

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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?

I believe the key to make your A3 training program more successful is to make sure that it is aligned with lean’s core values – and yes, that will mean tackling your client’s senior management in order to make sure the right prerequisites are in place:

  1. Challenge: How do you phrase middle managers’ missions in terms of problems to solve rather than solutions to apply? If you haven’t got this right, none of the rest is very relevant. Are the challenges clearly expressed? How many challenges are detailed individually? You must clarify minimal job roles. A middle manager typically has operational task as well as project tasks. What are the simplest, most freauent operational task they have to perform? What is the ONE priority project they have to focus on? By clarifying a MINIMUM role,  the manager can have better results in their day-to-day, not screw up the reporting as well as have time/energy (even enthusiasm?) to focus on the problem you’ve asked them to solve.
  2. Genchi Genbutsu: Having a clear and commonly understood plan of policy deployment is critical. Having senior managers commit to a calendar of Gemba visits, to see what the project is doing at the value-adding workplace level (rather than disembodied reports) is the most powerful way to gain traction. This behavior shows the organization that this project is a priority, that you’re interested in their results and how they go about it. Furthermore, the gmeba visits are likely to have a strong modeling effect on the middle-manager himself or herself who (we can hope) might eventually pick up the practice.
  3. Kaizen: In mainstream management, many solutions are formulated in terms of optimization: what we have doesn’t work, so let’s break it and refurbish it optimally. Unfortunately, the same problems existing now usually carry over to the “optimized” solution, and so nothing much is ultimately achieved beyond leaving a lot of investment dollars on the table. Kaizen’s focus is on improvement – which means asking middle managers to improve the current situation rather than optimize it. This might sound like semantics, but it has a disproportionate impact on the nature of countermeasures sought, and their concrete implementation.
  4. Teamwork: Most middle-managers need the most help is in developing relationships with other managers to carry their projects through. In your A3 training program, make sure this is explicitly addressed: A3 owners are asked to identify upfront who else they need to work on the A3 with. They need to be supported in creating individual relationships that improve their ability to work with others in the organization. This can be one of your largest contributions to the organization as a whole. A great place to start for this is the Job Relations training in TWI.
  5. Respect: In the end, respect is precisely what A3 training should address. “Respect” at work is usually understand as giving clear goals, holding employees accountable, treating people fairly, being polite and respectful and so on. All very good, but a far cry from the lean notion of respect. Lean respect is about asking people what problems they encounter in the way they do their job, what they believe the causes are, what should be done about it, how they would know if the problem is solved and so on. This is not about fixing things per se. This is about building mutual trust by better understanding what people see in their jobs and taking responsibility to work with them to make things better. Respect is precisely what A3 training should teach middle-managers, and what will make such a difference to the business as a whole.

As a trainer, the challenge often is to turn tables around and respect trainee’s contribution to the organization, before teaching them different. Successful training rests on understanding the current zone of autonomy of the person, visualizing what they should be autonomous on, and building the stepping stones to get there, to help them cross that river. Rigorous analysis is hard for middle managers because it goes against their incentive system as well as require information they don’t have access to. The question therefore is: how does your training program address their difficulties before teaching them how to solve problems with others.

Get the whole story. Read Part 1.

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