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Let Your A3s Lead

Ethington, Eric
3/1/2012

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.