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How Do I Start My A3?


 A3 Thinking is Slow Thinking 

Are you having trouble getting started with your A3? When I teach workshops on A3 thinking, creation, and use, this comes up as one of the most challenging parts of doing an A3. So if you find yourself looking at a blank sheet of 11x17 paper wondering where to start, here are some thoughts from what I’ve learned doing and teaching A3s for years which I believe may help you.

The first lesson is simple if counterintuitive. When people ask, “where do I start to write an A3?,” I reply, “Don’t start with writing.” They generally respond by asking, “then where do I start.” And my answer is always: “start with the thinking.”

There are two key points to keep in mind here. First, the A3 storyboard (the written document that is produced) is the result of A3 thinking not the process of A3 thinking itself.  It is a way to capture and organize the thinking you do in PDCA problem solving but the format does not automatically lead you to sound A3 thinking.

And second, A3 thinking is a way to systematically work through how to address a problem or need. Getting to that decision involves the activities of understanding the problem or need at a concrete level, understanding the factors in the situation that are barriers to moving to desired conditions, and determining the best options for making changes in the direction you want. And it should involve lots of asking, listening and communicating along the way to be sure you are getting the knowledge, thinking, concurrence and support of others who have a stake in the situation.

That’s a lot of work and thinking. And it can’t be accomplished by simply starting to fill in the boxes in the A3 format. Your thinking process needs to be well under way before you use the A3 document to tell your problem solving story. You could use the format to work through the problem solving process a box at a time doing the thinking and investigating and then doing the writing. But you should be prepared to go back and revise earlier boxes as you get deeper into the problem. You will continue learning about your problem as you write an A3, but do not expect to do all of the problem solving thinking as you write. 

Why is all this prep work necessary to create an A3? Because to tell a problem solving story that is convincing to others – that brings them along in a thinking process that demonstrates the actions you are recommending make sense – requires getting as many of the facts as you can in a reasonable time and having the right facts to support the claims you are making about the situation. Such a story cannot be created with fast thinking, what comes to mind story telling.  It has to be developed through slow thinking.

The difference between Fast Thinking and Slow Thinking, and the importance of the difference between the two, is described in a recent book by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman was given a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for his behavioral research on human judgment. The book summarizes twenty-five years of study by Kahneman and others of the basic patterns in the way we humans solve problems and make decisions. In it he contends that our brains are divided into two distinct thinking systems, one that works fast and one that proceeds slowly.

System 1 houses our emotion and intuition, and it processes information and makes decisions automatically. “What you see is what there is,” basically describes our minds jumping to conclusions, drawing simply on what is in front of us without looking for further evidence or data. This is our Think FAST system.

System 2, the Think SLOW system describes the part of the brain that gets engaged in rational, logical thought, concentration and fact-based judgments. It saves us from many of the unchecked kneejerk reactions of System 1, but its influence on our problem-solving and decision-making habits is limited because of our automatic reliance on System 1.

If Kahneman’s claim is valid, and he makes a pretty good case for it with the research that led him to it, there are a couple of important messages in it for anyone who is about to put themselves on the line as the owner of an A3. First, go fast, jump to solution or action, take what you see and run with it thinking seems to be our default problem solving and decision making processes. That means we have to be very, very good at seeing and very, very right in our impression, assumptions and intuitions to hit the mark with our solutions and decisions. 

Second, the alternative of slow, systematic, getting the facts and knowing the actual conditions reasoning is not a natural act for most of us. That means we have to make an effort to slow down when we start work on an A3 because our preferred thinking style is not likely to produce the kind of problem solving story that will stand up to scrutiny when we make claims for what action should be taken based on it.

I have had the experience of being out there on an A3 limb making claims without the facts to support them and unless you just like pain and embarrassment it’s not fun. That is why I advise anyone needing to do an A3 to prepare for the work ahead by trying to activate the slow thinking system in their brain. Next, in this series, I’ll share suggestions for some questions you can use to check to see if you are ready to start writing about your A3 thinking.


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