I embraced a challenge to visit eight companies in three countries over five months, meeting 200 people: each with a unique problem to solve. I did this while teaching LEI’s Managing to Learn A3 Management course, as well as our recently launched “remote” version of this course embodying next generation learning principles, answering the call from our community for accessible, digestible, actionable learning modules. While delivering this learning, and as a result of upwards of 2,500 interviews in my role as Learning Activities Manager with people and organizations worldwide seeking LEI’s guidance and support, I have been in the unique position to deepen my own A3 practice every day.
Here I’ve responded to some commonly asked questions to help you relate to the real challenges of A3 practice, and build your own and your organization’s capability for learning, using this approach. Let us know what resonates; or what other challenges confront you.
Q) What are the benefits of A3 problem solving?
A) When we phrase it as “A3 Problem Solving” it is a bit constrained. The A3 Management process is really a way of thinking and a method of working with (using) problems as a vehicle for learning. The A3 process leads us to gain alignment across our teams and organization. It is a method through which we can coach and mentor others, leading by example and earning the authority to lead change, even when or if we’re not in a role with positional power. Through all of that, built on strong foundations of purpose, process and people, A3 Management becomes a powerful engine for learning from our problems and preventing future recurrence.
Q) How can I identify when and where A3 problem solving will help my organization?
A) I would encourage us all to consider A3 as A3 Thinking, or the A3 Management Process versus A3 Problem Solving. “The A3 Management process is really a way of thinking and a method of working with problems as a vehicle for learning. It is a method through which we can coach and mentor others, leading by example and earning the authority to lead change, even when or if we’re not in a role with positional power.” Singular focus on the problem solving facet of A3 really limits the power of this dimensional approach to organizational learning. Thanks to Art Smalley in his book Four Types of Problems, we come to understand the characteristics of different problem situations to quickly assess and diagnose what kind of situation we’re in. Taking that as a first step, we can bring to bear the best type of A3 application for the situation at hand. When we do that, our A3s begin to engage horizontally and vertically across the organization to excavate what is currently happening, rooted in facts. With that socialization comes a peripheral view of the problem that gives visibility to all the elements in the system of work where the problem manifested.
“A good A3 is a reflection of the dialogue that created it,” says John Shook in his book Managing to Learn. One impactful way that A3 will help your organization is by opening up cross-functional collaboration around problems and the results that your current design of work is delivering.
Q) How do I get the team’s input and buy-in when they are already over capacity, or when my problem isn’t perceived as their problem?
A) A critical first step is accepting the responsibility of authorship. Taking the initiative to become the steward of this problem on behalf of the organization and all the stakeholders who intersect with this problem in one way or another. There is an important dynamic of leadership here in keeping that authority where it belongs, allowing that ownership to take hold. As that is established, the phase of the A3 referred to as the background aims to answer the question: Why this? Why now? We aspire to answer that question from multiple perspectives, creating a compelling business case that will appeal to the people engaged in “Practicing A3 means it stops being my problem or your problem, and we begin to focus and align on addressing what are meaningfully our problems.”the work, the customers who receive its output, as well as the organization as a whole. We’re taught to artfully link that business case directly to the organization’s strategic objectives which then focuses our problem solving journeys into harmony with what we’re aspiring to achieve as a whole, at an organizational level. When we can do this, it weeds out the things we want to do now from the things we want to do MOST, and helps us learn, collectively, about what is a shared imperative. It is entirely possible that we embark on a problem investigation to learn that there is not a compelling enough reason to solve for THIS problem NOW. If we find this discouraging, we miss the valuable lesson of alignment and the opportunity to move closer to a shared purpose. Practicing A3 means it stops being my problem or your problem, and we begin to focus and align on addressing what are meaningfully our problems.
Q) What makes for a good A3?
A) Good is a tricky word, but if by good we mean effective, then as above, “a good A3 is a reflection of the dialogue that created it.” Another measure might be that an A3 reduces the lead time to mutual understanding. An A3 is “not just a collection of facts and data, it tells a compelling story.” In a world of compounding complexity and the relentless accumulation of information, the A3 template is a refreshing reduction of the problem situation. It forces a kind of “5S” of information. When done well, the author is able to derive the essence of the situation by discerning what is relevant, and reduce the noise around the problem, using indisputable facts to tell a logical story that links the problem to the countermeasures, gaining incremental agreement each step of the way. With frequent check-ins, A3 allows us to “show our work” and use each moment of resistance as a moment to teach, or a moment to learn something. Both are vital. A good A3 invites dialog and even debate, and it earns you the trust and authority to lead change. Underpinning it all is a clear, articulate problem statement. As Charles Kettering has stated, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” When you can get to that place of stating your problem in a quantifiable way, rooted in performance, against a standard, it becomes a rock solid foundation of understanding to build upon.
Q) What steps should I take for a successful A3 rollout?
A) “Planning is everything, plans are worthless.” But plan nonetheless. Three common mistakes in achieving objectives are (1) that when you reach the countermeasure, you’ve GOT IT and everyone will agree, (2) that you’ve found THE way, and/or (3) that the solution is the plan. The planning and follow-up phase of the A3 are really where the problem solving effort BEGINS. Up until this point, you’ve been investigating, synthesizing, gaining consensus and facilitating “Three common mistakes in achieving objectives are (1) that when you reach the countermeasure, you’ve GOT IT and everyone will agree, (2) that you’ve found THE way, and/or (3) that the solution is the plan.”engagement. The A3 is an iterative process, and also a cumulative one. The ability to enact the countermeasure, adjust the standard and affect change (if this is what we mean by a successful A3 rollout) will offer a direct reflection of the perspectives you included, the framing of the problem, the accuracy of your facts, the relevance of your choices, the level of engagement of others, the logic of your analysis and, importantly, the specificity of your goal.
Goal setting in A3 thinking has a direct relationship to when your endeavor will be “complete.” Another thing to consider here is what we mean by a “successful” A3 rollout. If, after hours, days or weeks investigating a situation, we learn something more about the work, each other and our organizational priorities, then that in itself might be considered a success. We now have a more refined understanding of one another and our organization’s selection criteria for where resources are applied, and where they are not. As Donella Meadows shares in her book Thinking in Systems, “purposes are deduced from behavior. Not from rhetoric or stated goals.” Engaging in the behavior (walking the walk) with others will help you understand the true purposes of the work and one another.
Q) My company struggles when we do A3s because so many stakeholders are involved. How can we clarify which “customer” to focus on?
A) This is a challenging question (thank you). One way to think about it would be to focus on the work. If our A3 effort is in relationship to a gap from standard, then it is no more or less a problem for any of the stakeholders- we all suffer from the gap in performance. Whether or not people are willing to “live with it” or “take care of it” (meaning adapt to every single recurrence therefore enabling the problem to persist, making themselves seemingly more and more vital to the organization by leveraging the broken system), complain about it, demand change, or take ownership and investigate it is largely out of our hands. If, then, we focus on the performance… what is the work? What is the expected performance? Actual performance? Do we agree? How is the process or system performing outside the expectations? How frequently? What is the effect? When we can spend our vital time and energy investigating these questions, then the people who touch (or receive) the work will all have their voices heard and represented ON the A3, THROUGH the lens of the direct reality of experience, versus through the lens of their perception, opinion, history, or mood. The work offers us a powerful vehicle to cut through the BS and see the nature of the problem in reality. Too many cooks in the kitchen is a not a good thing. But too many stakeholders to a problem only raises the value and importance and OPPORTUNITY to learn and grow as a team. It takes perseverance and devotion- ownership- but focusing on the work and letting it and the relevant facts that reveal themselves guide you through the journey is one way to manage in a situation like you describe.
Q) What are some of the pitfalls I should watch out for when I am scoping my initial A3 problem statement?
A) Think about three attributes of a strong problem statement: 1) it is quantifiable. 2) it is performance based. 3) it is set against a standard. If I say “Joe is a reckless driver,” is that a problem? Maybe. What does reckless mean? It could mean a lot of things (I love the suggestions students in class offer to answer this question). Let’s say reckless means he drives fast. Great- clarity, alignment around what we mean. But what’s fast? Write down on a post-it note what you think fast is,“Think about three attributes of a strong problem statement: 1) it is quantifiable. 2) it is performance based. 3) it is set against a standard.” and we’ll quickly reveal that ‘fast’ to you doesn’t mean the same as ‘fast’ to me. Its relative. But when the lights fire up behind Joe, the officer walks up and says “Joe, you were driving 80 mph in a 55 mph zone.” THAT is a problem. Why? Because here, 55 mph is the standard. And here 80 mph is what Joe was driving. Its clear. Now we can address it, or debate it, but we can do so with focus and clarity around what specifically we’re talking about. Did it happen once? Troubleshoot. Does it happen repeatedly? Investigate! In this case we’re solving for safety. The performance you’re investigating may have implications for safety too. It may affect quality, delivery, and/or cost. To “quantify” your problem, you need a unit of measure. Time? Volume? Miles per hour? In A3 thinking, we’re called to decide. The level of clarity we achieve through the principle of genchi genbutsu and the stewardship of factual representation of the situation, the iteration of our shared understanding allows us to decide what we’re solving for together. One real pitfall would be a linear approach, done in isolation.