When your organization needs more problem solvers, what do you do—make or buy?
The fixed mindset frames this as a “talent gap.” As Professor of Psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck suggests, the fixed mindset sees talent as given and immutable—whatever you’re born with. Fixed-mindset managers, then, focus on “buying” the missing resources hiring new or replacing people. On the other hand, the growth mindset views talent as capabilities that people can develop. So, growth-mindset leaders close the gap by “making”: teaching and coaching people.
The approach of lean leaders derives partly from Fujio Cho’s famous quote, “First we build people, then we build cars.” They align decidedly with the growth mindset. For other leaders, the growth mindset aligns with their resource constraints (many cannot add headcount) and values (many are committed to their current team members).
The key challenge, then, is how can you, as a leader, enhance the capabilities of everyone in your organization?
The key challenge, then, is how can you, as a leader, enhance the capabilities of everyone in your organization? You can understand why so many leaders choose hiring over developing. The former has a standard process. It seems more straightforward. What those leaders may not realize, however, is that there is an established approach to growing talent.
Enter the A3 process—a way for leaders and managers to help their people develop problem-solving capabilities. It offers leaders at every level a structured way to guide team members through taking ownership of meaningful problems, collecting and communicating critical facts, leading change collaboratively, and receiving—seeking out even—mentorship.
A Virtual Trip to the Gemba
I saw the promise and power of this approach at a recent meeting with dozens of leaders from across Turner Construction’s New York Business Unit. Turner Construction, I would say, is a growth-mindset company (and, full disclosure, a co-learning partner with LEI). In many ways, the company invests in the people who work on its behalf, including subcontractors. I’ve written before about a company initiative to “create the right environment” so its people can be successful and grow. Within this “right environment,” Turner is using the A3 process to develop problem-solving capability. The meeting I was invited to is just one mechanism they’ve created for this purpose.
At the meeting, on a rotating basis, individuals trying to solve important problems present their A3s to a group of senior leaders, vice presidents, and the like. After the presentation, the executives give feedback to the A3’s author, aka the problem-solver. The meeting is a way to (a) disseminate information to and gain input from key leaders, (b) recognize and give feedback to folks who are trying to make things better, and (c) implicitly signal the importance of A3-based problem-solving, and by extension lean thinking and practice. The A3s also get displayed in the business unit’s obeya room.
Before the meeting I joined, the A3 that would be presented was sent out as a pre-read. So, I set aside some time, printed it out, read through it line by line, and made notes in the margins. The problem-solving effort had been initiated, the A3 explained, after a failed bid on a coveted project. When the virtual meeting began, the author’s Zoom window took over my computer screen as he started the presentation. When he finished, the meeting’s facilitator asked, “Questions? Feedback?” Zoom spotlighted folks that chimed in. After some back and forth, the meeting ended.
Having witnessed one component of a burgeoning management system—a system built, in part, to facilitate capability development—I thought back to how they got started with the A3 process.
Building Lean Leadership
A few years ago, the business unit’s leaders organized a series of learning cohorts to receive training and coaching on the A3 process. They bought into the promise that the A3 process would foster problem-solving skills and facilitate a new, coaching-based approach to management. Each cohort would go through two learning cycles: first as a problem-solver, second as a coach for other problem solvers. The first cohort included the top dozen or so leaders. Subsequent cohorts were made up of their direct reports. In this way, the overall learning process was “leader-led.”
To get started, learners would take ownership of real problems to solve. One example was a hospital project that had fallen behind schedule due to delays with the installation of the exterior wall, also known as the curtain wall. They would learn how to frame such problems as measurable gaps to close. In the example, a gap was defined between the needed and actual installation rates.
Next, learners would be challenged to grasp and analyze the facts of the current situation. In the aforementioned A3, the problem solver reviewed the project’s overall schedule, visited the job site to directly observe the installation process (he also visited the factory where curtain wall panels are manufactured), talked to the installers to gain their perspective, and analyzed the facts to identify root causes and/or obstacles. He organized his findings and his thinking on the left side of an A3-sized sheet of paper which he then used to engage key stakeholders.
Once the problem, its process(es), and root causes/obstacles were basically understood, the learners would be encouraged to collaboratively brainstorm and experiment with potential countermeasures. In the case of the curtain wall problem, this included new ways to manufacture, deliver, and install it. To monitor progress in closing the installation rate gap, the leader set up a rudimentary management system.
Once the first “on-the-job” learning cycle was complete (enough), the same leaders would transition from problem solvers to coaches. Because Turner had started the series of cohorts with the business unit’s top leaders, they became problem-solving coaches for their direct reports. As a result, coaching problem solvers in a structured way was becoming a primary and practical expression of their leadership.
Leveraging Lean Leadership
Turner Construction’s New York Business Unit has moved beyond the programmatic approach of developing lean leaders via learning cohorts. Today, folks who once participated in the cohorts are leading teams on job sites and in the office. And, based on what I witnessed in the virtual meeting, they lead those teams differently than they were a few years ago.
In this case, rather than just hoping for a better outcome with the next bid, an emerging leader was assigned to improve the bid-making process by reflecting on what went wrong in this instance. To carry out the assignment, he was expected to follow the A3 process, an expectation that is reinforced by the weekly meeting.
For example, after the A3 presentation was finished, one senior leader asked the A3’s author how he had gone about understanding the bid-making process. In response, the author acknowledged he still needed to “go to the gemba.” What a great exchange! Why?
For starters, the senior leader who asked the question is very experienced. He’s participated in and led the bid-making process for decades. Undoubtedly, he had plenty of ideas for how to improve the process and solve its problems. But, given his experience with the A3 process, rather than focusing on the proposed solutions, he challenged how the problem solver was learning about the problem. In other words, the senior leader was focused on coaching the A3 process. For his part, the problem solver responded by acknowledging the relatively new (to the business unit) problem-solving standard: always go to the gemba.
Just last week, I drove to New York City to visit with several of the business unit’s leaders. With considerable pride, they showed me some impressive business results, specifically around safety. They also updated me on several key initiatives. At the center of it all is the A3 process. I was told that’s because it’s delivering good results, but also because it’s demonstrably developing problem-solving capabilities. In that sense, it’s become a practical expression of the company’s long-held growth mindset. Good stuff.
My question for you, then, is how does your company close its talent gaps? Does it simply buy new talent? Or, does it try growing it by training and coaching? If the former, I’d encourage you to consider using the A3 process, following the lead of growth-mindset companies like Turner Construction.
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