The A3 process has many benefits. It helps us follow a thinking process, facilitates communication, and builds consensus. It stimulates learning, forces us to focus on what is a priority, and supports both mentoring and leadership. It helps us solve all kinds of operational and organizational problems, and it helps us plan.
I recently discovered a new benefit: A3 thinking as an antidote to anxiety!
In my first lean coaching session to support a new CEO of a company our Institute has been working with, I asked my new mentee what his biggest personal problem, issue, or concern was. He replied immediately: “I’m too anxious.” As we talked more, he said he had been working on his anxiety without much success. He had a personal coach and even tried therapy. Neither seemed to work.
My mentee was just beginning his tenure as CEO. In his late 30s, second generation, with his father moving onto the board and away from the operations, he was assuming this new responsibility after having spent time in various roles within the company since his teenage years. The company had been growing, but as is expected with growth, they were having many challenges. For example, expanding into new business areas, getting the right mid management, the list went on and on. As a result of his anxiety, he was seen as rude, impatient, angry, and incapable of listening. This hurts any effort to engage people and create teamwork. On the contrary, it created people avoiding risk taking and assuming responsibilities.
At first I didn’t know how to help him. I could see it was affecting his work, but wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered some breathing exercises I had learned a long time ago, basically a simple meditation practice. So I asked him to close his eyes and concentrate on a mantra or just count. I asked him to open his eyes as soon as he realized he had lost concentration. By my surprise, his concentration span lasted only a few seconds!
As I couldn’t think of anything else, I decided to rely on my lean coaching approach of trying to be practical and develop his capabilities by focusing on something real and important for the business. So we took a walk. And, after realizing the company’s current biggest issue was their new DC (Distribution Center) that was not working well (and creating lots of noise and confusion for costumers), I suggested that he do an A3 on it improving just the distribution center.
I explained the logic and asked him to his homework until our next interaction. I told him it would be useful to exercise the thinking method and that in the future, I was expected him to use it as a coaching tool with his direct collaborators. I also asked him to take a closer look at some of the A3s his team members were doing. The company had been using it as a problem solving tool, although not as a mentoring/coaching tool yet.
About a month passed by. And, in our next interaction, the first thing he said? “I like the A3. It’s helping me to reduce my anxiety!” I was so surprised. After many years learning, using, and trying to teach the A3 process, I had never heard or thought about this additional benefit. I’d never talked about this way either.
My mentee went on by saying that having a piece of blank paper in front of him initially made him nervous; he found it difficult to concentrate. But gradually, it made him think a little deeper and that time spent thinking more deeply helped him to avoid his rather insane habit of drafting an very long list of actions he had in his mind, which all needed to get done immediately. It made him feel more capable and less arrogant. He realized he didn’t know everything and he didn’t have to know everything. All he really had to do was put things on paper, which was very hard in the beginning. After a couple more interactions with his A3 – no, just acknowledging this additional benefit of the A3 was not enough to change his behavior! – his anxiety began to reduce.
Some of his colleagues and collaborators are surprised with his new behavior and approach to work in general. They found him to be less angry, more patient, even capable of listening without interrupting. But they are still cautious about it, asking me if he, for example, is just playing a new role artificially to gain their support. I don’t know. I think it may just stick.
Exercise and meditation are typically the recommendations for coping with anxiety. But we may have just learned a new cure: the A3 process. It helps us think, solve problems, and strategize, sure. But it also helps us calm down, concentrate, and think deeply. It lets the mind flow. These things are just as useful as the other benefits of A3 thinking. At least they are to my mentee.