There is a defined follow–up section at the end of an A3 problem-solving document for reviewing progress in executing the improvement plan. But there is no section for the required reflection between “check” and “adjust,” in the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle, which is where the learning is earned. And there is no section for an equally critical part of the A3 process, namely, follow–through during execution. Without follow–through by management, using activities such as plan-versus-actual reviews and problem–solving to address gaps and obstacles to implementation, a plan is often just a wish riding on hope.
There is an important difference between follow–through and follow–up in the PDCA cycle. Follow-through means trying to follow the plan as laid out to make the changes needed to implement the countermeasures as faithfully as possible. This usually includes rigorous cause/effect problem–solving to identify and address the reasons why planned activities were not executed or plans were adjusted to stay as close to plan and schedule as possible. Details of these reviews, such as what was learned and what actions were taken, must be captured for check-and-reflect activities in the next phase of the PDCA cycle: follow–up.
What happens during follow-through that makes it so critical? The key is again going down into the dirty details of problems to learn and deal with the actual conditions. Doing rapid-learning experiments to breakdown performance issues is hard work, but they also involve the thrill of testing ideas and learning. Identifying and selecting countermeasures can be creative, and coming to an agreement on them can be challenging. But follow-through is simply doing the needed work.
Delivering on the Improvement Plan
You’ve led the creation of plans that include commitments and asked others to commit to support also. Now it is time to deliver on those plans, systematically, step by step, in many cases completing A before you can start B. That requires attending to the details to make sure everything falls into place. And if things don’t materialize as planned, problem–solving must be done to discover why and address the reasons to get back on plan as quickly as possible.
All of that is work, requiring leadership, management, coordination, relationships, and influence. Execution to plan is a full-time job. Without it, plans are meaningless. And usually, the major portion of that job belongs to the problem owner, the A3 creator. There is no glory to the role but without it, changes and corrective actions usually don’t become solutions.
In “Toyota think,” a plan is an agreed-to process (i.e. the standard work) for implementing countermeasures that key stakeholders have agreed to establish to see if the changes produce needed performance improvements. Just as adhering to standard work is critical for getting needed results, executing a plan as close as possible to the agreed-to process and schedule is essential for both success and learning.
However, as is frequently said in Toyota, “Planning is absolutely essential and critical; things never go according to plan.” Therefore, using the plan as a basis for monitoring execution activity and timing are crucial to assuring problem–solving happens when and where needed to quickly address performance gaps. The urgency is to learn how to bring actual activities back into alignment with planned activities or, in a few cases, to learn how to adjust planned activities that were not based on a sound grasp of the original situation.
The Essential Activities of Follow-Through:
- Executing the plan for implementing countermeasures as close to the process and the agreed-to schedule as possible;
- Reviewing execution progress frequently at major transition points, such as “handoffs” from one activity to the next, to defect differences between planned and actual performance and unanticipated obstacles;
- Grasping the situation of the differences between plan and actual to learn what happened or did not happen as planned;
- Initiating problem–solving quickly to address unexpected barriers or significant gaps between plan and actual by delegating responsibility for investigating the gaps and proposing corrective actions to address them;
- Planning corrective actions and following through on them to address gaps in execution and return implementation to the schedule;
- Reviewing if the initial effort to grasp the situation that underpins the plan to determine if new facts require making adjustments to the plan.
The Leader’s Role in Follow–Through
- Scheduling and leading plan-versus-actual reviews at major transitions points in implementation and requiring those responsible to attend and report the status;
- Rejecting explanations that blame others for missed targets or that overly promise catching up by the next review;
- Delegating responsibility to investigate plan-versus-actual gaps and recommend possible corrective actions;
- Following up on assigned investigations to assure they are rigorously done and that the actual conditions and reasons for gaps are reported;
- Maintaining problem-solving during follow-through activities and reviews by asking humble inquiry questions that surface details, prompt awareness, and stimulate thinking without taking over problem–solving responsibility by telling others what to do.