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It Takes 2 (or more) to A3

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We've just launched John Shook's new book, Managing to Learn, and I'm tremendously excited. I think it is the most important work we have published at LEI. This is because John clearly explains why A3 thinking is the core of the Toyota management system and shows how the repeated act of creating A3s also creates lean managers.

But I'm worried as well as excited. When we launched John and Mike Rother's Learning to See 11 years ago, I expected readers would use the wonderful tool of value-stream mapping (VSM) to engage in a dialogue with everyone touching value streams. I hoped that they would start with the business problem, map the current state as a team activity, and envision a future state able to address the problem while engaging everyone’s best efforts.

What often happened instead was that value-stream maps were assigned to staff members in improvement offices. They drew maps of the current and future states, frequently without clear problem definition and with only passing interaction with those touching the value stream. They then assumed that line management would embrace the proposed future state and make it a reality. In this way, misused VSMs became corporate wall paper.

So as we all embrace A3 – and I detect a tremendous swell of interest across the Lean Community -- let's be careful not to make the same mistake. Instead let's make A3 the foundation of lean management.

To do this we have to realize that no one can create a useful A3 in isolation. It takes at least two individuals and often many more. Developing an A3 involves an organizational drama in which someone identifies a condition or problem needing attention. When this person is at a higher level, he or she assumes the role of mentor, assigning responsibility for creating the A3 to someone at a lower level -- the owner -- who is closer to the gemba where value is actually created.

However, the owner of the A3 – at whatever level of the organization -- cannot address the condition or solve the problem alone. He or she must go to the gemba and talk directly with everyone touching the problem, aware that most problems in an organization are the result of a poorly defined or poorly managed process shared by different areas, departments, and functions (often including customers and suppliers.)

As the owner proceeds with the A3 analysis, an intense dialogue ensues between the mentor and the owner, one that soon includes everyone touching the troublesome process. This dialogue gradually clarifies the problem, its root cause, the range of potential countermeasures, the best apparent countermeasure, the steps that need to be taken (the "who, what, when, where") to implement the best countermeasure, the appropriate check on the results, and the necessary reflection on next steps (which often lead to another A3.)

The real magic here is that the owner takes responsibility for addressing the problem through intense dialogue with individuals in areas of the business where he or she has no authority. During the A3 process, the owner actually manufactures the authority for putting the countermeasure in place. However, this type of authority is not a matter of control delineated on an organization chart. People in different areas with different bosses energetically participate in implementing the countermeasure because they have actively participated in the dialogue that developed what they believe is the best countermeasure for an important problem.

The additional benefit of the complete A3 cycle is that it develops the owner to become a higher-level manager. This is why John uses the dynamic terms "mentor" and "owner" in Managing to Learn rather than the static terms "boss" and "direct report". At the same time, mastering the skill of A3 prepares those touching the process at lower levels in an organization to someday become lean managers. This occurs when they are assigned responsibility for their own A3s. Or, even better, it occurs when they spontaneously take the initiative to identify opportunities for improvement by developing A3s for evaluation by their mentors.

As we launch Managing to Learn, I wish every member of the Lean Community rapid success in mastering the critical skills of A3 management. But please, don't try to A3 all alone!

Best regards,

P.S. To read an excerpt from Managing to Learn, please go to: https://www.lean.org/Bookstore/ProductDetails.cfm?SelectedProductID=246

This Thursday, October 9, John Shook and I will be discussing how lean leaders create productive problem solvers while tackling specific problems through A3 learning. [Editor's Note: You can find this and other webinars in our webinar archive.]

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