How do “lean” companies solve problems, create plans, and get new things done?


There exists a method of problem solving that generates knowledge and helps people when it comes to learning. 

Company managers use a tool called the A3 - as a key tactic in sharing a different way of thinking that lies at the heart of achieving sustained success.



A3 reports, and more importantly the underlying thinking, play more than a purely practical role


They also embody a more critical core strength of a lean company. A3s serve as mechanisms for managers to mentor others in root-cause analysis and scientific thinking, while also aligning the interests of individuals and departments throughout the organization by encouraging productive dialogue and helping people learn from one another. A3 management is a system based on building structured opportunities for people to learn in the manner that comes most naturally to them: through experience, by learning from mistakes and through plan-based trial and error.

Here we look at a two-page mechanism for attacking problems adapted by companies such as Toyota. The A3’s constraints (just 2 pages) and its structure (specific categories, ordered in steps, adding up to a “story”) are the keys to the A3’s power. Though the A3 process can be used effectively both to solve problems and to plan initiatives, its greatest payoff is how it fosters learning. It presents ideal opportunities for mentoring and it becomes a basis for collaboration.

Like many A3 authors, their first effort reveals their need to show they have an answer — “the answer”. They jump to a conclusion and develop a strong emotional attachment to it without having traced a more rigorous analysis of the situation through seeing and confirming the actual situation.



Let's see how the A3 process works


Let us imagine that a young manager called David Porter is trying to solve a problem. The problem is that his Japan-based company is building a manufacturing plant in the United States, requiring many technical documents to be translated into English, and the translation project has been going badly.

This diagram represent just some of the stages in a typical development sequence to solve the problem mentioned above. This process will involve numerous iterations of the A3 before it is final.  




Source: Managing to Learn, by John Shook, The Lean Enterprise Institute, 2008.

David uses the A3 process to attack the problem, which means that he gets coached through it by his boss and mentor Keith Smith. David’s first attempt at the A3 will have revealed (as early-stage A3s often do) his eagerness to find a solution as quickly as possible. Seeing the first version, Keith Smith will use the A3 process as a mechanism to mentor David Porter in root-cause analysis and scientific thinking. Keith will thus prevent his mentee from jumping ahead to a solution.

David will discover he can simply be an investigator and let the needs and facts of the situation speak for themselves. Rather than the answer, he must simply state succinctly, “What is the problem?” Through coaching David Porter and others, in this manner, Keith Smith seeks to embed organizational habits and mind-sets that enable, encourage and teach people to think and take initiative. The iterative process of producing progressive A3s generates practical problem-solving skills for the learner, while providing the manager with a practical mechanism to mentor others, while at the same time achieving desired business results.

One way to describe the A3 is as “standardized storytelling,” which refers to the ability of A3s to communicate both facts and meaning in a commonly understood format. Like any narrative tale, an A3 tells a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be traced from the upper left-hand side to the lower right side. Because readers are familiar with the format, they can focus easily on the matter contained. It becomes the basis for reaching a shared understanding.



The simplicity of A3s can be applied to anything...




In the example above the author David Porter uses the A3 process not only to figure out the best solutions to his problem, but to manufacture the authority he needs to proceed with his plan. On the other hand Keith Smith uses it to mentor his protégé, while getting the required results for the company (in this instance, the solution to a problem). Organizations use A3s to get decisions made, distribute authority to the level needed for good decisions, align people and teams on common goals and learn for continued constant improvement. The ultimate goal of A3s is not just to solve the problem at hand, but to make the process of problem solving transparent and teachable in a manner that creates an organization full of thinking and learning problem solvers. In this way, the A3 management process powerfully embodies the essence of operational learning.

About the author:

Makham Dhalivaal |Senior Business Consultant | Makham.Dhalivaal@incadea.com

After spending 30 years in automotive industry, on both the retail and OEMs sides, Makham joined incadea as a senior business consultant to support worldwide customers, OEMs and partners in delivering the best practice of automotive processes. He accomplishes this by analyzing specific customer processes and business management areas, suggesting improvements or alternative solutions, and by providing customer view and feedback to incadea departments.