Feb 26, 2006

A3 begins to reveal its value

To get our task force tuned into doing their work based on deployment of a policy – formally known as a “charge” meaning something a committee is “charged” to do – was difficult.

The starting point was necessarily the actual language of the charge. If it needed clarification or seemed to be flawed, the task force had a basis in the deployment process for going back to those who had set the target.

I took the charge document and did the best I could to organize it into the four parts of the A3: definition or business case, current state, target, and steps for reaching the target. To me, it seemed to have a high “murk” index. A narrative that made sense in general didn’t lend itself to the simplicity of the A3. “Identify opportunities,” “examine their viability,” and other such familiar-sounding phrases were bad enough, but the narrative wandered around without actually stating a big problem. The product in question might be consigned to the scrap heap if the task force’s plan didn’t improve its financial performance.

Regardless, it wasn’t up to me to interpret the language or bounce it back for clarification. It was for this panel of members who had been asked to take on the task to do so. I did force the surfacing of the financial problem in the first iteration of the A3 for the group.

Discussion that day explored many aspects of the market and product in question, not all of them based on their charge. They needed to translate the beginning A3 and the narrative it was based upon into an explication that would be their own.

At this point, I have to give credit to a member of the group, Bob Rowen, for employing another tool. Bob uses mind-mapping in a number of creative ways, which I had seen in his participation in another setting, the work of an SME member group calling itself the “Human Side of Lean.”

He had his laptop before him and kept typing while fully engaging in the discussion. When discussion went too fast or he sensed that people thought they were talking about the same thing but weren’t, Bob stopped them and forced consensus on exactly what should be recorded in the mind-map. Much of the discussion was about the world of academia, something new to Bob, so he could act as the outsider who needed issues to be defined and not just assumed to be obvious.

At the end of the day, there was a draft of the group’s A3 as they saw their mandate. It combined the “givens” from the executive team, with their views of important issues. The group agreed that they needed a “vision statement” that they would craft over the next few days, and finalize in a conference call the next week. They also delegated to one of their members the task of talking to our CFO and defining exactly what was considered to be “controllable” vs. “uncontrollable” costs, which seemed central to their financial target.

Neither the task force nor our staff team wanted this project to meet the fate of most similar projects: a large investment of time and thinking that would wander down paths undesired by the team that commissioned their task, resulting in no action, waste of effort, and discouragement that would affect the attitudes of all and affect their willingness to engage in volunteer work in the future.

If the members of the task force did not like the original task or the tasks represented in the A3 derived from the original, if they couldn’t explore something bold and exciting, they probably wouldn’t want to be involved at all. Their most recent phone conference had essentially resulted in a clean large sheet of paper with four empty boxes in which they would describe their project as they thought it should be pursued.

I pinned up our original A3s, the mind-maps of the meeting discussion and its resulting A3, and the “clean large sheet of paper” on a “work wall” for examination by our boss, the staff delegate for the executive team that had created the task force. The task force’s discussion had ranged from the classical business strategy question, “What business are we in and how should we define the purpose of a professional engineering society?” to the operational “How should we reduce printing costs?”

At a stand-up discussion, was clear to our boss that some of the directions seen by the task force were beyond their boundaries. The extreme murkiness of what they were being asked to do was also visible. The murk level wasn’t unusual for an SME committee. And that the task force’s direction was set by a team that included a number of managers from American manufacturing companies is a pretty strong indication that their companies’ strategy deployment plans contained a fair amount of murk themselves.

The A3 process was beginning to show its value. It showed why so many projects end up off-track and without results. The display predicted that the task force’s proposed A3 would be far different from the intent of the commissioning body. Unlike most projects, if the mismatch showed irreconcilable differences, everybody could stop working on it. If the views could be aligned, the task force stood the chance of making a real difference. Maybe early introduction of the A3 method would help prevent murky projects from being spawned in the first place.

I am eagerly awaiting the A3 representing the task force’s vision. I think they will come up with a bold direction, and it may even be consistent with reality. It could drive the executive team to a new understanding of the product and its market. Worst case, it will avoid the waste of time and talent that often accompanies traditionally-managed organizations.

Feb 20, 2006

My first test as a consultant

The meeting I mentioned in an earlier post was held a week ago. I had a presentation on A3 as a policy deployment tool, primed by a document sent beforehand. My e-mail soon showed that my presentation was not as effective as I had hoped. Here is the e-mail I sent today to my clients:

Hello all,

As a quick self-critique of my value-added as your lean consultant – I’ve got a lot to improve! I think we threw too many new things at you for one meeting, for one thing.

Using the A3 problem-solving method caused some perplexity among you. First of all, don’t worry too much about the tool at this very moment. Let me come back to that later. (A3 is a pretty silly name for a tool. Why name a thinking process after a metric paper size?!)

The terms “policy deployment” and “hoshin planning” also complicated matters. Apologies.

The key reason for referring to the tools is that they aid in aligning our goal with those of the executive group – with Mark T. as their designated liaison. We’ve always had “charges” for committees, and they aren’t bad for telling a group what to do. If the executive level just tosses a charge over the wall, however, we run the risk of wasting a lot of time.

All the work you guys did discussing the charge to place it in the nested A3 framework was important. Now that reflection needs to be fed back to Mark, because we brought up things that need clarification. Karen and Ellen will be identifying the unclear areas today.

Isn’t this a lot of mere wordsmithing? It’s hard to hold back from conclusions and solving problems. You are engineers – that’s what you do. You’ve also seen endless discussion of things that never change, and want your team to be different.

In the old world, we might have found a committee asking questions about a charge, but it is equally likely that the committee addressed the charge exactly as written. The process we chose – call it what you wish – includes a commitment by Mark at the executive level to adjust the charge or adjust our interpretation of it before you guys spend a lot of time on something that never sees the light of day.

The next aspect of using the A3 tool is the thorough examination of the current state. One of you reminded us of Cindy Jimmerson’s point that understanding the current state makes the target state easy to define. Without trying to invoke magic – “A3, A3, what do you see?” – we gather data, ask why, and gather more data. Sounds like engineering to me.

What if that reality-based target doesn’t align with the target we derived from the charge? Back to our customer as represented by our staff director. What if he, from our group’s study, starts believing that our new target differs greatly from the original one? He is forced to go back to his team and create new alignment.

The key is to start surfacing and examining the right problems, with continued interaction with the executive team. You identified some core issues that need to be resolved before you can really proceed. That’s not to say you’re looking at immovable obstacles in a futile situation. It just tells Mark that his team is obliged to do more work.

I hope this sounds like encouragement rather than exhortation. The peril of e-mail.

The blog adventure? Bob and I just threw that at you without remembering what it took to learn it. Well, Bob’s got a lot of IT background, but I don’t. I fumbled a lot when I tried to set up my first blog, and experienced that frustration, but forgot. (Well, if we really could remember pain, no family would have more than one child.) Free walk-throughs are available – just call me or Bob. Gee – I wonder if we’d hear more from our kids if we had family blogs??

I sincerely thank you for your feedback – you are my teachers and my learning objective is to figure out how a lean “consultant” can help a group like yours.

Feb 8, 2006


Yesterday I met with Sandy, the project leader and my primary customer. A couple of weeks ago I gave her a couple of pages of recommendations, along with an A3 describing how I thought I could support the team.

Our boss, Mark, has had people doing A3s for about a year. If you haven’t used them, they help to build a simple, visual, current state description, a future state vision, and define what it will take to get from one to the other. (They are called A3s because you draw them on an 11” x 17” sheet of paper – known to Xerox machine technicians and paper merchants by the designation “A3.”)

We use a model from the Lean Learning Center folks. Below is the LLC model and a rough idea of the A3 I did to facilitate my discussion with Sandy. I needed her to validate my thinking.

Project: Support ATP Task Force with lean thinking

Business case:
Task force leader has requested lean consulting support.

Task force's work is more successful because of lean.
Everyone learns more about journals, markets & lean.
Correct tools/thinking provided in response to customer (task force) pull.

Current state:

Inexperienced with lean applications
Think lean might be a help
Committed to finding value & eliminating waste

Help Ellen use VSM for journals process current state.
Suggest tools & data and help deploy them
Data one week before meeting

I also did an A3 for the project, based on a document Sandy wrote to establish the need and plan for the project. It had been validated by Mark and the task force chair, Peter.

Somehow, as Sandy and I talked, the idea of Hoshin planning – policy deployment – was percolating in my mind. I started drawing a set of rectangles – one for the executive level that stated the need for our project, one for the task force, and one for the staff process redesign team. The rectangles were linked – the task force line item on the executive A3 becoming the business case objective on the task force A3. I don’t think classical Hoshin planning uses A3s for deployment, but what the heck? We’re learning by doing, and we can get better at using tools as we go.

Sandy took the project A3 and went about constructing an executive A3 based on our current strategic planning documents. A3s are for walking around and showing to people, so Sandy showed it to Ellen and incorporated her ideas. Sandy then showed Mark what she had put together and he liked the idea. Seeing the linked plans, Mark was able to clarify the executive A3 as understood by Sandy, which is exactly what Hoshin planning is supposed to do. In this case, literally get the team members on the same page. Sandy is more confident in the team’s ability to know what it is supposed to do once we get the other team members familiar with the A3 tool.

I cobbled up a short primer on A3 problem solving that can go to the team members along with their advance meeting info. Luckily, Cindy Jimmerson of Lean Healthcare West, agreed to do an article on A3s for the March “Lean Directions” and I had some materials from the Lean Learning Center. I grafted them to each other for a quickie introduction to the A3 process.

Sandy is super-organized and is determined to e-mail the members their meeting materials Wednesday (Feb 9) for our meeting in Chicago on Monday. The schedule is more compressed that she would like, but our chair wanted an early face-to-face meeting to kick off the project.

Next – value-stream mapping the process for getting articles written and ready to publish in a scholarly journal. And pretty soon, reflections on integrating thoughts from Joe Ely and Hal Macomber on lean project organization.

Question: This is a pretty inexact use of Hoshin planning, but others I’ve seen are too complex. Do you know of a “learner’s permit” type of process that would be better than using the A3?

Feb 4, 2006

False pretenses

Now I’m in real trouble. Someone has taken my talk about lean seriously and asked me to be a “lean consultant” on a highly visible task force. It includes some influential members of our professional society who probably know lots more about lean than I do.

We’re not looking at physical flow in a manufacturing system, but at knowledge work performed by a project team. Most of what is written about lean is based on fixing up physical flow processes, not projects. I’m going back and reading the writings from the “Gang of Seven’s” co-blogging on project kaizen as a start. (“Gang of Seven” websites are in my links list to the right.) I’m not sure we are kaizen-ing a project, however, since it hasn’t even begun.
Some lean practices applicable to the project seem like common-sense stuff: firmly scope the project, have an agenda and stick to it, keep good notes, and clearly identify action items. Our chair – an engineer – has already called for that.

I do know we need to “start with the customer,” so I can keep that point in the forefront of discussion. Focusing on market segments and thinking about their needs is not always easy for engineers. They like to start with the process and fix things immediately. That’s why they became engineers. So I’m recommending that our staff team provide market data to give the analytical thinkers something to ponder.

I recognize I’m going to have a hard time keeping out of the discussion. The subject is journals. I happen to have a lot of experience with the library market and the periodicals publishing industry. Manufacturing engineers make assumptions about publishing and marketing. If I butt in with a lot of reasons why their ideas are not going to work, I’ll be stepping out of my role as a consultant plus preventing them from learning by discovery.

Relationships can mean a lot in getting a project done. Fortunately – or not, they may feel – I know some of the people well. The two staff people, I’ve known for many years. One of the engineers is a metalworking expert I’ve known for more years than I’d want to say. I signed him to his first book-author contract. We wrangled with a few issues during the editing process and emerged as friends, as far as I know. One other is a retired IBM executive I’ve only gotten to know in the last few months, but we have co-developed a blog and learned a lot from each other. He has some experience in the printing/publishing field. Sorry, Bob, we’re likely to exclude that part of the process from the scope of this particular project.

So here’s my request for help. Can you experienced lean project managers advise me on how to this project team support, and help us all learn more about lean as we work? What else do you need to know? How sound is my reasoning?
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm