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.