Posted on December 15, 2009.
For this book review I’m going to try something a little different. I’ll be posting a brief review and then providing a few discussion questions that won’t necessarily require you to have read the book itself. The idea is to stimulate a little more commenting and discussion in the comments. We’ll see how that works.
The book I’m writing about today is called Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor, and Lead (http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/276865965). I was first turned onto this book by a few of the employees at my company who read it and suggested the library purchase a copy. Since we bought a copy it has been one of the books with the highest circulation numbers we have. So I figured I should give it a read despite my usual disdain for popular management books. I’ve got to say that I’m glad I picked it up.
The A3 Management Process is one of the main tools that Toyota uses to solve problems and facilitate lean management. A3 is simply the type of paper they would usually use to write their reports on, but the ideas behind the A3s go far beyond that. What they are intended to do is really get to the root sources of problems and to avoid jumping ahead to the first solution that comes to mind. The process can be broken down into about four or five main steps. The first step is what the book describes as “going to the gemba.” Gemba is a Japanese word meaning something like “real place.” Going to the gemba is the idea of becoming very familiar with the people involved in any particular issue and the work they do. Getting their input and understanding their view of what the problem is and how it might be resolved is integral the A3 process. Without going to the source and understanding all of the factors it is almost impossible to come up with an adequate solution. The second step in the A3 process is finding the root cause of a problem. This is sort of an extension of going to the gemba, but relates specifically to the problem at hand. This portion of the book introduces the idea of the “Five Whys” which is the notion that you need to continue to ask why something is happening until you get to the most basic cause of the problem. It may take more or less than five whys, but if you can continue to ask why about something more basic then you have not yet reached the root cause.
The next couple of steps deal more directly with providing solutions, or as the book prefers to call them “countermeasures.” Solutions sound too final and those involved with A3 processes recognize that every countermeasure will provide its own set of problems to be worked on. In order to provide the best countermeasure(s) you need to use set-based decision-making. You must provide a range of possible countermeasures and work through them all with those people at the gemba to see what advantages and disadvantages exist with each of them. The A3 process also relies on Pull-Based Authority rather than assuming that those who are on the highest level of the command chain will make all of the decisions and that those at the lower levels will simply go along with those decisions. The idea is to talk through countermeasures until there is agreement and then get those who need to act to commit to seeing the process through. The A3 process promotes this by having those who take responsibility initial what they will do and when they will have it done.
The final step is to measure what the results of the countermeasure have been and determine if it is working. Even if it is mostly working that does not mean that additional problems have not arisen and may need to be dealt with. If, on the other hand, the countermeasure was not successful, then it is time to return to the beginning and see what else should be tried.
That is a brief summary of the contents of this book. What is most interesting about the way the book is designed is that it is set up to show managers and other people how to take others through the A3 process and encourage them to analyze problems and solutions in this way. The book is set up so that each chapter lets you look at the A3 process from the perspective of both a manager and his/her employee and see how the employee is encouraged to understand and use the process, while the manager gives the employee the room to make a few mistakes along the road to becoming a better A3 thinker.
All in all, Managing to Learn does a good job of explaining an interesting and useful management process while also showing how to put it into practice in the real world. The A3 process is shown to be a fairly scientific way in which to get at the root causes of problems and find viable solutions for them. I would say the book is definitely worth picking up.
1. Is the A3 process fundamentally at odds with the more recent internet/Web 2.0 idea of simply trying many things and seeing whether they work or not? Does it make more sense to do a detailed analysis and put forth a specific plan, or is it preferable to put a small amount of effort into many solutions and see which provides the best results?
2. The book examples of taking people through the A3 process all end in the near consensus of the employees involved and consensus is certainly a laudable goal. Do high levels of employee agreement seem realistic? Why or why not?
3. The A3 process places a high amount of importance on the thorough examination of problems and their solutions. This is somewhat at odds with the natural human impulse to find a quick answer and run with it, but could also lead to unnecessary stalling or foot dragging. Have you encountered either of these problems and/or do you have suggestions for avoiding them?