How to develop a problem-solving mindset with the A3

The A3 is more than a tool; it’s a way to develop a problem-solving mindset. Eric Ethington will instruct the LEI Leading for Sustainable Change – The Use of the A3 Management Process course at LCI Congress for the second year in a row. This year, the course has expanded to two days to allow a deeper dive into the A3 process. There are still seats left in this course on Oct. 15-16 but they are filling up fast! Register now to secure your spot at the 20th Annual LCI Congress in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 15-19.

To explain the value of developing a problem-solving mindset, Eric answered a few questions explaining the advantage A3 problem-solvers have and how his Lean journey began.

LCI: You have been an instructor at LCI Congress previously. What did you enjoy most about teaching LCI Congress participants?

Eric Ethington (EE): What was probably most unique is the energy about it. Everyone knew why they were there and genuinely wanted to be there. The A3 class has some segments requiring self-management of time and small group work, which could make it easy to disengage, but that is not a problem in this case. LCI Congress participants are there to learn. They love improving, they have a passion and they like to share it.

LCI: How will your course equip attendees to improve the way they work?

EE: The course is very process-oriented. I often see people confuse tools with processes in the Lean world. If you think about construction, there are many tools involved but tools are not the same as the process of constructing. When organizations implement Lean, they may not realize that problems that have always been there will be revealed. With a Lean transformation, people need to become good problem-solvers and A3s guide teams to learn problem solving on the job.

Some people learn a new tool and think that is all they need to achieve their desired state. I remind people in open-office spaces that just because the walls are removed and people are moved closer together does not mean they will collaborate. A process that encourages people to engage is needed. I view the A3 as having a similar risk associated with it because people can look at the tool and think that they understand, but if they don’t fully understand the process, they will not acquire the true benefit.

LCI: Can you explain the benefits of using an A3 for different purposes?

EE: There are various situations where A3s can be very beneficial.

  • Getting back to the level of performance we used to be at. The most straightforward A3 application is when an organization faces a problem that seems to have appeared overnight and needs to find the root cause. For example, an organization was able to do something yesterday, but today is unable to do the same thing at the same quality or productivity level. Built into the A3 is a process to achieve objectivity and alignment with all stakeholders as they collaborate to solve the problem. If you do not bring stakeholders along, you may be signing up for long term failure as it will be harder to sustain the countermeasures you come up with.
  • Going to a higher level of performance. Another application is when an organization has a problem where it wants to be better than ever before. A3s guide teams to the root causes that are inherent in a process and that will prevent us from getting to where we need to be.
  • Improving a product or service. One opportunity to use A3s that might not be as apparent is for organizations seeking to solve a customer problem involving the creation of a product. The reality is most customers use products or services in a life process in some way or another. A3s help organizations examine how the customers use the products or services, which leads to breaking down constraints and discovering ideas to improve.

LCI: How did you get into Lean and A3 teaching?

EE: In 1990, I was in the auto industry and General Motors was doing “picos workshops” with a goal to get cost out of the product and I started attending. This was when Lean was not as sophisticated as it is today, but we talked about “value added,” “non-value added” and “seven forms of waste” for the first time.

Then in 2001, I was more involved with Lean and started working for Delphi Automotive headquarters where my team’s assignment was developing an executive-level boot camp with a week immersion in Lean. One workshop topic was about leading in the Lean environment. John Shook, executive chairman of Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), led the workshop discussion and later went on to write a book about it. We talked about needing a leader with strong problem-solving skills in a Lean organization and that eventually led to discussing A3s. I picked up new ideas at each workshop I attended.

LCI: How and why did Delphi decide to embrace Lean?

EE: Delphi was in a tough competitive position as it was about to be spun off from General Motors. We suddenly had about 35 separate divisions combined under one company with many different systems, issues and a large product line. Meanwhile in the auto industry, Toyota had disrupted the customer perception of quality and delivery, and did it at a low cost. This opened the door to thinking about Lean from a competitive perspective. We were at the right place at the right time looking for a competitive advantage. We even had the support of upper-level leadership who told us “Lean is plan A, and we don’t have a plan B.”


Hone your problem-solving skills in the LEI Leading for Sustainable Change – The Use of the A3 Management Process course at the 20th Annual LCI Congress! Register now before this course reaches capacity!