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InfoQ Homepage Interviews John Shook On Lean Change and the A3 Process

John Shook On Lean Change and the A3 Process


1. Hi, everyone, my name is Todd Charron, I am an Agile editor here at InfoQ and I am at the Lean UX Conference and I am joined today by John Shook. Hi, John.


Todd: You’re here at Lean UX which is a bit unusual because you’re background was not necessarily from UX, but from Lean-Lean, not Lean Startup or Lean software.



2. You’re here at Lean UX which is a bit unusual because you’re background was not necessarily from UX, but from Lean-Lean, not Lean Startup or Lean software. 10 A2 Lean-Lean.

Well, I encountered up close and very personal these ideas these, these Lean practices about 30 years ago in Japan, in Toyota City and I spent about ten years with that company learning about them and helping spread them from Japan to around the world, then I left Toyota, taught at university and I’ve been in consulting for a number of years, spreading these ideas, but also learning more about them. So the fact that the last few years Lean UX, Lean Kanban, Lean Startup, this proliferation of these ideas into new areas is something that is fantastic and also fascinating, so for me to come here as a chance to learn more about how these simple, powerful ideas can be used in different applications, that’s why I’m here.

Todd: Before we go into details on that, what have you learned so far, what has piqued your interest

What’s piqued my interest? I’ve been around of these ideas being applied in different settings for quite a bit, I work primarily in manufacturing for the first 20 years or so, the last ten years I spent a lot of my time in healthcare, hospitals and what you could say somewhat non-traditional applications, coffee chains, Starbucks specifically, being another example. So what I continue to learn is that the ideas do apply to just about any setting.

Over last six months I spent a lot of time diving into Lean Startup and UX and what that is, so there is a lot to learn, I think even if it’s only vocabulary; vocabulary matters, how people can talk about some of these ideas in a way that’s liked, that feels helpful and practical and not heavy and onerous and intimidating is very important, and I think when you get into areas of high uncertainty some of the traditional ways that Lean might have been applied on the factory floor, while the essential idea is still there, the essential thinking is still there, it has to be translated into different terms, both language but also practice, I think a lot of the practices that I see being developed in Lean UX and startup communities are innovative and very helpful, I’m glad to learn about that.


3. Your talk, that you gave first before your session was on Lean change- organizational and personal; so, maybe tell us a bit about the difference between the two or how they overlap, how that presents itself?

You certainly can’t have organizational change without personal change, you can have personal change without organizational change, I suppose, you'd like to see both happen. So, I think exploring things, one of the powerful things about Lean is it works on macro-level and micro-level. In fact when it works best is when it does that, when it connects the two. At the highest levels of a larger organization, how is the organization thinking, developing its strategies, moving forward with those, needs to embody Lean thinking. Then that needs to connect directly all the way down through to the micro-level tentacles of the organization, each individual.

So, as that happens, people will change and you can fall in love with these ideas quickly and they will go with you as deep as you will go with them. Lean is something that doesn’t come to you, you go to it, and once you go to it you will find it will go as deep as you want to, I’ve been at it for 30 years, there is always something more to learn. So, I think personal change becomes part of it, how can you link that into organizational change that we almost all desire, every business book, management book is about how we can transform to something better, organizations that are more human, better functioning. So, I think the key to that are in fact how we actualize these Lean principles in work groups, in organizations, but to do that we have to embody that inner-selves into our own actions. At the end of the day, for anyone, there is only one thing that anyone can change.


4. What is that one thing?

That one thing is themselves. And anyone who’s ever had a teenage child knows that is absolutely true, so whenever you are thinking about changing someone else, you have to think there is only one thing you can change, what we do, what we say, how we think, how we go about doing business. So, it has to encompass that. So, this dynamic of organizational and personal change is a good one to explore, it seemed to resonate with people here, I think. We’ll see.


5. You talked about NUMMI and what happened at the NUMMI plant which is the stuff of legends, so how did a lot of that personal change happen within that organizational change?

How did that personal change happen within NUMMI, which is a famous story, I think it can be even more famous and I think a deep dive into the nature of that, which is what you are asking about, is really important. One of the first things that happened I think it was the worst plant in the world, the worst factory in the world, worst workforce in the world by reputation and the first thing I think we did to people there, we had a conversation, said that you don’t have to suck, nobody goes to work wanting to suck, everyone would like to go home and feel better about the job they did. And even at a worst site and workforce like that where you would have workers that would intentionally sabotage product, certainly would not try to work with the management there, there were different cafeterias and dining halls for the executives to eat with white table cloths versus the union workers, separate parking lots, there was no mutual trust and we said we need to establish mutual trust somehow and that begins with mutual caring and so we have to say and actually mean that we want to help each person be successful in their work. And then we gave them the means, the ability to do that.

That’s what made the real difference, not just words but actually enabling people to be successful, to make them an active participant in building success in the organization. Words that sound so simple, but doing that with of several thousand people on the factory floor is the key and that means looking in great detail how to work with this guy. Not just sending people to their assembly line area, now start putting bolts on the car, but taking apart each individual job and looking at it, how it needs to be done better so it can be effective and efficient, but also engaging this person in improving that job. And so what we did was we engaged each person there in problem solving, in identifying problems in their work, in identifying and analyzing the reasons why those problems were there and engage them in coming up with their ideas of how things could be made better through giving those problem solvers those skills and tools.

Todd: Your other session here was on one of those tools that help people do that the A3 form.

On an assembly line, physical work, you want to try to use the physical work give people the ability to do the design of the work, to see when there is a problem, to know what to do when they see a problem, and understand what’s going to happen after that. For knowledge work, it’s an equivalent to that, but it manifests in a different form, we use something we call the “A3”, which is really just a way to tell a scientific problem solving story on one sheet of paper. There is no magic, it’s just a blank sheet of paper and scientific stories were not invented by Toyota or us here at Lean UX, but how to do that, how to bring scientific thinking into our work, everybody, all day, every day, is a challenge.

And so we’ll use tools, job aides to do that, and a blank sheet of A3 paper where we learn how to tell a scientific problem solving story that we’ll use both to analyze a problem technically to come up with a better solution, also at the same time, use that as a way to tell stories to engage the organization to gain agreement so we can bring about change whether it’s a small technical problem we’re solving or organizational change, cultural change, very big strategic issues as well. So that’s what we use the A3 process for that. It really is amazingly equivalent to us having a factory floor, but translating it into a very different setting, to management settings. So, that’s a process that can be used anywhere, in any company, at any level of the organization, and that’s what we practiced on today.

Todd: Another interesting thing about it is that people may have heard or used the A3 form before, they’ll just say “oh, here’s the paper, you fill out the steps”, but you identified a very key thing that you don't often hear talked about which was the two roles and how that actually plays out in clarifying the thoughts, you have the author role and the mentor role, tell us a little bit about that.

All Lean tools, whether it’s Kanban or standardized work, which is another well-known one or the A3, they are all deceptively simple, they are simple on the surface, but they carry with them a lot of profound wisdom, but only if we are determined to understand and tap into that profound wisdom will it display itself. The A3 is especially like that, it will after all be nothing but a blank sheet of paper if that’s what we want it to be, it will be what we make of it. So, we can use it then to tell and develop problem solving capabilities from the mechanical technical sense. We can also bring in the social side to use it to enable social change, people use that A3 to communicate with each other. And there are two very specific rules, the same way all these tools seem simple on the surface, there's a lot more to them to actually master them.

The A3 has the person who is writing it, the author, the problem owner, communicator. And then there is the person on the other side who is receiving that communication that may be an authorizer, a boss, or just a colleague, someone who is responding to hearing an A3 story, a problem solving story. So those are two very distinct roles and there are some specific skills involved to actually write an A3, which is how do you frame a problem, how do you make a problem statement and after writing an A3 to be able to read an A3, other people will bring one to you, sometimes it’s a mess, so you have to be able to somehow break apart the story someone is trying to tell you and listening when someone tells you their story.

And another skill is involved in how to respond, how to provide coaching, how to ask good effective questions that will enable or even cause someone, the author, the problem owner, to add some additional insights that they come up with themselves. Therefore they feel the ownership of and they have some ideas of new things to try and new things to go out to actually put into place. It may be some simple experiments, the MVP type experiments, that will occur to them if we ask the right questions to provide those sorts of insights. We can use all those things then as parts of the A3 process.


6. What’s next after this conference, what’s your interest and where do you see yourself and your organization?

I’ve actually been CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute for three and a half years and there are a couple of things we are doing right now that are of great interest of us. One is we’ve developed a heuristic framework that organizations could use to determine their own path forward and test each situation, because each company's situation is different, but there are some that can be grounded in principles, it’s not just free form. So, we are working on that with a number of companies and that is I think both interesting and to me and to us, and also very powerful.

Another thing we are exploring, how these ideas can be brought to bear in different environments and a few years ago I started spending a lot of time in healthcare, in hospitals, and Lean now in healthcare in the United States has been booming for several years, there are still a lot of healthcare problems to solve sure, a lot of progress has been made in organizations like ThedaCare in Wisconsin and organizations like the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation has a lot going as a matter of fact. We’re interested this year, without tilting at windmills, in what might be done in the public sector, public sector being another word for government, so we’re not trying to go to Washington like Don Quixote, what things can be done to provide some models, examples to move forward in government, those are some of the things we are thinking about.

Todd: Alright. Well, thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you, thanks for talking, bye.

Jun 09, 2014