Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Value of the A3 "Closing" and Becoming a Learning Organization

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than the competition.”
-Peter M. Senge (The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization)

It has been said that the ultimate compliment you can give any organization is that it is a "learning organization". Also, one of the 4 main principles of the Toyota Production System is to make your problems visible and the core of your learning. 

So how is this done? How does a company begin to transform to a "learning organization?"  I offer you the A3 "Closing".

A3 is about level loading continuous improvement. Instead of doing a handful of periodic kaizan "events", A3 is about every single person in the company spending 15-20 minutes doing improvement activity every day. Three of the companies I work with have "closed" over 100 A3s this year. That translates to over 100 teaching and learning opportunities. 

A3 is also about the people who actually DO the work lead the improvements. (It is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR process). When a company does >100 A3 closings in a year, people have gotten very good at:
1. Recruiting the perfect 3-5 person team. Before they know better, they might pick their friends or who they eat lunch with. Over time, they learn who the best players are, and who they will need, depending on the tasks at hand (IT, Maintenance, Engineering, Purchasing, etc.). 
2. Getting people together and at the agreed time. Sounds simple, but the single most difficult thing for a person who works on the plant floor to do is get people together for the 15-20 minute meetings, particularly if they need people from the office on their team.
3. Gaining agreement and leveraging diversity amongst their team regarding the "current condition", root cause analysis, the "target" condition, and the implementation plan. There is no hierarchy in an A3 team  and titles are checked at the door. When that happens, the best results occur.

Once all of that is done, it is time to prepare for the closing. Closings are a gathering of people from throughout the company to learn what the A3 team has learned. The A3 leader gets up, in front of their peers, and takes them through the team's thinking. This can be a very nervous time for first time A3 leaders. Amongst the most feared things in the world: death, snakes, clowns and public speaking. (It is the role of managers and lean champions to coach the A3 leader through this). After doing 3 or 4 closings, most people get very good at it. 

Most companies schedule their A3 closings on a standardized day and time. At a typical closing time, it is not unusual for 30-50 people to come together for 20-30 minutes or so to hear three, four, or five A3 closings. The A3 leaders take everyone through their team's work, and people ask questions and offer encouragement and gratitude. The interesting part is the fact that people in the office hear about improvements in  the plant. People in the plant learn about improvements in the lab. Etc. Etc. 

There is no question that there is value in the learning. Toyota calls this yokoten. Ideas are communicated that may apply to processes in other departments. Ideas for further improvement may be voiced. Occasionally, the A3 team may have to go back to the drawing board because they didn't consider enough options, or it is determined they didn't dig to root cause ("jumped to solutions"). Over the course of the year, people are learning more and more about other people's jobs, they're learning about their products and about their problems. Company 101 via a steady drip.

There is also value in the closings with regard to respect for people. When you do dozens of closings, people begin to understand that sheer genius and innovation can come from ANYONE and ANYWHERE in your organization. People begin to conclude that they are surrounded by people who care deeply and are very good at what they do. People are together more often, and learn to respect and admire their peers for their contributions.  

Want good team players? Challenge them to be on lots of teams. Want good problem solvers? Challenge them to solve lots of problems. Want a strong culture of ownership vs. "employee-ism (I just work here)? Challenge them to learn then teach to their peers.

If you want results others don't get, you need to be willing to do things others won't do. Like becoming a learning organization.


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