Sunday, August 7, 2016

A3 is NOT a Tool!

I had been on my lean journey (green mile) for quite some time before I stumbled across the book, "Managing to Learn" and the concept of "A3". Before that, I think our lean implementation was similar to what most companies do. We learned about lean tools. We did some periodic kaizen events. We worked to get "buy-in" from everyone from the senior leaders to the sales people to the maintenance crew. We had some good results within the first six months. Inventory dropped, cash flow improved. We actually had money in the bank, we could pay our bills, and pay people bonuses at Christmas time. Most of the available possible improvement time, however was spent being busy or firefighting.

But what, exactly, was in it for our customers? They still saw late orders sometimes, or shipping mistakes. It still seemed like we are solving the same problems over and over. But we were now lean?

Then it hit me. There are no magic bullets. There's no magic recipe or just a handful of things (processes) that needed improvement. If that was the case, we were smart people, we would have figured out what they were and we would have fixed it!! We didn't need to make dozens of improvements, we needed to make hundreds! One has to be pretty naive to think one could hit on what those things are in a 3 day kaizen event, right? Instead, how could I introduce the concept of level loading (heijunka) to continuous improvement? What if we had a process in our company where people were making improvements every single solitary day? What if the process was so simple that even the newest employee could participate? What if we had a process where people could learn lean concepts as they were improving their work? What kind of improvements would be possible if people could call on whatever resources they needed in the entire company to help them make improvements? If an employee in your business came up with an idea that would benefit the company how would that idea go from concept to launch, and how long would it take?

Our A3 process resulted in a scary increase in productivity: $20M in sales to $32M in 3.5 years.....without adding one additional employee! (Just think about how much more money they took home). Thousands of improvements were made.....some small and some huge. Problems were being solved once, because A3 teams were solving root causes not symptoms. Customer satisfaction sky-rocketed because they knew we would always get it right the first time. Our company wasn't merely getting better at making and shipping flooring materials, they were getting better at...getting better!!! And our little 90 person company was ranked one of the best companies to work in Connecticut....4 times. Our A3 process had improved people's sense of ownership in their work life.

I've heard people refer to "A3 reports" or A3 problem solving". A3 is not a report, and it is not a tool. It is the process to develop teamwork and future leaders, to do continuous continuous improvement, and to engage every single brain in your organization to work ON as well as IN the business.

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