Close knowledge gaps before closing performance gaps.

In the past two columns, I have used the A3 improvement process to explore some of the subtler but broad skill sets and mindsets of lean. A3 can be a helpful method to guide your thinking, and it enables greater collaboration and coaching. Last month, I focused on the imperative of good problem statements and the thinking that goes into them. This month, I move to the next quadrant of the A3, defining and clarifying the current condition.

This section of an A3 can be populated with data, stories, pictures and anything else that helps explain the current condition. It should explain why you are getting the results that you are getting and where you must focus to make the required changes. But there is more to this section than simply cutting and pasting your favorite Excel chart. The underlying function of this quadrant is to drive learning and knowledge. Lean businesses constantly focus on generating new knowledge about how their processes and organizations really work. In this part of the A3 process, you should focus on that purpose.

There are two fundamental questions that help in this process. The first is, what do I need to learn more about? Another way to phrase it would be, what specifically do I not understand in the areas where I need to gain knowledge? There’s no need to gather “new” knowledge about something you already understand. The assumption is that there is something you don’t quite understand, so focus on exactly what that might be. This requires humility and curiosity. You must be willing to use what I consider one of the more powerful phrases a leader can use, “I don’t know.” And you must have the curiosity to invest time and energy in pursuit of that knowledge.

The second fundamental question is, by what method can I learn this knowledge? There are many methods you may deploy. I have written more than once about the power of direct observation. Whenever you have to suspend your assumptions and trim your filters, you are more open to what is really going on. Going directly to the point of activity, whatever and wherever that is, can greatly expand your knowledge.

There are other methods. You should deploy the simplest approach to gain the knowledge you need. The “5 Why” problem-solving method is a good example. In the “5 Why” method, you keep asking “why” about a condition until you get to the root cause. Invariably, you’ll hit the root cause by the fifth time you ask “why.” The intent is not documentation or ensuring a particular rigor. It is a knowledge discovery process. That, I believe, is it’s real value. Developing and testing a hypothesis is also a good way to generate knowledge.

Why bother? The fact is, you must close your knowledge gaps before you can close your performance gaps. Closing performance gaps where the knowledge is already clear and available is often simply a matter of execution. If you only need to execute what you already know, then the A3 won’t help you. The thinking process enables you to close performance gaps that are more challenging. To close those gaps, new knowledge, insight and maybe even wisdom are required. If you try to close the performance gap before you close the knowledge gap, you will ultimately end up back where you started.

The second quadrant of the A3 is meant to capture the current condition. The ability to do this is found in those two key questions. What do I need to learn more about? And, how can I learn it? Keep these two questions in mind, and you will move forward with a high probability of success.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road.He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site