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
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
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 www.leanlearningcenter.com.