My last three columns have touched on different aspects of applying lean thinking to projects and problems, including different aspects of A3 thinking and methodology. This month focuses on yet another aspect, the target condition.

Once a team has developed a clear problem statement and understanding of the current condition, they also must develop a tangible vision of the target. Quite frankly, it is easier to skip this step than to spend time on it.

What makes it easy? Our first flawed assumption is that the target condition is simply the absence of the problem, or the inverse of the current condition. This is not a useful assumption. It would mean that the target for a bank would be shorter teller lines, or the target for a broken piece of equipment would be to fix it. This leaves us far short of the potential for improvement.

The second reason that we skip over such an important step is that we assume this is the same thing as developing the action plan. Aren’t the actions the improvements? No, they are not. The actions are what it takes to put the improvements into place. If my target condition was “no one waits in a line, ever,” to achieve that outcome might require anywhere from five to 50 different action items. The target is the condition that we want to achieve.

A target condition is what we want to achieve. It is a tangible image; something that we can describe. This is not just the result that we want, but how we want things to be or work.

If I were writing a target condition for the current problem of long lines, the target might be something such as this: “The customer is engaged by an associate within 15 seconds of entering the door.”

The target condition should describe what we would see, feel or experience. The target condition is what “good” looks like. The coaching question to use with yourself or others is exactly that: What would “good” look like?

With a tangible image-a target condition-of what you are trying to achieve, you now can set a course of action to get there. Without it, you have action, but it is often random, unclearly connected and untested. It would be like hopping in your car for a vacation without knowing where you want to go. When you have that clear target condition, many things can go wrong and you will be able to make adjustments and corrections, and still head in the desired direction.

When I was part of a new factory design team, we put a great deal of time into the desired target condition. We knew how we wanted buildings laid out, material to flow, teams to be organized, and even how freight traffic would flow in and out of the facility. What we didn't have yet were constraints such as how the property was laid out or the final budget.

Once those constraints became clear, we were able to develop the actions and the design that worked within the constraints, but still respected the target condition of what “good” would look like. We achieved a dramatically different and better factory design than if we started with the constraints and then started to design.

In summary, when working on an A3 report, develop that clear tangible image of what “good” looks like-the target condition. Discuss it, write it down and build agreement around it.

A true lean thinker will find it impossible to work without this target. How could we possibly plan our actions without knowing the destination? It may sound obvious, but it is far from common sense.

Just look at the evidence. Just look at your own behaviors. Lean begins with you.

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.