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  • Writer's pictureBill Greider

Managers: Accelerate Improvements by Listening

The two pillars of the Toyota Production System seem simple enough....."continuous improvement" and "respect for people". Well, continuous improvement means exactly that....continuous. Not when you have time, or during periodic "kaizen" events. Continuous improvement means everyone's job is to do their job AND improve their work. Respect for people means that the best and most qualified people to improve a process are the people that actually DO that process every day.

More and more companies are using A3 and temporary, self directed work teams to apply the concept of heijunka (load leveling) to kaizen. Companies I work for do hundreds and hundreds of A3 each year, and the best part of it is that the people who lead these improvements are the people who actually do the work.

The person who actually does the work where the problem exists is the person who "leads" the A3 team. That person picks 2-4 people to be members of their team. Usually they pick a "customer" of their process (whoever they give their work to), as well as people they think they may need to help them.....someone from IT or purchasing or quality or engineering or maybe maintenance. If the process improvement will impact someone's job, they need to be part of the team. After the team is selected, the A3 leader will invite his/her team to the first of several 20 minute A3 meetings at the GEMBA (where the problem lives, not in a conference room). During that first meeting, the team will begin to get a thorough understanding of the current condition. If you consider the DMAIC, this is the Measure step. The value of having A3 teams of 3-5 people is because of the power of the collective thinking of the group....we call it "leveraging diversity". Simply put, 5 brains are better than 1.

Sooner or later, it is bound to happen. An A3 leader decides that they need to include their boss on a team. I have seen managers participate very well on A3 teams, and I've also seen managers wreak havoc on a team. Let's talk about some things managers can do so they don't wreak havoc on an A3 team (for fun!!)

First, if the boss is invited to be part of an A3 team, that boss needs to repeat over and over "it is not my job to fix the problem" (that is the job of the team). In non-lean companies, fixing other people's jobs is what they do. Some refer to this behavior as firefighting. On A3 teams, titles get checked at the door!

This doesn't always play out well, because sometimes the boss inadvertently steers the A3 team to the outcome they want to see, and the team follows like ducklings because, after all, that's the boss talking, and since he/she is the boss, then whatever comes out of their mouth must be smarter than what comes out of mine.

Here is a simple fix.....the boss, when participating on A3 teams, needs to refrain from giving answers. Many times, managers can be rather talkative. For continuous improvement purposes, do not dominate the conversations. In fact, the only thing they can verbally communicate with are open ended questions. Don't ask yes/no questions, because they are meant to be affirmation of your agenda. Think of open ended questions as anything other than a question requiring a yes or no. This tool is called humble inquiry, and it is a way to invite more and more people open up and share their thoughts and opinions.

There is NO WAY to build a culture of continuous improvement if managers do not master the art of humble inquiry. Trust the A3 process of 3-5 people leveraging diversity and gaining agreement as the go through the plan-do-check-act process and MAKE TIME to support them!

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