male and female colleague write ideas on sticky notes

How A3 Thinking Makes You a Stronger Leader

Part of being a strong leader is inspiring others to be problem solvers. In this article, Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and instructor of the online course Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, Sonia Singh shares her insights on how A3 Thinking, a Lean methodology and tool for problem solving, can help you improve your leadership skills.

If you're a part of the management team at your organization, your annual performance is likely measured by how much your team has achieved your departmental targets for the year.

However, how the targets are achieved can be just as important, if not more, than what you’ve been able to achieve. For example, in order to reduce your expenses by 10% you could immediately cut your labor staff to achieve that target (which may be appropriate for particular situations). But generally speaking, that method cannot be sustained without significant consequences. How would quality, staff engagement, and morale be impacted? Ask yourself, "How sustainable are the methods I use to achieve my targets?"

You want to be able to continue meeting (and exceeding) your organizational goals year after year, and therefore it’s critical to also examine how you go about executing your plans.

If you’re reading this article I’m guessing you’re someone who wants to improve their own skills and are self-motivated. You don’t want to just check the boxes on your management tasks. You want to excel at your work.

One of the best ways to stand out as a strong leader is your and your team’s ability to solve problems as quickly as possible.
headshot of online Lean Six Sigma instructor Sonia Singh
Singh is the founder of the Influential Leadership Academy, where she helps leaders build emotional intelligence and master their influence. 

Respect for People

Nothing is more frustrating than running into the same issues day after day and having to create workarounds to get your job done. Does that sound familiar? Hard working employees are brilliant at making it work despite challenges like space constraints, time constraints, supply shortages, or staffing shortages.

Instead of continuing to accept things as they are, what if we encouraged people to question the status quo? Instead of spending energy creating workarounds, people spent that time assessing why the problem keeps coming back and thinking through solutions.

When we give employees a platform to voice not only their concerns, but to also engage in a forward-thinking discussion about possibilities for improvement, we are showing our respect for their time, skill-set, and creativity.

Most employees want to share their ideas but without a structured process, it can be difficult as a manager to keep track of ideas and to have the time to execute them all.

In a traditional work environment, an employee brings their problem to their manager to solve. The manager then takes their problem on to solve themselves. This not only requires a lot of time by the manager to research the problem and come up with solutions, they miss an opportunity to develop their employee and build future capability. In addition, often the manager gets bombarded with so many problems that it can be overwhelming to solve them all.

The employee is then frustrated at the lack of response to their concern.

A3 Thinking: A Way to Solve Problems

A3 Thinking is a logical and critical thinking process that can be applied in any discipline to solve a problem.

In a Lean Enterprise, when an employee voices their concern, instead of taking on their problem to solve themselves (which can seem like a time-saver in the moment but will take up more time in the long-run), the manager asks a series of thought-provoking questions as part of the A3 Thinking methodology, such as:

  1. How long ago did this problem start?
  2. What’s the negative impact of the problem and its magnitude?
  3. What evidence is there of the problem (data)?
  4. What would success look like? How would we measure it?
  5. Do we know why the problem is occurring (root cause)?
  6. How can you find out?
  7. Which solutions have the highest impact and are easiest to do?
  8. When and how can we test these ideas?
  9. Did the problem get better? What did we learn?
  10. What will you try next?
The focus is always on creating and optimizing Value.

The employee and the manager use the questions on the A3 to think through the problem at hand. They may even involve other staff to gather their insights.

The manager asks the employee to come back with the answers so they can decide the next step for action together.

The employee sees that it’s not as simple as just hiring another staff member or purchasing more supplies. There is a root cause to why this problem keeps appearing. Your job is to figure out the root cause together versus applying a band aid to the symptoms.

The manager asks for potential solutions to test. These ideas are weighed against their impact and difficulty to implement. You work with the employee, and others if it makes sense, to test out the ideas.

The manager checks in with staff, but is not necessarily responsible for executing the ideas. They follow back up to see what worked, what didn’t work, and what lessons were learned.

Since the manager used their time to coach the employee through the problem versus solving it for them, the employee has now built confidence in speaking up and working through an issue in a structured manner. The solutions are more likely to stick as well since front-line employees were involved in the process.

Learn More

Interested in learning more insights that will make you a better Lean Six Sigma practitioner? Check out Sonia Singh’s upcoming Lean Six Sigma Green Belt course.

Next time this employee comes to their manager with another problem, the process will go quicker. Now this team is empowered to use their own critical thinking to transform their work and can make improvements more rapidly.

Bringing it Together

Being a strong leader is not about knowing the answers and it’s more than just achieving targets. It’s about respecting your staff’s time and intellect so they spend their time adding value. It’s about inspiring and developing others to be problem solvers. It's about providing guidance but not giving the answers. It’s about bringing out the best in your employees. It’s about creating an environment that people want to come to work in every day. 

About the Author

Sonia Singh is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, executive coach and instructor with 19 years of experience in healthcare operations, management consulting, leadership development and culture transformation. She’s worked with dozens of companies in improving their performance, resulting in a collective financial impact of $30M. She’s also trained and coached over 2,000 emerging and experienced leaders. 

This article is a republication from Sonia Singh's LinkedIn page.

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