Learn to Play Before Picking Up a Sax


    by Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-author, The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean

    A3 thinking, A3 problem solving, A3 report writing – whatever you might call it is growing popular in the same way that value stream mapping did many years ago. But just like value stream mapping, just using the tool solves nothing. You still need to get the right thinking in place to make any of the tools, methods or skills effective.

    This month's Leading Lean column for ASSEMBLY Magazine begins a series of column on the proper use of A3. You can find it here. My favorite line, just for the fun of it, is “it won't magically turn you into a lean thinker any more than picking up a paintbrush or a sax will magically turn you into another Rembrandt or John Coltrane.” In the following months I will cover more specific aspects of the methodology.

    Like any tool, I encourage you to think about why you are using it before you just start using it.

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    Jamie Flinchbaugh
    Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


    1. It's sort of hard to learn "before" picking up a sax… sure you can learn basics about music and reading notes. But is it more of a "learn by doing" process where we should expect our skill level initially to be that of a 5th grade school band rather than sounding like Coltrane?

    2. Sure. Technically. I guess if I were extending the title of the post it would be "learn to play before picking up a sax with the intent to play it with skill", which is more the intent of the lines in the column.

      I think this also raises the issue of a need for good coaches and good coaching. I do have to use a tool to develop the skill, but how to I ensure I don't learn the wrong way. Obviously, lots of "us" including you Mark try to provide advice and input to help people on their own to use tools, methods, and skills effectively. But without feedback while doing it, the learning curve will be much flatter than what it could be with good coaching.

    3. In the course of our lean journey when we became interested in the A3 tool, our sensei was no longer working with us. We stumbled around initially but we had given ourselves permission to be novices here. It certainly would have been easier with a good coach.

      After reading the AssemblyMag article, I agree there is a problem with using the term "A3 thinking". Nevertheless there is a particular kind of thinking going on. It's more than a structured reporting format. It is a particular methodology for addressing and solving organizational problems which is highly interactive and based in repeated direct observation in the Gemba. I have a sense that the series will explore this in more detail and I'm looking forward to broadening our knowledge in this area. Thanks for posting this on the Lean blog for us non-manufacturing types.
      /Dr. Pete

    4. Hi Jamie,

      Agree about the need to think about "why use the tool" otherwise just another wasted effort. However I tend to agree with Dr Pete above about "A3 Thinking", the concept of crystallising your thoughts onto a single page is an important communication discipline – can you tell a compelling story?

      As you say it is a useful way to drive out wasteful thinking within our business we're considering a couple of rules for A3's:

      a. There are always 2 people involved in the creation of an A3 – the author and their coach. The great thing about these is that you can learn together as well, so don't need to be an expert, instead you are challenging the thinking process.

      b. Each person has a maximum of 2 A3's on the go (helps prevent a slew of 'baby'A3's being created) – one is their primary day to day proactive improvement focus e.g. managing a 90 day business for the department. The second is a "development" story, some thing that tests your thinking, drives you into improving a problem that takes deeper thinking or into a new field that will stretch your knowledge or skills such as a cross functional focused improvement activity.

      Still learning but finding these invaluable in cutting the comms clutter and building consensus.

      By the way my personal interest in these "single page" reports was actually sparked by a "non Lean" (but related "respect for people" guide) reference some years i.e. 'Maverick' by Ricardo Semler:
      Highly recommended as challenging the status quo around what people can do when given the reins.

      Hope this helps the learning, if you aren't doing A3's, I'd say give it a go but be serious about it with practice you'll find it hard to go back to conventional report writing.

      Kind regards,


    5. Thank you for your comments Dr. Pete and Mike.

      I think each of us in a learning process must learn the process first, then make adaptations that work for us. I think that's what you're doing Mike, with your rules. The second one I don't know about but you're experimenting and finding what works for you, which is great. The first rule I like. I think A3 is a collaboration process, so this makes sense to me.

      I'll reiterate Mike's comment "but be serious about it with practice." I don't think this is something you can pick up easily and make work – it takes practice, it takes learning. And anything worth learning generally takes some time, so only start when you're ready to commit to that learning curve.

    6. Jamie – thanks for posting that. It's a good cautionary tale that we shouldn't be too fixated on the tool for the tool's sake.

      I'm sure there's a lot of A3 activity going on that's very helpful for organizations and a lot of A3 that isn't worth the paper it's written on.

      As I'm getting involved with the LEI, that organization is trying to practice what it preaches by using A3 for planning and communication. It seems pretty effective. Under the tutelage of John Shook, some health care organizations are really diving into the use of A3 for problem solving and communication, both.

      I've seen different A3 formats for different purposes – problem solving A3s vs planning A3s look slightly different, but the high level flow is the same — define problem and current state, analyze deeply, have some "catch ball" type back and forth refinement (A3 isn't a solitary activity).

      I heard a comment recently that A3 was really helping an organization because it was such a waste-free communication method as compared to their typical 20-30 page reports that were being generated.

      Almost like Twitter, at it's best the size restrictions for clarity and brevity of thought (unlike a blog where I can prattle on forever, ha ha).



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