April Fool 2011: New “A3” App Utilizes Two iPads & Virtual Sensei Technology
Today, I'm happy to bring you an interview, conducted via Skype Chat, with Baka Eipuriru, inventor of a new iPad app called “A3 Sensei.” It is a new app (a pair of apps, actually) that you can use to create and share A3s, a core Lean and TPS problem solving and planning methodology that has been increasingly popular the last few years.
Baka came up on my radar a few weeks back with a mysterious Twitter account (@A3app) and an enigmatic “coming soon” page that featured a snail (a “go slow” theme, I suppose).
Baka and I started corresponding and he eventually agreed to allow me to share a sneak preview of his app here on LeanBlog.org. The app is innovative in its use of the iPad (or iPads, actually) and its “virtual sensei” technology. I'm still frankly skeptical, as I've only seen screenshots that the app is not yet through the iTunes app approval process. But here is the interview, edited for length and clarity (Post title edited to add “April Fool on 4/2/11):
Mark: Tell me about your new app and how it came to be.
Baka: I live in Japan where my company uses “A3” for problem solving and planning. A3 is a single piece of paper that follows the PDCA cycle. I personally made over 200 A3s last year for work and I am lucky to have good mentors, like Sanderson in the book Managing to Learn, you know? We did it the traditional way, on paper, but I wanted to see what we could do with new technology.
When the iPad first came out, we were inspired to begin development. But the iPad screen was a bit too small, only measuring not quite 6″ by 8″. We wanted to go to market quickly with a “minimum viable product,” using the “Lean Startup” methodology, but as the software progressed, the hardware limitations were holding us back, based on our tests and prototyping with users.
Mark: So what did you come up with?
Baka: We needed a way to hold two iPads together to somewhat form an A3-sized work surface. We crafted a prototype case that would hold two iPads side-by-side, allowing you to close it like a book when you are done. We had a small production run of 5000 cases made in China.
Mark: That is a small production run for an untested market?
Baka: OK, so maybe that wasn't very Lean of us, but we are Lean Software guys, we know nothing of Lean Manufacturing.
Here is what the case looks like, with the double iPads, and in use.
Mark: So that's pretty cool, I guess, but what about the software? Each iPad is independent…
Baka: That was one of core innovations, getting each iPad to communicate with the other via the Bluetooth connection to have an integrated A3 across the two screens. We are hoping to fix this in future releases, but currently you need to install two separate apps, a Left Hand A3 app and a Right Hand A3 app, but they work together as if it is a single app. It is pretty cool. The Left Hand app is going to be $9.99 but the Right Hand app is free :-)
Mark: Maybe you should charge for the Right Hand app, as people always want to jump to the right side.
Baka: Ha, good point.
So, we had been a bit distracted with the case and we had physical inventory of these cases, and we realized, oops, the app is not ready although we had it pretty much designed. This is when we started using a “Personal Kanban” board to better manage our tasks.
While development and testing continued, we then bought Google Adwords to draw people to our landing page, where we did A/B split testing on names, the snail, the Ohno-san character, etc. We borrowed a lot of the methods Eric Ries is using for his upcoming book “The Lean Startup.” We got out of the office and went to study a day in the life of our customer and to test our hypotheses. We tried to get the tech guru Robert Scoble to promote the app, but he thought we were a new kind of steak sauce.
Mark: Steak sauce?
Baka: Yes, he asked if it was two better than A1. I did not understand what Scoble meant at first until @Business901 on Twitter explained it to me. I think Scoble just wasn't interested. I'm glad you were.
Here is a screenshot of the launch screens (click any photo for a larger view):
Mark: Is it just me or does the character in the app look like the late Taiichi Ohno, from Toyota?
Baka: Yes, we wanted to honor Ohno-san for the role he played in the advancement of the Toyota Production System.
Mark: Tell me about how the app works.
Baka: Well as you see there, the app opens with a blank A3 template (you get a choice of templates for different purposes) and some configuration options are available on the Right Hand app.
On the left, you can draw on the A3 or you can type on screen. In future versions, we will let you integrate photos and video taken by the iPads cameras.
In the configuration screen, you can see the options for opening existing A3s or sharing them via social media. We make use of GPS for the “gemba location tracker” feature, which we think reinforces good Lean management practices.
Here you see our innovative virtual sensei technology. He provides stern, yet helpful coaching and mentoring as you create the A3.
Mark: How does an app coach you?
Baka: Well, we analyzed 1000's of real a3s (in different countries) to determine language patterns that indicate bad A3 practices, such as jumping to solutions and not fully understanding the root cause.
Advanced heuristics developed by linguistics students at MIT are the core of the software engine that drives the app's virtual sensei. Much like Dragon's translation app communicates via the web… When you use our app, you are sometimes getting pre-programmed responses from the virtual sensei based on code that is running locally on the iPad. We can handle say 90% of A3s strictly with our algorithms, but sometimes you are getting real unscripted feedback from retired Toyota executives we have recruited – the app is communicating with the real retiree sensei in our Japan data center. Problematic A3s are flagged for such human review. The former executives are honored to provide such a service. Most people are not so lucky, as to have good mentors like these.
Anybody can create an app that just randomly pops up and says ‘it looks like you are jumping to a solution.' Actually, our prototype MVP product did just that and based on reactions from users (such as going back and making changes) we knew if the virtual Sensei interaction caused reflection or annoyance.
Mark: Wow! That's pretty impressive, although it seems like the on screen sensei makes a real pest of himself.
Baka: Yes, if you are not moving and walking (as sensed by the GPS feature), virtual Ohno will gently remind you to go to Gemba. He will also make sure you aren't moving to the Right Hand side too quickly. We thought about making that an app that you couldn't “unlock” until you satisfied the sensei on the Left Hand side thinking.
Some more screen shots (click for larger image):
Mark: So what comes next?
Baka: We are trying to follow the Customer Development and Lean Startup methodologies the best we can. We are still learning. We have our “MVP” based on customer discussions. We are still waiting on Apple to approve our app! They need to use our app to create A3 on the theme of why it takes so long to get apps approved. We have a lot of “market risk” right now, as Eric Ries or Steve Blank might say. It is uncertain if we can gain mass acceptance of our app. As we like to say, A3 is more a way of thinking than it is a piece of paper. Our solution is expensive – you need two iPads. But we think we will be quite successful with those who have their original iPad and the new iPad2. There is a minor modification to our double case that allows you to use either or both generation iPads.
We are also hoping to talk to the Lean Enterprise Institute in the U.S. about creating a virtual John Shook for the app. We also hope to integrate with their new “A3 Dojo” website where people can upload their A3s for comments from their sensei and community. We might also create an “A4” app that would run on a single iPad for less complex problem solving.
Mark: People will inevitably ask, is the app coming to Android?
Baka: No, not yet. We are working on stitching together four Galaxy Tabs, but that is rather complex compared to the double iPad case.
Mark: Well, Baka, good luck to you and your company. I am skeptical, but I wish you the best.
Baka: Thank you, we are looking forward to iterating based on our customer and market feedback, “pivoting” even if we have to. We will continue our customer validation process.We are learning as fast as we can and we are iterating as much as possible. Thank you for kindly sharing information about our upcoming app with your readers.
What's your reaction? Are you a paper-and-pencil purist who thinks the idea of an iPad app (requiring $1000+ worth of hardware) is just crazy? Or is this something you'd be willing to try? Is this just an elaborate April Fool's joke he is pulling on me?