Podcast Bonus Episode: John Shook, Revisited from 2009 on A3s & VSMs, Tools & Culture


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We've been on hiatus over the summer here, so I've taken a look back at some of the older episodes from the podcast archives, while being on a bit of a hiatus from recording new episodes. New episodes will be coming again in September

Today we're looking back at the episode that I did with John Shook.

It was Episode #56, released in January 2009.

I hope you enjoy our discussion — I think it's just as relevant today as it was then even though his book Managing to Learn has been available for more than a decade (it was new when we did this episode). We talk about A3s (the topic of that book) and Value Stream Maps (the topic of his previous book Learning to See).

I had a chance to talk with John a few months back and I'm hoping to do a new episode with him sometime soon.

The podcast is sponsored by Stiles Associates, now in their 30th year of business. They are the go-to Lean recruiting firm serving the manufacturing, private equity, and healthcare industries. Learn more.

This podcast is part of the #LeanCommunicators network

Automated Transcript (Not Guaranteed to be Defect Free)

Mark Graban (13s):
Hi, this is Mark Graban, and this is episode number 56 of the podcast for January 6th, 2009. Want to wish a happy new year to everybody have a lot of exciting podcasts ahead, including today's episode with John Shook, who is a senior advisor with the Lean Enterprise Institute and was one of the first Americans to work in depth with Toyota. So he has quite quite an expansive knowledge of the Toyota production system is the author of this is going back a few years. Now, the book learning to see about value stream mapping and is most recently the author of another book published by the lean enterprise Institute called Managing to Learn, which is about the A3 problem solving process, A3 reports, the A3 management systems.

Mark Graban (58s):
So we're going to be talking about that today. If you have any feedback or questions for John, you can send them to me, or you can now interact with John at his own blog, which can be found at lean.org/Shook, S H O O K. And all of this will be in the show notes, and hopefully we'll be interacting with John here on future podcasts as always. Thanks for listening. Once again, our guest today is John Shook, John, thanks for taking time out and joining us on the lean blog podcast.

John Shook (1m 29s):
Thank you, Mark. It's good to be here.

Mark Graban (1m 31s):
Well, it's an exciting time right now. I'm your new book Managing to Learn is out and available was right. If you could tell us, you know, some of the story behind the book, what the inspiration was and what, you know, some of the, the main lessons you hope our reader would get out of the book.

John Shook (1m 47s):
Well, a simple question, I guess actually I could talk about the story behind the book for a, for probably too long. It did amazingly. I actually feel kind of okay about it now. And I'm usually pretty critical of, of, of work. But now that it's done, not only does it feel good, of course you've written yourself mark. And so, you know, it always feels good to get it done, but you know, it took a while. I probably actually worked on this for, you know, fairly steadily, you know, off and on for two years and probably first talk with Jim Womack, the publisher about it, you know, closer to three or four years ago, I was very hesitant. It goes back to learning to see if you, if you remember the, you know, the book learning to see that they came out with 10 years ago, my coauthor Mike Rother, even then I was kind of a reluctant participant.

John Shook (2m 36s):
Really. It wasn't my idea to do that book. I was really my extended also the publisher Jim and Dan Jones really wanted to do it. And I was even concerned then about, you know, when you roll out a tool, it's not like it's not like there weren't already a lot of tools out there. You know, if you go back to looking at, at SPC or if it, or looking at the old, you know, TQ, a lot of the old TQM stuff, it tends to be becomes something that's mandated and becomes a check, the box exercise, and it becomes corporate wallpaper. I'm really, and I was a little worried about that with value mapping, but that was so different. And, and as we came up with the title of learning to see, then I, you know, agreed.

John Shook (3m 18s):
It really was, it was, it was a good idea. And, and so, you know, that was that story 10 years ago. And then with the, and then with Jim Womack wanted to do a book about the 83, I was even more worried because you know how almost all the lean tools are, are deceptively simple. They're simple on the surface, but there's more meaning as you get into them, you know, and that's more true of the A3 than anything because the tool itself is, is nothing. It is just a blank piece of paper that you use to tell us a story. So you can tell a story smaller, big on one sheet of paper and that's it, it's so easy then just, just to do that, I was very concerned about a book about it, that it would become just another thing where people use it as a check, the box exercise.

John Shook (4m 5s):
And in fact, doing storyboards are six panel storyboards. So it had been around for a long time. People have done that. So I was concerned about that. So I thought about it and thought about it and decided that only I would only do it if I could somehow tell the story from a couple of perspectives, both someone learning how to write an A3 or go through the 83 PDCA process. But then also the other side of, of, of, of someone who is mentoring a learner as they were going through that process. If I could tell both of those stories, then they could maybe could have some value because in fact, it was very important to all the work that I learned when I joined Toyota back 25 years ago.

John Shook (4m 47s):
So it's not that I didn't see the value that could be important, but I wanted to make sure the deeper story got out there as well. So it it's, you know, you can learn to ride on A3 day in a day, but learning to use it as a management process is something that takes longer. So through some of the little trial and error, we came up with this idea, you know, I said, what if we told two stories, just parallel two columns side by side. And we weren't worried that readers would be able to, to deal with that. And so can cat our proposals. And a lot of people said, well, maybe it should be just sequential, you know, the learner story. And then at the end, you know, at the end of the chapter, you tell the other person's story or something, but I really wanted it to be more dynamic than that.

John Shook (5m 28s):
So we actually kind of, kind of did a rep prototype of one chapter to see how it works and sent it around. And I don't think Marcie received that, that early draft, but it was very early just to kind of see if it would work doing it that way. And I really liked the idea. I was very comfortable with it and with the idea that it could actually capture what the title says, which is what we're doing is Managing to Learn. And there's a double meaning there, you know, as, as managers, we are trying to manage a learning process. And the other thing is we all, as individuals are trying every day to kind of manage, to learn through it through as, as we, as we stumbled through the, the work issues that are faces every day. So if they could do that and tell the story, you know, from two perspectives, the learner or a mentee and a mentor or a boss, then I thought it could have some value.

John Shook (6m 17s):
And so that's kind of the story beat behind the book. And, and through that liberal use of some sidebars to, to, you know, tell some of the conceptual pieces and just show one person actually creating an A3 from beginning to end, we started to use a non-manufacturing process. So that was sometimes I still wonder if that was the best thing to do, but there are so many people who still see, you know, lean as, as a purely a factory floor kind of thing. It seemed to be an opportunity to go outside of that because you know, a lot of the work in companies does take place with people, planning, working on projects, planning projects, you know, getting, getting, getting bigger things together to, to move an organization forward than just what takes place in the plant floor.

John Shook (7m 5s):
Although that's, you know, the gamble is where we want to focus things. So I'm hoping that people can see then that, that it is an overall process. And we kind of coined the term, the A3 management process to emphasize. It's not just a piece of paper, but there's a process there that can enable you to do a lot of things. That's assuming that you want to do those a lot of things, which means solving problems, but also gaining agreement in the organization, mentoring people, leading people, if you want to manage in a way that, you know, I saw as, as, as, as a effective way of managing at Toyota, then the, A3 can be an enabler. You know, it's no guarantee of success, but it can be an enabler.

John Shook (7m 45s):
So, so that was kind of some of the, some of the inspiration LEI wanted an A3 book, and I only wanted to do it if I could present it kind of in way that would embody the broader management context. And, and I think it manages to do both hope. So I guess we'll have to let readers, let us know, you know, how it succeeds.

Mark Graban (8m 5s):
Yeah. I mean, as, as just the one reader sitting here, you know, the, the, the two column format, I mean, it certainly lends a very rich story to sort of try to get in the head of both sides of, you know, student teacher. It took a little getting used to the flipping back and forth because I tend to read a couple pages and then go back and sort of make it semi sequential myself. But it is a really unique method. It it's, I can imagine the challenge of trying to get, you know, complex concepts where typically, you know, it's a story. So somebody is coaching you and it's very interactive. And a book is decidedly.

Mark Graban (8m 45s):
Non-interactive linear. I could see the, the challenge in that, but I appreciate

John Shook (8m 50s):
That you appreciate challenge. I will give myself a, you know, a good grade for effort. Anyway, if execution know other, you and others will have to have to give the grade, but it is, it is complex actually to tell the two stories running parallel side by side, I've never seen another book like it. I expected more people to kind of push, you know, I don't know, or I don't know about complained, but at least, you know, complain about the difficulty, I guess, reading it, but really it hasn't come up much, but, but I really liked the dynamism of it. I mean, when you go to the plant floor or when you go to, you know, walking down the hallway at work, I mean, sometimes two people speak to you at once. I mean, life doesn't actually come at you in a linear fashion, as you said, which a book is by nature kind of linear.

John Shook (9m 30s):
And what we've done in this case is tried to try to show a little bit more of that dynamic nature. I mean, so you do have a choice here to relieve the lip, the ReadyLIFT column first or the right column first, but that's just like, what two people yell. I yell at you at the same time you have to choose, okay, am I going to talk to you first? So you first, and I think people are finding out what you did, which is that, you know, you read a couple of pages and you, and you find a way to a way to read it. That's comfortable to you.

Mark Graban (9m 56s):
Yeah. And, you know, I really do find the whole A3, the formal A3 methodology and thinking process. We fascinating because I can't claim personally to be an expert on the A3 methodology as it's laid out, you know, I've never worked in an organization like Toyota, that, that directly is that. But, you know, I, I, as someone with, with some experience with lane, I certainly recognize a lot of the thought process and, and the elements and the concepts behind the, the A3 document. But one question I was going to ask and, you know, from my own learning, and I would assume some of the listeners, you know, what tips do you have to make sure that it's not just a document, like you said, corporate wallpaper, that I I've been in some training classes where the form is so deceptively simple, but, you know, sometimes it seems almost get presented or put together and kind of a superficial way.

Mark Graban (10m 56s):
How, what tips do you have for people to make sure that they're really incorporating kind of the, the lean thinking Toyota management thought process into the document, instead of just filling out, you know, a check, the box type format.

John Shook (11m 10s):
I think the first thing is, is to do, to kind of take you to your, the, your last statement there and, and revisit the purpose of what we're doing here. If you're actually doing, using the A3, because you want to manage in a way that embodies those, those principles that we're, that we're aware of. I mean, everyone who would love to be the best lean leader, lean manager we could ever be. We would all love to be whether it's a tight Ciano or, or, you know, someone whose leadership, I've had a chance to witness over the years, Mr. Cho the current chairman of Toyota. And we all can't be that so easily. But if, if, if that's what we want to aspire to a way that we're developing people, we're actually getting people to solve problems.

John Shook (11m 51s):
We're moving the organization forward. We're taking the, in a direction. We want the, if we use the atria as a way to help us achieve that, then we can keep our eye on that purpose. Then we can hopefully prevent them. Then the tendency to focus on, on it as a tool itself. Now you said, how can I help you make sure that doesn't happen? I don't know if there's a way to make sure it doesn't happen, except that's again, where the way we structured the book is certainly, I think it doesn't represent the notion that that the point is filling in the blanks, filling in the boxes. The other thing is in a, in a little small chapter toward the end there that we call it kind of getting started and that it takes two to A3.

John Shook (12m 35s):
And you could say, so that's tries to give some hints about how to use it as a process. And if you build in the discipline in the beginning that the focus isn't just someone writing a good A3 although that's, that's a key piece of it. We can begin teaching ourselves in the beginning that there are different roles involved in the, A3 as a process. And that's why I'm calling it a process. So when I work with an organization to bring in the A3 to add into their suite of lean tools or management for management tools, we always practice three different roles. And the first is the writer, the author. And that's how you write an A3, if you want to decide are six boxes, or I think maybe it's seven in the A3 that's in the book, then, then that's fine.

John Shook (13m 20s):
So you begin to go, you go through a thinking process of defining the problem while you're talking about defining, you know, what what's important about that from the company standpoint, what's the business context, then what are the current conditions? You know, the fact he'd go out to the gemba and see how see what's happening, then, then decide, okay, that's how things are happening. What are our goals? How do we want things to look and analyze that gap between the way things are the way we want them to be then goes to the discipline of actually eliciting a, a set of, of ideas of countermeasures or proposals, not just jumping to one solution. That's one of the things lean is not as jumping to a conclusion, right? Jumping to a solution. And once you've gone through all that, then put it in our plan, a real timeline, so we can see what needs to happen.

John Shook (14m 4s):
We expect to happen by when and I follow up ideas. So the first thing is to learn how to do, how to construct an 83, that tells that sort of story. And whether you do that in five boxes or seven boxes that I think can be flexible, many companies find it convenient, especially in the beginning to make a standard template. I've always skeptical of standard templates for something like that, only because that tends to lean toward that tendency too. See it as a fill in the box exercise, if you do that, the second thing then is as part of kind of training or learning. This is after, in addition to learning to write an aids, read the author. The next thing is that you have to actually present it.

John Shook (14m 46s):
You use it to tell a story. And so we'll actually practice this we'll we'll role play this where you actually take your A3 and presented to someone in the third row, which is so very important is the other side. So once someone is presented with, as someone who's presenting an A3 to you, how do you respond? And there are different ways that someone can respond. A lot of times the traditional, you know, leadership management responses to, to disagree to say, no, that's not right. Here's what's right. And to give someone the answer and we can use this format then as a way to stop ourselves from doing that, first of all, to ask some questions to ensure, first of all, that I understand the A3 it's being presented to me, second of all, to say, okay, does the person who's presenting this aA3to me?

John Shook (15m 29s):
Does he actually, or does he, or she actually understand his or her problem? And if, if, if, if they have understood the problem that leads us down a path now of, okay, now let's examine the root cause and the candid possible proposals, but very often they haven't actually identified the root cause. And the A3 becomes a platform then that I can use to help that person see that they haven't actually gone to the gambler. And haven't actually asked why five times or 10 times every time they need to, to get to the root cause. So in the very beginning of, of training that I would do for the eighth read, I include those three roles in the very beginning. So we don't just practice writing them, but we practice also using them as a communication tool and practice the other side, which is responding because again, it always takes at least two A3.

John Shook (16m 17s):
It sounds kind of catchy, I suppose, but I think it's really, I think it's really true.

Mark Graban (16m 22s):
Yeah. Okay. And the Managing to Learn that, I think does a good job of representing that back and forth process, which again, seems familiar to other lean methods like Hoshin Connery and this back and forth, right. Learning and problem solving style. But one thing that jumps out and, you know, you see this in, in the book, the, the left-hand column character, you know, having to go back and rework it as A3 and being challenged and go back and erasing and working on it again. And, you know, for people say sometimes, oh, you know, it took me 10, tries 10 attempts at an A3. It just kinda makes me think, wow, do people really have patience for that?

Mark Graban (17m 3s):
What, what kind of feedback do you get from people about the, you know, the, the, the back and forth nature of the process?

John Shook (17m 10s):
Well, one thing is, I think, again, it only, if you decide, you want to manage this way, are you going to be able to do that? So, but if you've decided that we I'm in an organization, that where people are jumping to conclusions to jumping to solutions all the time, we have hammers running all over the place, looking for nails, we have a lot of activity going on by maybe a lot of well-intentioned people, but we're working on the wrong things. And no matter what we do, it doesn't seem to take the organization forward. If you think that those problems are in place, then what that means is we need to learn how to go through a more rigorous thinking process to understand truly what's happening at the gemba, understand why it's happening to root cause. And then we can be able to understand how all the different countermeasures and great we have might or might not match up and link against the real problems of the day, the real things that we want to fix.

John Shook (17m 59s):
If you recognize that, then you actually appreciate the fact that the A3 makes you slow down, or the fact that you have those boxes there, it becomes an easy, and again, this, this, as, as you know, it occurs in the example, in the book where the, in the first instance, the learner adjust to a conclusion of solution and feels fairly proud of it, I suppose. And then the mentor goes back and says, no, we're going to stop. We're going to go through this step by step. And having the eighth re as a process to help you do that can enable, can enable us to together, go through the process and can help build in that kind of a discipline of, of patients. The, you know, we'd all like to be able to go, no, no, no.

John Shook (18m 42s):
The, the root cause immediately and know what would be the best solution to, to, to move forward against that root cause where right away. But what we're going to do is not make assumptions and not, and not managed by a wishlist, but actually ensuring that we understand the situation and move it through things in a disciplined fashion. So if that's what you want to do that, I think that can happen. It is a cultural change though, in, in, in, in, in many cases, and it's not something that you can do effectively just by yourself, you can start by yourself, but then you want to start, use this and start engaging others. And so we're all going through this kind of a standard thinking process together.

Mark Graban (19m 19s):
Well, it seems like it would be challenging to start from scratch with a process like this, maybe on the one level, because it requires us mentor back and forth. If, if, if you're an individual who doesn't have a good mentor to help you with the process, like you said, it takes too, it seems like you might end up with superficially A3 are not accomplishing much. And maybe that the, the second challenge might be, you know, if somebody is working in a, a big large corporation, that sounds like the opposite of what you described. And a lot of organizations, aren't very patient by nature. They want to jump to solutions. You know, the boss has all the answers type organization.

Mark Graban (20m 0s):
This, this may not, I mean, this may be too advanced of a, a methodology for somebody who's, who's maybe real early in the lean journey. Is that fair to say, or am I being,

John Shook (20m 9s):
I don't know that I would say it exactly that way. I think it can be a tool that you can bring in from the very beginning. I mean, you don't have to. I mean, I I'm, I'm a believer that you can really start from many places in many different ways along the lean journey. But I think eventually though, what we want is an organization where people are having dialogues, where they're getting engaged, where leaders are developing people, developing their people, and this can be, you know, a tool that they can enable that it also can be in the beginning. W w is often in the beginning, stages uses a pretty simple, straightforward problem solving tool. And you're not going to get anywhere as you know, in, in, in any lean initiative, unless we are learning problem solved.

John Shook (20m 50s):
I mean, lean problem is, is at the core of what we're doing. So bringing in any lean tool in the essence of bringing along with it, a focus on what is a problem and how do we solve it, I think is going to fail. So this can be one in the early stages, rather than very complicated. The organizational change source of proposal, A3, they can, they can be centered around problem solving, more simple problems, bringing into play the lean problem solving tools that really are the essence of standardized work in Kaizen. That's what standardized working Kaizen is. It's a way to see how things are and how to, in how to, from that determined problems and how to make improvements. So I think it can come in from the very beginning of the other thing I like about it from a flexibility standpoint is if someone, no matter if you're the CEO or you're a manager, an area manager in the plant floor, or you're in engineering, you can start to use this for yourself, the individual, through writing an eighth read and going through the discipline of, of, of going through the questions and going through the thinking steps will become a stronger problem-solver.

John Shook (21m 55s):
Even if you just do this on your, on your own to this day. You know, sometimes I'll when I sit down and write one, I'll always be surprised at how forcing myself to go through the discipline of filling it, filling out of working on an eighth, I'll recognize, you know, connections between things I thought I should do and how they connect or don't connect versus the real, the real situation of the other real problem. So I think as an individual, there's a lot that can be gained and, and, and as, as an organization as well. And I think you can start to use it even in earlier stages of a lean journey. I think the use of it is simpler, but that's, again, I think that's true of any lean tool. When we begin, we try to use them in a, in a simple fashion and then learn about them as we go along and learn that we can use them in different, more, more complex situations.

Mark Graban (22m 44s):
Okay. Well that, that's good. That dials back some of my, I guess, cynicism, and I think that's a good message. It sounds like you're saying that, you know, if anything, you know, like, I guess like anything starts small.

John Shook (22m 56s):
Absolutely. And you mentioned two words a moment ago, you mentioned, you mentioned problem solving and at the same sentence, you mentioned Hoshin Conrad as well. The thing is, if you have a broad or want to start a broad corporate wide hosting Cami initiative, you need A3 as part of that. But also when you go down to the very front lines of problem solving, which I think again, you have to have, and it's usually an important place to start. The A3 can structure that as well. It allows you to structure and tell your, your, your problem solving stories around a standard kind of a story story template. And then it, in whatever needs you to do, then it's hooked them up hook hook to your frontline problem solving activities that are structured around PDCA in with your broader Hoshin Kanri activities as well.

John Shook (23m 40s):
So if you're working at a, you know, more of a broader company transformation level, it can be part of that, but also it can be just something at the front lines, just one person or a small group of can do as well. That's the thing about Hoshin Kanri you can't do that so easily with a small group. That means you're talking about how the company develops strategies and works and works through them though. You can't, you can do it starting at any level.

Mark Graban (24m 5s):
Okay. Well, and I would love to dig into this more. Maybe we can do a follow-up conversation after more people have had a chance to read your book. I know I've talked to others who have either started reading or completed reading it. So maybe if there's questions, people can contact us and we can do a followup discussion or one other way. And, and I don't know how interactive this has been so far, I've noticed you started doing a column where it's actually being done in the construct of a blog on the LEI website. So I was wondering how that's going so far and has, has it been interactive and, and is it the John Shook newsletter is coming out weekly, right?

John Shook (24m 48s):
Yeah. Yeah. Partly as, as I was started getting towards the end of the book Managing to Learn, I wanted to keep it concise, you know, the book, and I don't know how many pages it ended up being, but I wanted to keep it fairly concise and focused. And, but there were a lot of other things I realized I had to say there were notes, you know, scraps of paper all over the desk and, you know, and, and a lot of things that were kind of unused. And I started thinking more and more that, that I wouldn't mind a kind of an alternative means of getting those ideas out there, but also, you know, you know, kind of hopefully getting, getting a dialogue started about this because I do think management and leadership are so very key to what we're talking about.

John Shook (25m 34s):
And if you look at so many lean initiatives that have not succeeded the way that they could, you'd have to look at leadership management issues as being central to that. So I think there's a dialogue that needs to be taking place out there and blogging. I think you've done a great job mark, as a few others have, you know, of, of, of bringing blogging into, to the lean dialogue. I was a little scared of it. I haven't read that many blogs really. And so what we're calling it, it's just a corner in the LEI website and we're calling it John's management, lean management corner, a column is what we're calling it. And so it's kind of somewhere in between, or like a traditional magazine column and a blog, I suppose.

John Shook (26m 15s):
And it didn't really solicit a whole lot of feedback first, first, couple of times. But I th I think, you know, talking with you and reading your, you know, your blog, I'm kind of getting a little more comfortable with the idea. I really, I think it's, it's, it's a great new venue really for exchanging ideas and getting ideas out there. It's exciting about it. I'm just kind of slowly getting used to the idea and, and dipping my toe in the water. But so far it's been fun. We've just done a few, but every, every week I'm planning on just putting one column out there and we'll see how people respond.

Mark Graban (26m 46s):
Yeah. Well, that's good. Not linked to it off of my website. People listening can go to www.lean.org/shookk and find the columns there. So that's a nice addition to the lean web world and welcome to a words like this, to start rolling off your tongue, where it's like blogosphere, and we're welcome to the blog. I don't even like saying that welcome to the blogosphere, John, but thank you. Thank you. More so for your continued sharing of, of, you know, your learning back to Toyota days and everything you've been doing since I really learned a lot from it and I, I know other students, so thank you for that.

John Shook (27m 25s):
Thanks Mark. And I look forward to your, your, your ongoing handholding as I get used to the blogosphere and everything. I appreciate that. Thank you. Thanks for joining us again today. I appreciate it.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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