Lean and fast — using A3 to save your program

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Principal Consultant, PM Advisers LLC

Abstract

This is a case study of a program in trouble, and how the Lean A3 Process is used to save it. The program, conceived during merger of two Fortune 250 companies, is to deliver synergy savings through integration of asset and work management systems. Due to delays in merger approval, the program lacks development and maturity when the time comes to execute. Unfortunately for the newly named program manager, the delay also results in turnover of the sponsor and key stakeholders and emergence of expectations exceeding the original mission.

Faced with this dilemma, the program manager has two choices: stick to the original plan, or adapt to changed expectations while building a case for additional resources. Defending the plan is not an option. Several senior executives with merger cost reduction targets sit on the steering committee. The program manager must find a way to adapt, and quickly, as the program is already falling behind previously identified milestones.

Application of the Lean A3 process leads to rapid and effective alignment of the sponsor, key stakeholders, and program team around a revised vision, strategy, objectives and resource requirements. The objective in sharing this case study is to provide a model of how the A3 process can be used to solve similar challenges in other organizations.

The Challenge…

“Congratulations – we have a tremendous opportunity for you to take over a program the company is really depending upon to deliver synergy savings from our recent merger. We're sure with your leadership ability that you are the best person for the job.”

Our protagonist has just been offered the job to lead an enterprise wide program to integrate asset and work management systems of two recently merged Fortune 250 companies. Although she has executive experience and possesses excellent interpersonal and leadership skills, this is a different kind of opportunity. She is relatively new to the world of program and project management. Undaunted, she accepts the position and sets about listening, learning, and assessing the current program state. Soon she comes to realize the opportunity is bigger than advertised.

She comes across several complications. First, the merger had taken a year longer than expected due to the regulatory approval process. At times it seemed like it was going to be called off or not approved. As a result, the program, which was conceived during early merger integration discussions, did not mature beyond an initial business case and collection of existing and proposed projects. In addition, several original stakeholders and the sponsor moved on to other opportunities. Most were no longer involved with the program by the time she took the job.

Second, the scope of the program was immense. The combined company had a market cap of $50 billion and included regulated and non-regulated businesses. Each of the two merged companies was itself a combination of prior mergers and acquisitions. The program had to deal not only with a diverse set of businesses, but also a large variety of legacy systems and processes.

Third, the business case was not robust. Estimated costs to merge the asset and work management systems were around $60 million with an estimated $10 million in ongoing benefits expected from a reduction in back office support, improved productivity, and increased field operation efficiency.

The cost estimates were budgetary at best and based on preliminary and obvious work scopes. Benefits were loosely defined at a very high level without a lot of detail and more than a few assumptions. Overall the case for action was relatively weak.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the program was suffering from a lack of direction. Though good progress had been made on in-flight projects, and assigned team members were working diligently on the plan as it stood, the program was operating without an endorsed program manager.

The lack of a strong voice led to a drift in expectations of what the program was to deliver. The current plan assumed the combined company would migrate to systems and processes in place at the larger legacy company. Only limited change management was anticipated to migrate a relatively small population to these existing systems and processes.

Her assessment revealed that most business stakeholders now expected the program to provide business process redesign and related change management services even though these were not in the original scope. Senior management was now convinced leaner processes not wedded to any legacy practices would maximize business performance and expected the program to facilitate their development. In addition, all new processes would involve migrating the entire population to a state that did not yet exist, a huge change management challenge.

She drew a picture, Exhibit 1, to show how expectations of the program were changing. She highlighted business process redesign and change management elements as new program components and left blanks with question marks to represent potentially unknown requirements.

Program expectations (Post-merger)

Exhibit 1 – Program expectations (Post-merger).

A choice is needed, and needed soon. She could defend the current plan by reorienting the sponsor and key stakeholders back to the assumptions under which the program was conceived. Or she could adapt to changed expectations, in which case she will need to make the argument for additional resources and potentially time to develop and carry out a revised plan.

She rightly concludes the best course of action is to adapt the program to the changed expectations. This the best decision for the company, the sponsor, and key stakeholders including senior executives and business leaders challenged by the CEO to maximize synergies from the merger. She feels the case can be made but is concerned about how to build consensus in the program, including what resource commitments will be needed and what benefits will be delivered.

Recognizing she has little time and program experience, she reaches out for advice from a local program management “sensei”…

The Solution… The A3 Process

The “sensei” suggests using A3 as a means to drive consensus on a renewed program charter. She knew A3 was a process improvement technique and that the name was somehow associated with the paper size often used in its application. She didn't expect to apply a process for improving manufacturing processes to a program management problem.

However, he insists A3 is useful for many purposes well beyond the manufacturing arena including:

  • Performance improvement
  • Problem solving
  • Initiative development
  • Strategy deployment
  • Project charters
  • Program charters
  • Consensus building

He believes every program and project manager should have A3 in his or her toolbox. The process involves creating a story, continually reviewing the story with others (catch ball), and rewriting and elaborating the story as part of a plan, do, check, and adjust (PDCA) cycle, Exhibit 2.

He claims it will lead to rapid alignment on a renewed program charter. Although a bit skeptical, she hears herself say “Okay I'm game, let's give it a whirl…”

A3 process elements

Exhibit 2 – A3 process elements.

Creating the Story

He starts with the importance of the story creation process, “The first thing you have to do is create the story in your own words so that it is easy for you and others to understand what your challenge entails.” He goes on to say that she must keep the story to one double-sided page with the front side for narrative and visual description. The reverse can be used for whatever other information she wanted to provide. She wasn't sure where to start, so he provided an example template, Exhibit 3.

A3 template

Exhibit 3 – A3 template.

Her first thought was the template looked too simple to be of any use. He explains, “Although the template appears simple, the format and one page constraint are very purposeful. An unfortunate assumption people often make is to associate quality with volume. This is often wrong.”

She thinks about it and realizes she has seen many drawn out reports and presentations where the author/presenter could not explain what they were trying to say.

He goes on, “Simplicity, on the other hand, is not the same as simple. It is hard work to write meaningfully with few words. Forced conciseness promotes deep thinking about the topic at hand and fosters understanding for others.”

He stresses the format is not fixed, and that she can add, delete, and change sections as time goes on. He shows her many examples of A3 templates including a blank page. She decides to stick with the first one for now. Starting with the title, he mentions that every part of the A3 is an opportunity for her to think through how best to describe the situation both for her own purposes and for education and discussion with others.

She comes to understand the background section is an opportunity to explore why the topic is of interest, including its strategic and tactical importance to the organization. Current condition is where the known challenges and problems are discussed and described. The analysis section summarizes investigative work performed toward determining the causes of current state issues. Proposed countermeasures and a plan provide the next steps toward addressing suspected causes. Finally, follow-up describes how actions on the A3 are being verified and communicated.

He cautions, “You must remember the A3 is a living document that will change as you progress towards your goal. You have already started the process so write down what you know.”

Our protagonist nods her head, “Let me go and see what I come up with. I'll stop by later to see what you think.”

He replies, “Good, it's best you first struggle alone when first developing the story.”

Playing Catch

Later that week, he stopped by to see how things were going. She started, “I'm not satisfied with the result - something seems to be missing.” He reassured her it was okay to feel that way, noting that the A3 is intended to create the feeling that more work is required. She showed him what she developed (Exhibit 4).

Example initial A3

Exhibit 4 – Example initial A3.

He looked it over and seemed to come across something he didn't like. “Okay, what's wrong?” she demanded.

He responded, “I don't like the title. It's bland and uninspiring.”

She was a bit taken aback, “What! Why does that matter?”

He seemed very serious, “The title helps set the tone for your A3 and should evoke in your team, stakeholders and sponsor the vision the program is trying to achieve.”

They went back and forth for a little bit and she finally decided the try to build the word “Excel” into the title. However, he cautioned this should not be considered final.

They went on in this manner through each section of the A3. She would first explain the section and then he would pepper her with questions. He questioned why the program should be done at all if it could only deliver such paltry savings for the investment required.

Considering this was now her next great opportunity, she started getting a bit testy, “Look, I don't have all the answers yet, but I plan to dig into the details to get the facts. I have a meeting scheduled with some of the original participants who pulled together the estimates. I'm sure there is some history that I'm not aware of yet.”

He relaxed a bit, “What we are doing is catch ball – the second part of the A3 process. These are the kinds of questions you should want and expect from your program stakeholders. You and they need to reach a common understanding of the challenges and issues through review of the A3 and the back and forth nature of question, answer, clarification, response etc. This will help guide you to the actions necessary to move your program forward.”

He continued, “Catch ball works best when conversations are frank and open. The goal is to bring focus on the right areas and gain buy-in on changes necessary for improvement. Tension is often a sign of a healthy process. By the way, I really like your use of the graphic to show how the current project scope differs from what your analysis tells you is the current perception – it helps me understand what you are facing.”

They discussed how the A3 was a little like a contract that should be marked-up to capture key comments and agreements. She decided to set-up weekly “catch ball” meetings with her sponsor because events were moving rapidly. She also established catch ball meetings with key sponsors, and set aside time at the normally scheduled program team meeting to review the A3.

Progressively Elaborate

They met over coffee and she filled him in on progress over the last couple of weeks. “I've had a chance to catch ball with the sponsor and key stakeholders and have gotten some great feedback. They are much closer to understanding what has happened with the program and are very supportive of my efforts to reestablish it on a new basis. My program team is also on board and has offered a lot of suggestions about where we need to go next.”

He nodded, “You've already started on the final piece of the A3 process—riding the PDCA cycle to achieve meaningful results. This is the piece that binds everything together.” He used Exhibit 5 to illustrate the cycle and the relationship to the other components of the A3.

Plan, do, check, and adjust cycle

Exhibit 5 – Plan, do, check, and adjust cycle.

He explained the various cycle elements. “Plan involves updating the story to reflect the current state and near terms actions. You now have a narrative to work from. Do is executing the near term actions defined by the plan as well as directing ongoing program activities. During Do, It is critical for you to be, as much as possible, close to where the work is being done. This allows you to observe, learn, and gather insights into what the work entails as well as the challenges that your team is working to overcome.”

She remembers something she learned from a process improvement class. “Isn't that called going to the gemba?”

He's impressed, “Yes – the gemba is the Japanese word for the place where value is created. One of your roles is to provide clarity and reduce obstacles for those that create value for the organization. It's a very important analysis tool supporting the A3 process.”

He continues with the PDCA cycle, ”‘Check’ is to validate how well the actions completed by ‘do’ meet the intent of the plan. Catch ball is one technique to evaluate if the actions are having their intended result. Finally ‘adjust’ is to recognize the A3 and program plan may have to evolve based on learning from the prior steps. The story is adjusted accordingly and the process continues.”

The Results… A Focused Program Charter and Delivered Savings

Once started down the path of the A3 process, our protagonist is able to rapidly evolve the A3 and align stakeholder and sponsor expectations around a renewed program charter. Exhibit 6 illustrates a result achieved after only a few weeks on the job.

A3 example of an evolving program charter

Exhibit 6 – A3 example of an evolving program charter.

Epilogue

About a year later, the sensei checks in to see how everything is going. Our protagonist is proud to say the program is on track to deliver nearly $40 million in recurring savings to the company at a cost of about $80 million total. The program plan used to deliver this performance was based on the charter evolved from the A3 process.

Summary

Discussed in this paper is a case study of how a program manager applied the Lean A3 process to rapidly bring focus to a program in trouble. A3 consists of the following three process elements:

  1. Story in the A3 format that facilitates deep thinking, concise communication, problem solving and planning.
  2. Catch ball of the A3 story to drive consensus between the program manager, key stakeholders, sponsor, team members and others on vision, goals, and strategies.
  3. Use of the plan, do, check, and adjust (PDCA) cycle to promote progressive elaboration of the A3 to achieve the end result.

The case study uses narrative between the program manager and a mentor known as the “sensei” to elaborate on the various elements and benefits of the A3 process. An A3 template and examples are provided for study.

We hope this example of the A3 process will benefit others in their attempts to drive program and project performance.

References

Dennis, P. (2006). Getting the right things done: A leader's guide to planning and execution. Cambridge, MA: Lean Enterprise Institute.

Lean Enterprise Institute. (2014) Homepage. Retrieved on July 26, 2014 from: http://www.lean.org

Moreci, J. & England, K. (2012, October). 4 Strategies for an Enterprise Project Management Framework, PMI Global Congress 2012, North America, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fourth Edition. Newton Square, PA: Author..\

Shook, J. (2010). Managing to learn, using the A3 management process to solve problems, gain agreement, mentor, and lead (Version 1.1). Cambridge, MA: Lean Enterprise Institute.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, John A. Moreci
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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