Will Evans is considered one of the leading experts in lean software, lean UX and lean startup, working with global corporations undergoing lean and agile transformations. Visiting PwC in Melbourne from his home town New York, Evans talks to Digital Pulse about how small steps can lead to greater innovations with the aid of problem-solving tools such as A3.

What is
A3 problem solving? 

Within lean thinking there’s a number of different tools; one that a lot of companies have been very interested in is called the A3 method.  It’s really nothing more than a method for systematising problem-solving and creating a shared understanding of the problems that we currently face within our system that prevent the organisation from achieving its goal.

How are we going to understand the nature of the problem? How we can get to the root cause of the problem? How do we solve that problem so that we can increase the flow of value throughout our system – and ultimately to the customer – so that we can reap some kind of financial gain? At the end of the day it’s how can companies become better at delivering value based on customer pull.

How did the
lean A3 system originate?

Originally, it started off with Walter Shewhart at the Hawthorne Factory.  He taught the scientific method in the form of PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) to W Edwards Deming, who then taught it to Taiichi Ohno at Toyota.  He was the one who initially came up with the first version of the A3 method in 1950.

Most people who go to work at Toyota – specifically in their manufacturing and engineering plants – walk up to their desk on their first day and all that’s on it is a blank A3 sheet of paper and a pencil. The first thing that their manager does is say: “Here is the problem that I want you to solve”.

It starts this long-term relationship that slowly builds up the worker’s ability to solve their own problems as opposed to simply taking orders from somebody.

What we’ve done over the last 15 years is take that methodology and then move it over to a totally different context, which is really around digital services and digital design, so that we can design better solutions for our customers.

How does lean
translate to digital?

Around 1995, David Anderson took the kanban system from lean manufacturing and reapplied that entire method to software design and delivery. It was a mechanism for people to create a shared understanding of all the things they’re working on, the most important things they should be working on and what they’re doing next, to better track their work and ultimately deliver value.

Shortly thereafter, myself and a community of people that originally came out of software design started looking at other methods to see how those might be applicable.

Software design or digital services is a different context. It moves a lot faster, there’s a high degree of variability in the output. When you design and engineer a product like a car or a laptop, you want to be able to produce the exact same widget over and over again with very low variability and high degree of quality.

With software, every single unique feature has never been designed before, or at least it’s never been designed in that specific context, so you have a high degree of variability in the kinds of work that a software engineer or a software designer does. This makes it very difficult to know how long it will take to make the thing, or if the customer actually wants it or needs it. It might help our customer solve one problem but it might create a plethora of others.

Why do we need
a methodology like lean A3?

There’s a huge amount of competition to actually deliver new services. Many of the traditional players are being really disrupted by small, innovative players made up of two or three people in a co-working space with a couple of laptops and using the cloud or frameworks like Ruby that are incredibly cheap and easy to scale. So larger enterprises are saying, “How do we become more innovative?”  These organisations have become, over many years, adept at exploiting their existing value streams, but at the expense of becoming overburdened and therefore unable to do exploration.

That’s usually when they start talking to people who come from a design thinking or a UX design background. Ultimately they want to create new value. They want to create new products, new services, to be able to, if not disrupt their own marketplace, disrupt themselves. But that creates a lot of problems.

Everybody is working way too hard on way too many things with no clear understanding of the value of those things that they’re doing. Or people are doing a lot of work that creates no value whatsoever.  Many of these organisations say: “How do we become more innovative?  How do we design new things?”

When you look at increasing the capabilities of your own people, you’re immediately faced with everybody already working 60 hours a week on all of the existing product lines. There’s simply no slack in the system. There’s no ability to prioritise and there’s a lot of wasteful stuff going on.

Originally, A3 was created to solve wasteful problems. Issues within your process that prevent you from introducing slack so that you free up enough time for people to do research or discovery or create new prototypes or test new ideas. Once you teach that to people, it allows them more time to get closer to the customer, do testing, research, synthesis – and your people themselves create the capacity to become innovative.

If you had the freedom to completely redesign a large organisation today,
what would be drastically different?

One would be aligning the entire organisation around flow.  We still suffer from organisational structures that we inherited from the industrial revolution, predated by early military structures. Functional lines may have made sense a hundred years ago but they don’t actually make sense of the delivery of value to the customer today.

Organisations deliver value horizontally, meaning value moves from functional silo to functional silo to ultimately deliver to the customer, but unfortunately they scale vertically, meaning as soon as you need some new capability, you hire somebody who immediately starts building a fiefdom underneath – and to make matters worse, their G&Os (goals and objectives) are more aligned to the functioning of their silo, than the value-added work they contribute to the customer.

They then reach out to the people upstream and downstream and create documents and service level agreements about how they’re going to receive and deliver value. These handoffs and queues actually create more problems and more waste within the system than if you had aligned the entire organisation around particular value streams, where you’re defining who the customer is, what their problem is, and what resources are needed to deliver that as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The customer doesn’t really care about your functional silo, they care about whatever it is that they’re using to solve their problem. So it’s finding new ways to align organisations around value of delivery.

What’s the key for large organisations
to transform to innovate?

There’s a cultural and a mindset element, which means it takes a long period of time.  In the last transformations that I’ve been a part of, it’s a five-year journey. It’s not as though you bring in consultants, they’re on site for six months, you spend $10 million and then boom! You’re innovative.

You can’t just simply change your clothes. Change your behaviour first. The easiest way to change your behaviour is to change the small practices you do every day until you eventually can fit into that amazing designer suit. That’s why A3 tends to be helpful: it focuses you on small daily practices to create more slack in your system so that you can focus on making good decisions, minimising risk but still exploring moon shots.

Most people are really driven by solving real problems, to create value, to take pride in their work and to make the customer happy.  A lot feel like everything in the system is stacked up against them doing the thing they want to do to deliver quality, useful services.

As an executive in a large organisation, you own the system, you own the policies, the procedures, the strategy and you own the fact that the strategy needs to be coherent to employees so that they know that what they’re doing contributes value.

A lot of transformations in organisations really do start with things like, “We are going to clearly define the team and their roles and every single morning we’re all going to meet face to face and discuss what we’re working on today.”

It’s not a status update, it’s nothing more than: “This is what I’m doing today and I need somebody’s help or this is blocking me.” High functioning teams can get it done in five minutes and then they know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how it will contribute to their two-week sprint.  It’s the idea that bite-sized pieces and changing very small behaviours day-in, day-out leads to significant change.

Will Evans is Chief Design Officer at PraxisFlow, Design Thinker-in-Residence at New York University’s Stern Graduate School of Management and co-founder of the LeanUX NYC conference. He was previously the Managing Director of TLCLabs, a lean design innovation consultancy.

See Will Evans’ presentation Facilitating Complexity here.



Marina Paronetto

Marina Paronetto works in PwC’s digital team as senior innovation manager.

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