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In Managing to Learn, John Shook describes the A3 as a core lean management process. The book succeeds in simultaneously providing two perspectives on learning about the A3 process.  Desi Porter, a recently appointed manager, versed in the lean basics is tackling his first A3. Readers join him on his journey to discover A3 content and meaning. At the same time readers see through Ken Sanderson’s perspective, Porter’s A3 coach and manager, as he guides Porter in his A3 journey.

At first glance this might sound difficult to follow, however Shook keeps it simple by using colour text, clear headings and short paragraphs.  Porter’s narrative is written in black and Sanderson’s in blue.  Shook’s way of telling this story enables the reader to see a wider perspective than a single narrative would have done, and allows us access to in-depth knowledge of the process and requirements needed to produce a good A3.  The double narrative also emphasises the importance of coaching needed to produce an A3.

The A3 is a Toyota-pioneered practice of problem-solving. It is a systematic, step-by-step process where all reasonable ideas and facts are embraced and depicted in a way where they can speak for themselves on a single piece of paper. In Managing to Learn, the A3 allows Porter to pursue multiple hypotheses at the same time.

Porter makes an early error by embracing one approach which weakens the analysis part of his A3.  Under Sanderson’s guidance Porter realises that allowing more perspectives will result in more robust countermeasures.

Shook based the book on his own experience at Toyota and describes a process that readers would be able to relate to, even if they are new to the A3 way.  For example, Sanderson needs to caution Porter not to make rush judgments, jump to conclusions and he needs to remind Porter to keep an open mind.  Taking on the role of coach in Sanderson’s self-dialogue, he reminds himself to respect Porter as the A3 owner and not push him into a particular direction and not to provide the solutions.

The reader shares Porter’s frustrations when Porter thinks that he knew the root cause of the problem early on and we share Porter’s growth as the A3 evolves.  The reader can relate to turf wars, passively unhelpful people and sympathises with Porter when he erases a countermeasure to keep other people happy.  Fortunately the ever-patient coach Sanderson is close by to coach Porter to put the countermeasure back into the A3, even if other people disagree with him.

An important message is that coaching is as much about attitude and expectation as it is about the method.  Coaching is a process where both the coach and the coached are continuously learning.  Managing to Learn provides us with a gemba-based approach (go see) to planning and problem-solving, which emphasises that those who do and therefore know the work are the ones who should participate in the dialogue.

Applying the A3 management process creates thinking people who are reflective problem -solvers.  The templates/demonstrations in the back pocket of the book are a great resource and even though standard templates can be helpful timesaver, Shook cautions that ‘The good news is that people will use the template.  And the bad news is that people will use the template.’  Enforcing the use of any single template may create a focus on completing the template as opposed to addressing the problem at hand. One must continue to be a thinking person as one uses the guidance and resources in the book and offered at the workplace, and not just follow the templates unthinkingly to fill something under each heading.

Managing to Learn speaks to everyone in an organisation.  It provides guidance to executives and managers that need to guide and equip others with the A3 management process.  And it provides an introduction to any team member or individual wanting to learn about structured problem-solving approaches.

The A3 management process, like the rest of the lean tools, is about learning how to learn.  For those who are unfamiliar with the A3, this method is a radically different approach that requires practice to find and analyse problems.   For people exposed to A3 thinking for the first time it would be advised to find a coach to help develop your A3 thinking, or to attend a course or workshop where the principles of A3 thinking can be practised with guidance in conjunction with the book.

You can order the book through Lean Institute Africa. Contact us on 021 406 1477 or

Title: Managing to Learn
Author: John Shook
Publisher:  Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
ISBN-13:  978-1-934109-20-5
SKU:  9205
Publication Date:  October 6, 2008
Number of Pages:  138

Review written by Charmaine Cunningham