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The A3 is for more than just documenting your project. They also serve as a coaching tool for leaders. A3s help leaders see their team’s problem-solving muscle at work. As employees become better problem-solvers, the problem-solving maturity manifests in A3s.

Webinar Level

  • Leadership


In this 1-hour Leadership webinar, we’ll explore:

  • What the A3 is
  • Reasons to use A3s
  • How A3s build problem-solving muscles
  • How Leaders coach with A3s
  • A3 tips for Coaches

Tools & Templates


Tracy O’Rourke, Managing Partner

Tracy is a Managing Partner at She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.

Webinar Transcript

Elisabeth Swan: Hello and welcome to another webinar. We’re happy to have you join us today. This webinar series is for you, our learner community. Lean and Six Sigma are the worldwide go-to improvement methods and these webinars are part of our efforts to make it easy for you to use these tools and concepts.

My name is Elisabeth Swan. I’ll be your moderator. And today’s presenter is Tracy O’Rourke. Today’s webinar is How Leaders Use A3s to Coach Employees.

About the Presenter

Tracy got involved with Lean Six Sigma process improvement decades and decades ago even though she looks very young. Tracy got her start with GE Appliances as a Black Belt back in ’98. She has been consulting ever since helping diverse organizations and industries like health care, financial services, manufacturing, and state government.

Tracy speaks at Lean Six Sigma conferences around the country and she is my co-host on the Just-In-Time Café Podcast.

Tracy lives in San Diego with her husband and their two sons. She is a biker and a hiker and she still occasionally plays Gaelic Football. And I don’t know about you but that impresses me, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I can’t say I play anymore. I think I’m retired now officially. We will see though. I’m always hopeful every year but somehow that doesn’t manifest.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. I believe it when I see it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

How to Interact

Elisabeth Swan: All right. Well, during the presentation, you all are in listen-only mode but there will be a question-and-answer session the presentation and feel free to ask questions any time by entering them into the question window. You can see here.

We’ll also ask you to participate in some polls throughout the presentation. And if we don’t answer all of your questions during the webinar, we will definitely post the answers afterward. All questions and answers will be posted and you will be able to download the webinar once that’s posted. So yes, you’ll have access to the webinar, the slides, and all the Q&A.

Let’s Interact!

So, now that you know how to do all this, let’s have our first interactive poll session. Let’s find out where you’re from. We have hundreds of attendees today. People are joining us from all over the world on this webinar. So let’s find out where people are dialing in from. So please click on question and type in where you’re from. We’re going to find out who is up early and who is up very, very late. So let’s take a look at who we’ve got.

We’ve got Laura in Reno. Melissa, Chicago. Deidra in Charlotte. Courtney in from Germany. Welcome. Welcome. We’ve got Avril in Ireland. Dia, I hope I pronounced that right, all the way from Lithuania. We’ve got Heidi in Wooster. Rochelle in Roseville. We’ve got Nikola calling in from Kingstown, Jamaica. And Evan in Toronto.

So nice lineup, Tracy. It’s very impressive. Over to you.

Who Is

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. Thank you, Elisabeth, for that warm introduction. I’m very happy to be here. And these are webinars that we’re putting on for our audience. And we’ve been together at GoLeanSixSigma since its inception and it has been founded on a couple of guiding principles.

First of all, we believe in simplifying complex concepts. We believe that complexity just confuses people. How about taking the complexity out so that people can have an effective training that’s practical, accessible, and enjoyable? So that is really is our mission.

And we really want to transform how people learn about Lean Six Sigma. We want to share it with our audience. We put together a training program at the Bahama Bistro. So anytime you sign up for one of our courses, you get to go to the Bahamas for training. Who wouldn’t want to go to the Bahamas? A dreamy, relaxing, training facility that you can actually learn something? I’m in. How about you, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: I’m in.

Tracy O’Rourke: So it’s very enticing and the nice thing is, it’s a universal application for Lean Six Sigma. So all of the examples in all of our trainings are about getting food and where in the world do you not get food, right? So it makes it really easy.

We’ve Helped People From…

So and guess what? A lot of organizations agree with us. These are some of our clients that some have decided to use in their organizations and you can see that there are different kinds of organizations, lots of diversity here, brick and mortar, online, we have global and local organizations, we have health care, financial services, education, manufacturing, and state government.

So why is that? Well, because organizations have lots of problems to solve and they need problem-solvers, right? What organization wouldn’t want problem-solvers? So ultimately, that’s why a lot of organizations are using our training because it’s easy, it’s effective, and it works.

Today’s Agenda

So for today, we’re going to talk about our agenda. We are really going to be focusing on the A3 but mostly around how leaders can use it to help coach employees. We will talk at a high level about what an A3 is just in case and what some of the components are at a high level.

And then we’re going to really get into how leaders can use an A3 to coach employees and some of the questions that leaders can ask, challenges that leaders face when coaching employees, and some tips or countermeasures if you will for addressing some of those leader challenges.

So that’s ultimately what we’ve got. We’ve got a pretty packed webinar here. So let’s start.

What Is an A3?

So first of all, what is an A3? And an A3 really is a one-page document that you work your problem on. And where did they get that funny name? Well, that’s the paper size if you will. There’s 11 x 17 paper size and people tend to say, “OK, when you work in your project or your problem, work on it with – on this 11 x 17 piece of paper.” And so, that’s ultimately where the name came from. It’s the international paper size.

But ultimately, there have been a lot of mistakes in terms of how people use it. Some people don’t use it to actually work a problem. They just think they have to complete it after they’re done. So that’s not really the goal.

The goal here is to gain consensus to communicate about the problem to socialize the problem. It’s not really about filling out the form if you’re not sharing it, if you’re not socializing it, if you’re not getting agreement around what the problem is and what the root causes are. That’s really the purpose of it.

And so – but I find that often people aren’t using it that way. They’re just using it to document something and they’re not really using it to learn and explore and communicate. And that’s ultimately what we want.

So here are some of the elements and I’m going to talk about some of these in a little more detail but not too much more. And ultimately some people say, “Well, there really shouldn’t be a template for A3s because you should be really working the problem.”

I find that it does help to have a template especially if you haven’t used an A3 before. It doesn’t mean you can’t change what’s on the template. And these are typically some of the things that you would see on an A3 template that are good to fill out and this shows you some of the questions that you would be asking in that section of the A3.

And again, this changes because for example, one of our customers is King County and they actually have something called the Four Block and they have just four sections on an A3 in its current state, analysis, countermeasures, and implementation.

And so again, it’s not necessarily about having the form be – having certain things on it. It’s really about the process of thinking through how you’re going about solving this problem.

Why Use an A3?

And so, what I’d like to say is you’re making the thinking visible. That’s really what the goal of the A3 is. So ultimately, making that thinking visible, it does have a common approach. It does follow the plan, do, check, adjust approach. And I’ll speak to that in just a moment. But it’s really again, something that you’re using throughout the process of solving a problem not after. And you’re using it to communicate and really for coaches and for leaders, it really can be a very useful tool to help you build problem solvers because you can actually visualize. You actually see what they’re thinking. You can see the problems they might be having, if they’re jumping to solution. It becomes evident in the A3. And ultimately, that’s why we use it.

Left Half of an A3

So typically, if you haven’t used an A3 before, how it typically gets built is first you work on the left half of the A3 and you build it out, you draft out some of these things. We see a lot of pictures people drawing process maps with stick people in current state. They see goals and targets sometimes have obviously measures in it.

But again, sometimes they have a smiling face because the person, the stick person in the current state has an unhappy face. So often, you see people drawing things. You might see people drawing a pie graph or even a bar chart or Pareto in there. So it’s not just written. You could actually have pictures of things as well.

But ultimately, you’re really trying to get your arms around the problem here. So remember, often it could be a process issue and there are some root-cause analyses required. And you can’t really jump to solution until you know what the root causes are. And often, we don’t know what those root causes are. So that’s what you’re doing on the left side is you’re getting your arms around what the problem, what is really the problem we’re trying to solve. And sometimes, that’s the hardest question.

You can’t really jump to solution until you know what the root causes are.

And then what do we want to see? What are we hoping will be achieved as a result of this? So if you have long lead times for example, maybe your goal is to shorten that lead time. And obviously, there will be a few more specifics in there. But again, why is that happening? And that’s what’s happening in the analyze phase is you’re really trying to explore those root causes. You might be brainstorming root causes with a team or a co-worker or a stakeholder.

So again, the whole point of this is you’re not just by yourself filling this out. You could actually draft it and then share it with the idea that you’re going to collaborate with people. That you’re going to get feedback and make a change or edit it. So it’s really a starting point if you will. Or, it’s in a team meeting environment. You’re really getting feedback from what they think the problem is and then you’re going to confirm. OK. How bad is the problem? Let’s go measure it.

So those are some of the things that we’re looking to do. There could be a lot of telling things on this too. Sometimes people have solutions right in there for the goal and the target. They say, “OK, we’re going to implement this software.” So they’re already jumping to solution if you see something like that, if you’re a coach.

So those are the things that why we want to have these things written down, because it makes that thinking visible. And we all know people jump to solution all the time.

Left Half Completed

So again, this is just a quick and dirty on what the left half might look like when you’re getting started. This is the Bahama Bistro example where it’s a restaurant obviously and they’re struggling with lead time for lunch orders or cycle times. Some of the patrons apparently have been complaining about the wait time to receive their food, and that’s an issue. If you’re eating lunch, you got to be back to work.

And so, the goal here at a high level is improve that cycle time of salads and sandwiches. And they’ve done some brainstorming, some analysis here. You’d see that there are some pictures in here where they drew out a picture of the kitchen and then they have their fishbone diagram in the Analyze Phase. So those are some of the elements that you might see on the left side.

And again, some people prefer that you would write out on these handwritten A3s. It doesn’t have to be computer-generated. A lot of people think that’s waste actually. They say, “Why are you spending time doing that trying to make it look pretty?” Some people think that’s a waste. But again, you have to really figure out what works for your organization too.

Right Half of an A3

So on the right side, once you have the left side, socialize, once you get agreement on the problem which I find people don’t do enough, is they’re already in solution and you actually haven’t even got an agreement that this is what the problem is. And that happens often. Or they don’t agree on what the root causes are, what the goals are. So again, this is all around socializing it with the right people, the stakeholders, the key constituents, team members, co-workers. And then you can move to the right.

And so OK, now that we’ve got clarity around what the problem is, what our goals are, what the root causes are, what are we going to do about it? And so, that’s what you’re really doing on the right half of an A3 is you’re brainstorming possible countermeasures. And they call them countermeasures mostly because people propose solutions. But countermeasures are more of a temporary solution if you will. So they’re going – it’s like an experimental solution if you will when they say countermeasures. And so that’s why they talk them like that.

A3 Completed

And then when are you going to do it? What’s the timeline for the changes and the responsibilities? And then once you’ve implemented those things, what happened? What’s the follow-up? Often, we find that people aren’t following up and sometimes things just go back to the old way. And so, what is the follow-up plan? How are you going to make sure that the improvement stay sustained?

So that’s all the right half of an A3. And I think what’s really hard about this – I’ll show you an example first of all. So here’s an example of the whole A3 now put together. So you can see that this is just an example of the Bahama Bistro. And A3, person that has the A3 or a team is working this A3. So it looks really easy. It could be really easy to fill out by yourself. But trust me. You may not have a lot of buy-in for the solution if you came up with the whole idea and nobody else. And other people have to change now. So that could be an issue.

But I think the hard part about these A3s is fitting it all on one page. I think it was Mark Twain. Correct me if I’m wrong, Elisabeth, because I know you’re a bookworm. Was it Mark Twain that said, “Sorry, my note is so long I didn’t have time to write a shorter one?”

Elisabeth Swan: Exactly.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. And so, that’s the idea behind an A3 is you really want to be succinct. You don’t really have a lot of space and a lot of room. And so, how are you becoming very specific and targeted about the information that you’re sharing? And so, it becomes sort of a standard format if you will for sharing some of these things. But it is, it’s hard to say, “OK, what do I want to share?” Because you might explore lots of root causes under the analyze phase. And right now, all we can see is all the possible brainstormed root causes. So again, it’s an exercise to try to drill down into the specifics for each of these areas.

Follows the PDCA Cycle

And ultimately, it does follow the plan, do, check, adjust cycle which is originally plan, do, check, act. And I think a lot of people have now moved to saying adjust because people say, “Well, isn’t it do and act the same?” And so, adjust feels as though, “OK, I got that. It’s different than do.” You’re making an adjustment now.

So ultimately, plan is really the big piece here. Plan is all of the exploratory problem, discovery, setting goals, finding root cause. That’s all around plan. And then you actually do something about that with the countermeasures and implement it. And then check and adjust is the follow-up piece. So it follows plan, do, check, adjust. Plan, do, check, adjust came from Deming. And ultimately a lot of improvement cycles follow that same methodology.

Poll #1

So, I have a question for you. Again, I’m going to say that that was a really quick and dirty on what an A3 is. Hopefully, you’ve seen an A3 before or you have an idea at least of what it is, enough to understand what’s coming next.

We have an entire training on A3s just by itself, just how to fill out every single one of these and what it looks like, and some of the questions that you can answer. It’s a little more detailed in terms of A3s in our Lean training. And we also have a single training module just for A3s too that we can share. It’s on our website.

So, let’s do a poll. So now that you’ve seen the A3 and we’ve talked through a little bit about a summary of the A3, I would like to know the following. How many of you are how have you used an A3 before? And I’m going to go ahead and launch the poll and you guys tell me. Go ahead and complete. It’s on the poll. If you’ve used one, if you’ve only used it after the improvement, if you use it for some parts of the improvement, or use it during the entire cycle of an improvement effort. I’d like to hear and I’d be very interested.

What do you think, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: Two big ways I’ve been using it lately. One, always to get that executive summary at the end of a project, that one page where people can share with leadership, “This is what we’ve accomplished.” So that’s a great final A3.

The other way which has been a great team effort with me and a client, which we coach the same team every other week, they have shorter sessions, but they adapted the A3 to include obstacles and they help the team navigate internal sort of political obstacles and then I on the other hand, focused in on the content and helping them through coaching and through that aspect. So that has been a fabulous use of the A3.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful! That sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing. I’m going to close the poll and share some results. So let’s see what we got.

Elisabeth, can you see those results?

Elisabeth Swan: So you have 50% have not used one yet. Next up is about a quarter of them used during the entire cycle of improvement. And then 20% roughly used for some parts. And then 7% used only after the improvement to document it.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. Very helpful. Thank you. So, I would strongly encourage the 51% that haven’t used one yet to go through our online training module for A3s. It’s a single module. Or, if you’ve gone through our Lean course and you’ve got access to that, I would look at the A3 portion of the training as well. It could be really helpful.

And then the other portion is the 24% used. That’s wonderful that people are using it for the entire cycle of improvement. That’s wonderful. And so, some of you have only used it for some parts, I’m wondering if that’s the beginning. Sometimes people start out with really good intentions and then discover that they abandoned the A3 at some point.

Sometimes people start out with really good intentions and then discover that they abandoned the A3 at some point.

And then finally, used only after the improvement to document it. So that is wonderful that it’s only 7% have done that because I actually have seen that the most where people think it’s just a document to use because your manager wants you to write it down so they have proof that the improvement happened. And so, they’re not really leveraging the A3 the way it should when they’re waiting for – until after they used it. So that’s good news. It sounds to me like most people are at least using it during, not just as a documentation after. OK. So thank you for participating in that poll.

Your Role As a Leader/Coach

So now, what we’re going to do is we’re going to shift gears and we’re going to focus on how leaders can use A3s in their role as a leader coach. So this by itself is a shift to an underlying principle. One of the primary functions of a leader is to build problem-solving muscles. And no longer should a leader be solving the problems but really focusing on building a team or a cadre of problem-solvers.

So what that means is that a coach’s behavior or a leader, if they’re going to become a coach, their behaviors are going to change and change for the good hopefully. And so, this is actually a quote by Michael Bungay Stanier and he wrote a book called the Coaching Habit, which I’m going to talk about in a little bit, and he wrote that if you’re a leader and you’re coaching for development, it’s really about turning the focus away from the issue to the person dealing with the issue and really focusing on the person and the development of that person.

And so, that is a fundamental shift in thinking sometimes for some leaders. And we all know that often people that become leaders are really good at what they do. They’re really good at solving those problems. And then they get promoted because they’re so good at it. But now, their role should be that they are helping others develop their problem solving skills as well.

And so, why do we want to build problem-solvers? Why do we want to have a team of problem-solvers? You want to grow your people. It would be great to have a cadre of problem-solvers versus just the leader having to solve everything. And it helps build organizational self-sufficiency. It helps you be a better leader.

I think sometimes the leader may feel like they’re a hero. They’re coming in and they’re the hero. And the problem with that is, that means that their people need to be saved. And that doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good as an employee to always have to be saved.

And so, we really want to start thinking about how do we shift our thinking and our behavior from a problem solver when we’re a leader to building problem-solving muscles. That’s really what we’re going to talk about and how as a leader you can really develop your people using this A3 tool.

…we really want to start thinking about how do we shift our thinking and our behavior from a problem solver when we’re a leader to building problem-solving muscles.

Question for You

So first before we do that, I have another question I’d love for you to answer. And this is going to be now, it’s not a poll, I prefer that you put in a response in the question box. And what I really want to know is what do you appreciate most in a coach or a leader who is trying to coach you? What are some of the things you appreciate the most? I would love to hear some of the comments around that.

So go ahead and type something about what do you appreciate most in a coach, a.k.a. it could be your leader. Elisabeth, I’m going to let you look at that and see what some of the comments are.

Elisabeth Swan: Some good ones. We’ve got – here’s a nice one. Peter is saying, “A good listener.”

This is an interesting one, “knowledge sharing” from Jeff. I like that idea, like share what they know.

Honesty from Misrar. Very nice.

From Olga, “Listening and actually hearing.” It’s a distinction there I think. Listening is such a lost art that it’s frustrating when people are quiet. They’re not necessarily listening to you.

Listening is such a lost art that it’s frustrating when people are quiet. They’re not necessarily listening to you.

Words of inspiration from Lauren. Candy said something nice, Tracy. She said she doesn’t have a coach so, “These webinars are my coach.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Great.

Elisabeth Swan: Jennifer said availability. Misrar says trust. And then Richard said, “Not jumping in but letting me figure it out myself.” That is so hard for some people and so critical for you to learn.

Susan says, “Someone who listens to your ideas and respects the input of team members.” Respect is a huge word. It makes a ton of difference. And then Jeremy like a good challenge, wants a good challenge from leaders. More votes on honesty from Sylvia and James. Another vote for Neil, “Allow me to do the work,” which is huge. “Let me do my job,” from Michelle. “Listen to what it working,” from Lawrence. Listen to what is working well.

Honest, specific feedback and like this Socratic questioning. So that’s a good segue back you.

Tracy O’Rourke: Nice.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s a good segue back to you. That was from Ashley.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, that was very helpful. Thank you. I appreciate that. And it’s great to hear that because it falls in line with – it’s universal in terms of some of the things a coach will do if they’re good coaches.

Leader/Coach Challenge

And I have a picture with Edgar Schein and I had the pleasure of meeting him at a conference. And he wrote something, a book called the Humble Inquiry. And he said, these are the three things he said that coaches, leaders, if you’re a coach, you got to do three things better. Do less telling. Learn to do more asking in the particular form of Humble Inquiry. And number three, do a better job of listening and acknowledging. And it’s great to hear that those were the very things that you guys said were important to you or that were qualities that you really want in a coach.

And so Edgar has written a lot of books. I’ve got three of them in the picture here with him. But you might want to know what’s humble inquiry? And what he says as humble inquiry, Edgar, is it’s the fine art of drawing someone out of asking questions to which you do not know the answer. So often – sometimes leaders will ask questions they already know the answer to. Well, how does that come across? It doesn’t come across very well sometimes.

Finally, building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. So I heard that loud and clear from some of your comments as well. I like to say it’s the gentle art of asking versus telling. And it really is an art. It’s hard to do as well if you are not comfortable or familiar with doing this.

And so, Dr. Schein also says that all too often, we interact with people especially those that report to us. We simply tell them what we think they need to know and it shuts them down. So if we want to generate bold new ideas and avoid disastrous mistakes, practice agility and flexibility. We need to practice humble inquiry. And the humble piece is really around that respect is a genuine curiosity and showing respect to people as opposed to interrogating them.

We’re going to talk a little more around that. And so, these are new behaviors that leader/coaches really should be looking to build themselves. And as we know, sometimes we have great leaders who are great at doing this and others really need some practice. And that’s OK. Recognizing that you need practice can be half the battle.

Challenges for Leaders/Coaches

So as leaders become coaches, here are some of the challenges that I have seen people, leaders in particular have, that they run into.

Not requiring A3 during coaching sessions. So they’re trying to coach people but then people don’t bring the A3s and they’re like, “Well, let’s just talk through it.” So the idea is you’re making the problem-solving and thinking visible. You want to see it on paper. And it really can be helpful and make it more concrete in terms of what’s missing and where is the development and why is the A3 not matching the thinking. What did we miss? So those are going to be really important.

The other challenge is the poor practice of asking questions. So if you’re a teller, if you’ve been in tell mode, it’s what I call it for a while, asking questions may not come naturally. And when you start asking questions, first of all, you surprise the people. So you surprise your direct reports. They’re not expecting it. And sometimes they don’t respond very well because they’re not used to it. And sometimes we just don’t do a good job of asking the right questions. So we ask yes-no questions. We don’t ask open-ended questions, those kinds of things. So we’re going to talk about.

Delivering feedback can be a challenge. How do we deliver feedback so that it feels helpful, we learn something, and we maintain our dignity? Because sometimes all we get is bad stuff and that’s not fun either.

Number four, not having a mentor. So if you’re a leader and you want to be more of a coach, who is your mentor? Who is mentoring you to do that? And it’s really important. This is very important to find someone that can help mentor you. We call that a second coach or a sensei. Who is your sensei? Because this stuff isn’t easy and you can do a lot better if you have a coach our self.

And finally, not making time on your calendar. So, everybody gets busy. Everybody has good intentions. But it will only manifest if it’s on your calendar. Coaching, actual coaching sessions are on your calendar. So those are some of the things we’re going to talk through.

Challenge #1: Not Requiring an A3 During Coaching

So let’s start with number, challenge number one, not requiring A3 during coaching. And the tip or the countermeasure is be sure when you start to coach that you want to develop some leader standard work. And that means have the learners brings their A3s. Make sure that there has been progress on the A3s since the last coaching session. And that will allow you to ask questions about the improvement during the coaching. And they can make changes or they can make edits or you can see if the A3 is reflective of what they’re telling you.

And again, it’s not a gotcha moment. It’s really just are we making the thinking visible. It’s crazy when they actually get really good at building A3s, it’s interesting to look back at the original A3 or old A3s that they have been giving you. And you can see that the same thing was better. It’s more efficient. They’re just getting better at it and you can see it on the paper, which is great.

And then again, do some follow-up with calendaring the next coaching session. So that should be the last thing you end up doing as standard work is be sure that you’re reinforcing the use of A3s. And how do you do that? By using them yourself during the coaching sessions and asking questions about the improvement. And then follow up with some additional coaching. So at the end, every time you meet with one of your people on the coaching, schedule another one.

Challenge #2: Poor Practice of Asking Questions

So another challenge is as I sort of mentioned earlier, the poor practice of asking questions. Sometimes we’re just not good at it. And so, what is the tip or the countermeasure for that, well, you could become a student of Socrates or any of these guys. So Socrates as we know and someone mentioned this already in their question in their comment is the Socratic Method. It’s the method of asking questions to generate dialogue about whatever the topic is. So become a student of Socrates.

And these three, I already introduced you to Edgar Schein. He wrote the Humble Inquiry. We have some great experts around getting good at asking good questions. Frank Sesno wrote a book called Ask More. It’s a great book. And it’s really more about the power of questions to open doors and uncover solutions that spark change. It’s about effective inquiry, asking more, and it does require listening more. So he pays a nod to listening and really hearing is what one of our audience said as well.

And then Michael Bungay Stanier, I also quoted him as well. And this is the importance of seeing coach who gets the habit and he talks about the 7 questions for coaches to ask. He also says that answers are closed rooms and questions are open doors that invite us in.

So if you want to be really good at asking questions, become a student. Become a student of Socrates and all three of these guys and you will become a better coach.

We have also, I just want to mention that all of these books are listed on our Amazingly Awesome List of Lean Six Sigma Books on our website and we’ve read these so we have done book reviews on these. We really like them and highly recommend them.

Good Questions for Leader Coaches

So regarding specific questions you could ask as a coach for the A3, so here are some questions you could ask. If you’re going to coach one of your people on an A3 and they’re working the left side of the A3, here are some questions that you could ask them. You’ll notice that none of these are yes-no questions. They’re all open-ended. And it’s really to generate some dialogue around the thinking and some of the items that they’ve completed or they’re working on.

So things like how did you or your team determine the target of the goals? How did you socialize this A3 with key constituents? What data was collected? What root causes did you discover? So these are questions you could ask to really generate some of that dialogue and here what the A3 practitioner has done.

We also have questions for the right side. And so again, these are all related to the countermeasures and the implementation. So, what are some of your ideas to improve the current condition or who is involved with the brainstorming? How did it go? How did you decide on which countermeasure to implement?

So these are all things you could be asking in terms of creating curiosity and interest about what the process is that they followed. And I’m really hearing about what they’re going to be implementing. These are great questions for dialogue for the right side.

And finally, some closing questions. So, at the end of your session with the A3 practitioner, you could just ask him a few of these and you can mix it up. So what could you do differently to make this A3 more descriptive or accurate?

So again, sometimes we forget. So some of you already mentioned that you use the A3 for some parts, sometimes we forget that we’re supposed to update it or that we have it. And so, we’re not always updating it. So this is always a great way to circle around the A3 again.

What did you learn during this coaching session? I always really like to hear what they learned. And if they tell you nothing, which sometimes that will happen, then we need to really rethink how we’re helping people. Is it because there’s nothing really that they can learn? I doubt it. So that can always be helpful even if they said they don’t learn anything. But often, people are sharing what they did learn. And that can be very helpful.

Is there anything else you want to share? I like to have an open-ended question out there just in case there was something that we weren’t able to discuss about the A3. And sometimes they start on a whole different topic about stakeholders or about another project that might be looming in the background that they’re dealing with that might be a challenge for resources or something like that.

So these are just good closing questions. And again, the last one of course is when are we going to meet next? Because again, that is part of your standard work.

Challenge #3: Delivering Balanced Feedback

So, countermeasure or challenge I should say number three, delivering balanced feedback. So the two skills that leader coaches really need to get good at is asking good questions and providing feedback, good feedback. And good feedback typically is balanced feedback. I think one of you had said in the comments that you want honest feedback. Yes. We want it to be honest. We want it to be about what is great, what is good, what is done well, and what could be done better and what could they do differently to make it better?

So, those are really important. And so the countermeasure or tip for this challenge really is create poll for your feedback. Make it a good experience for you and the learner. And it doesn’t mean it’s all peaches and cream. It doesn’t mean you can’t say anything bad. It could be constructive. That is sometimes the most helpful. But I find that sometimes we forget to talk about the good things and that’s really important too.

I find that sometimes we forget to talk about the good things and that’s really important too.

Guess what? Learning is hard. Learning new things is hard. And so, people need to know and they need to feel encouraged when they’re trying to learn something. And honestly, if you want people to hear what you have to say, positive feedback, recognizing the good, opens people’s ears. It’s sort of like you’re acknowledging the good work that went into this by saying, “Hey, this is really good over here and this piece of it is really done well. And here is what I’d recommend in terms of a suggestion for change.”

So those are – it’s a really good format. I find people respond to it very well. I teach at UCSD and we have a Green Belt course that we do and it’s a sort of the same thing. We go through the project charter and I will give the student positive and constructive feedback and then I would actually ask other Green Belts, their peers, to do the same in the same format. And it works great. People love it. And so, they hear both.

And if you’re not good at giving positive feedback or you don’t do it very often, it could be challenge. And sometimes you suck at it at first quite honestly. So you have to be patient with yourself. If you’re prone to critiquing rather than complimenting in the past, you’re not going to shine right out of the gate. It’s not going to feel genuine. You’re going to say something like nice shoes of color. And it might not come across the way you want. And so what? You just keep practicing. Keep practicing using that format. I highly recommend it. It works really well and you’ll get better at it as you do it more.

And you can provide feedback either on each section of the A3 throughout or if you want the practitioner using the A3, you can just have them explain. You can ask questions throughout and then just provide feedback at the end. It’s really up to you how you want to do that.

Challenge #4: Not Having a Mentor

OK. Let’s move into challenge number four. As I said already, not having a mentor can be a huge challenge because again, the person who is using the A3, we call him the coachee or the learner, they are applying the A3 to solve a process issue, guess what? This might be new to them. You might be new to coaching them. And so, you need a mentor. You’re mentoring them and you need a mentor as well.

So, I’ve got a couple of terms on this slide. And you know what? These are not universally known terms. Sometimes the coachee is just – could be the learner or the practitioner, whatever it is. But it’s really the person that’s applying the A3 to solve the process issue.

And then you’ve got the leader coach. And that could be their manager. It could be their supervisor. It could be just a leader in the organization or maybe it’s an assigned Black Belt if you will. But this is really the mentor giving advice to the learner to help them build that problem-solving skills.

And then the second coach is the sensei. Their job really is to mentor the leader coach and to help them build coaching skills. So there are really three roles at play here. If you’re looking to build problem-solving organization, you want people to learn how to use the A3. You want people to learn how to coach the A3 especially leaders. And you need coaches for that.

So ultimately, all three of these roles should be addressed in your organization. And I have been the leader coach for people as an outside person, that model the way and then leaders then I will become their second coach. And so eventually ideally, they want to bring all three of these roles internally because that’s what we find that works best.

Challenge #5: Not Making Time on Your Calendar

And so finally, the last challenge is not making time on your calendar as a coach. So, managers get busy. Leaders get busy. And often, what’s the first thing to go? Something that they’re not comfortable doing. And that is coaching, which is unfortunate. So the countermeasure or the tip really is commit to investing time to coach. Put it on your calendar. And follow up with people. Don’t let it slide.

I have supervisors and leaders, they commit to coaching at least once a week for an hour and they rotate their people around. And so obviously, it depends on how many people reporting to you, how many people are actively putting process improvement work in. And so, you really want to make it a standard as possible. Make it a habit by putting on your calendar. Make that calendar visible.

So this is typically how this gets scheduled. This is pretty detailed but I think it’s really important. When you actually schedule time on your calendar, I like to say, schedule what I call nested coaching sessions. And what that means is you’re scheduling these three people. You’re scheduling the coachee, the leader coach. And the second coach.

And so the idea is that for the first 30 minutes, it’s the coachee, the learner and the leader coach is coaching them on their A3. And the second coach or the sensei is just observing. And so, that whole dialogue goes. You got your questions handy and you’re asking good questions. You’re listening to the A3, the person with the A3, and then you’re providing feedback during or after.

And then the next 15 minutes should really be the leader coach getting coaching from the sensei. So now, it’s about the leader coach. And it’s very helpful but you do need to schedule three people to attend.

But again, if you’re committed to building a problem-solving organization, a cadre of problem-solvers, you need to build people, you’re building skills for the A3 practitioners and you’re building coaching skills. You need both of those. And so, we really want to make sure that we’re sticking with having that set up and that model.

The other thing that I probably should mention is the second coach, the sensei, I have seen them coach the leader coach in front of the practitioner. And I have seen it where they don’t coach them in front of the practitioner. So I really believe it’s about comfort level for the leader coach. Sometimes leader coaches are so early in building the skill, they’re not totally comfortable with exposing all their words and their trials and tribulations to the people that report them.

And then sometimes they say, “You know what? Yeah, just coach me right now.” And eventually, they get there because now, the practitioner is also learning. But we really have to figure out what’s going to work and ultimately, is it building the skills and environment where people are learning?

And so, it’s really going to – I would say, check with the leader coach. I would love to see it that it’s a nest of coaching session altogether and all three there. But often, I’ve seen the learner, the coachee leave after 30 minutes. So, it’s up to you. But ultimately, that’s what you want.

And if you’ve got a sensei that is virtual, schedule them to be on the phone because they can listen and you can send them the A3 and then they can listen and they’d give you feedback. So I’d highly recommend setting that up.

Countermeasures Summary

So, that’s a lot. We went through a lot. And this is a summary of the tips that we were just talking through. So, develop leader standard work so that ultimately, the process becomes a habit.

Become a student of Socrates or the three other really good guys that are really good at asking questions.

Create poll for your feedbacks. So again, creating that positive and constructive balance and making sure that you are providing both kinds of feedback.

Find a sensei. Find a second coach so that you can build your skill and finally commit to investing time to coach.

So, those are really the tips for a coach. If you’re going to be coaching people on A3s, I’d recommend highly some of these countermeasures.

Poll #2

So here’s another poll for you. What countermeasures of the ones that we just talked about do you think leaders are going to struggle with the most or that you’ve seen struggle the most? So I’d love to hear your comments on this. So I’m going to go ahead and launch this next poll and tell us, what do you think?

So what have you seen, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: The biggest thing that I see is people being unable to direct underlings that this idea of giving people the opportunity to figure things out for themselves is what causes them to learn. So, even they ask those kind of slyly directive questions. They’re really are all about telling the person what to do but putting in the form of a question. So that’s a tough thing, tough habit to break but critical for people to know what to do on their own or lean.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. I absolutely agree with you, Elisabeth. We’ve seen that a lot, right? People would say, “Well, have you considered this solution?” And now, they’re write-in solution mode. And once we think we know all the answers, we forget the questions. Very good. Thank you.

OK. Good. So I’m going to go ahead and close the poll here and share results. So what did we come up with?

Elisabeth Swan: So you got half the people registered commit to investing the time. And that’s so sad because I know that’s true. Then it’s really a smattering that are all roughly the same. Next is they got to develop this leader’s standard work. They’ve got to find a second coach. They’ve got to become a student of Socrates with the questions in and then create a poll for feedback. But by in large, everybody, half of this group thinks it’s about investing the time.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And I think that is very telling because this – I’m going to make an assumption that that means that building problem-solvers has not been a priority to say, “Well, they’re not going to commit to the time if it’s not a priority.” If it were a priority, leaders would invest more time in building problem-solvers. So, how does that happen?

And so sometimes it’s got to come from the top. Sometimes it’s just a personal commitment that I want to grow problem-solvers. This is important to me. And so, I think that is very telling. So thank you for sharing your thoughts on what you think leaders are going to struggle with the most.

And if you are a leader, I hope that this has been helpful for you too because I think people want to learn. They want to grow. They want to have that problem-solving muscle developed and they’re going to look to their leader to help them with that.

They want to have that problem-solving muscle developed and they’re going to look to their leader to help them with that.

Today We Covered

All right. So guess what? That brings us to the end of that material. So we covered what an A3 is at a high level and why use it, some of the basic components of an A3, but ultimately where we spent most of our time is how leaders can use the A3 to coach employees, some of the coaching questions leaders can ask, some of the challenges that leaders run into, and some of the tips for those challenges.


So, now let’s move into questions and answers. So, if you have a question about any of the material today, go ahead and go to your questions tab and type in a question and we’ll answer a few of these online. So I’m going to hand it back over to you, Elisabeth.

Getting Started

Elisabeth Swan: Thanks, Tracy. One of the things you can do if you want to learn more about the A3, Tracy mentioned there’s a single module on the A3. You could deal with that directly. Or you can sign up for Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Training or straight Lean Training.


Upcoming Webinar – January 18, 2018

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. We also have an upcoming webinar that Elisabeth will be facilitating. So tell us a little bit about this webinar coming up, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: So this one is How to Get Support for Your Project by Clarifying Purpose. And this is a really common issue. People scope great projects. They choose great measurable goals but they’re baffled because no one seems excited about the project. Just them.

And the goals are around reducing waste and reducing defects, and that’s great. But for the sake of what? And that’s what we’re going to deal with here. How does this impact employees? How does this impact customers? How does this impact management? And that’s what people care about and that’s when they start to engage and build ownership around what you’re doing and ultimately support you. So we’re going to work on how to get there and how to get that support.

Just-In-Time Café Podcast

Tracy O’Rourke: Great. We also have a new interviewee for our Just-In-Time Café Podcast, Ken Miller. He is the author of We Don’t Make Widgets. He also wrote the Extreme Government Makeover. If you have any interest or need inspiration in our government, I would highly recommend you listen to our Just-In-Time interview with Ken Miller. I really enjoyed that interview and his books are pretty good too.

Elisabeth Swan: It’s a great interview. I highly recommend it. And there’s a book review of We Don’t Make Widgets on site. So I’d say, at least take a look at that too.


All right. Let’s come back t the questions. Here’s one for you, Tracy. Does the coachee/learner have to have their Yellow Belt to start doing an A3? That’s from Richard.

Tracy O’Rourke: Thank you, Richard. I don’t think so. I think there should be some training on A3s and how to use them just because it can be really helpful to understand what goes in some of the boxes and the idea behind it.

I find that when people try to use the A3, sometimes they just confuse it with a project management project and they just put in the solution and we want to get this implemented by the state. So I’d think it would be helpful to learn the basics. I don’t necessarily think you have to have a Yellow Belt, although we do cover it in our Yellow Belt.

And if you haven’t done your Yellow Belt and you want to just focus on the A3 at this moment, I would say go through our single training module for A3s.

Elisabeth Swan: Very helpful. How about how do you coach someone who is more experienced than you? This is from Alfredo.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well then, you really better practice the Socratic Method because really, if you are practicing the Socratic Method, you’re not giving any answers. You’re just asking questions. And they get to talk. So it’s actually perfect because you get to learn from them, which really should be happening any time you coach someone. You learn something. You learn something about the way they’re thinking. You learn something about how they’re applying it. And so, you don’t have to know more to be a coach.

Elisabeth Swan: Actually, it is all about the question. So that’s a great point. This is from Richard. Is there a recommended maximum time frame between coaching sessions?

Tracy O’Rourke: Ultimately, I wouldn’t – maximum, I really ask the learner often. I say, “So what have you guys scheduled coming up and when do you think would be the best time for us to meet?” Because it would be nice to have some progress made but I would discourage the cancel at last minute and then reschedule approach. I think if they haven’t gotten to it, that tells us that there’s a time commitment issue on the work too. Or it could be that they are running into barriers. So I think it’s important to have those discussions anyway.

It’s really dependent on how active the project or the person is. And if they tell you they don’t want to meet with you for six months, that seems a little long especially if they’re getting coaching on something.

Elisabeth Swan: Question to you from Janine or Jennie, this is, “Would you create an A3 for each project so would someone potentially be discussing multiple A3s per session?”

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh, that’s a great question and I have to have people do that. And I think it’s exciting because that means that they’re actually really working on building their problem-solving muscle.

So, sometimes you need a little longer though. So if you know that they’re coming in with more than one A3 and they want coaching on both, I would say go for it. I just think you need to spend more time or scheduling a little bit more time.

Elisabeth Swan: All right. So let me see. There are a couple of questions here. I can just let folks know. You are getting copies of the slides just so everyone can hear that because sometimes if you didn’t join at the beginning of the show, you wouldn’t hear that we’ll post those so you can download the slides.

And here’s a question for you, Tracy. Is this for Green Belt Certification?

Tracy O’Rourke: No. A3s isn’t necessarily for Green Belt Certification. I actually did forget to answer a question that we did have come up on our last webinar. Sometimes people say, “Well, what’s the difference between and A3 and a Green Belt storyboard?”

So, an A3 often, if you look at an executive summary on a Green Belt storyboard, it has a lot of the same elements that an A3 does. It’s just that the executive summary is done typically after the fact. But it’s still has all the elements that an A3 does.

And so, I often sometimes equate, well, there is an A3 in the Green Belt storyboard. It’s the executive summary. But you don’t necessarily – it’s not necessarily part of the certification that you have to get. I think we cover it in our Green Belt as well at a high level.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s helpful. And then, “Often there are supervisors that don’t understand the problem-solving process and coaching one’s own supervisors through problem-solving can seem necessary. I wonder if the coaching was an A3 process can work in that direction as well?”

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So what you have just mentioned is a very common problem. It’s leaders that are coaching and they actually don’t know the problem-solving process. So I think it’s a little different than the earlier question we had.

So for example, I think the earlier question was what if – how do you coach somebody that knows more than you? Well, I mean if they know more than you about the process or something like that or even the problem-solving, that is OK if you’re asking good questions. But I think when you don’t know anything and you don’t understand the problem-solving process and now you’re jumping to solution and you want them to implement something for you, now you’ve made a pretty critical error.

So leaders need coaches too. Leaders need to understand what this process is, and that’s actually why we put this webinar together because I was seeing people trying to use A3s and coaches and leaders didn’t really know how to coach them.

So you’re absolutely right. I agree with you. It’s a huge gap. Share this webinar wildly.

Elisabeth Swan: Send it to all of your superiors. Here’s one last – we have like a minute left. One last one from Alfredo, “Coaching should be focused on past experiences or on future actions?” She is asking.

Tracy O’Rourke: I think both. So there’s an element of here’s what I’ve done. Here’s what I got from my problem state and here’s what I got from my goal statement. So it’s sort of like they’re telling you the work that they’ve done. It’s sort of an update. But sometimes based on the coaching, they got to go back and they’ve got to make the problem more specific or get a little more granular on what they’re trying to solve.

So it’s basically a progress update in terms of coaching but often, you might have to go back and work with them or they might have to go revisit a section. I’ve had even people complete some of their A3s right then and there.

And again, I’m not telling him to write it because then I’m not coaching that because then I’m doing it for them. It’s really more around what they want to do differently or who they’re going to involve if they do have to go back.

And then I always talk about next steps for their project. So I could give him coaching there too. So it’s more about what have they done and if they’re having current challenges and there’s less time on next step only because that’s what they plan to do with their team or in the future. And that could be helpful but not – we don’t spend as much time on it. Hopefully, that helps.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. Thank you, Tracy. Thanks for a fabulous presentation and thanks to all of you for joining us. And please join us again next month for next month’s webinar.

Tracy O’Rourke: Happy holidays everybody! We’ll see you next month.

Elisabeth Swan: And happy holidays.

Tracy O’Rourke: Bye-bye.

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Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner at She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.