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Kaizen Lies Between Frustration & Seagulls

Knowledge vs Authority
Knowledge vs Authority

Continuous improvement requires the coupling of authority to make changes and knowledge about what to change.

Authority without knowledge creates that pernicious breed, the "seagull manager," who, in the words of Ken Blanchard, flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone, then flies out.

Knowledge without authority leads to frustrated workers who know what changes to make, but lack the authority to do so without the approval of at least one layer of management.

A structured problem solving approach like A3 thinking creates overlap in these two zones. As John Shook argues in his book Managing to Learn, the A3 creates "pull-based authority," such that the person with the greatest knowledge earns the authority to make decisions and improvements. That's fertile soil for kaizen.



A sheep in sheep's clothing

In working with a client this week, I learned that there can be serious cultural obstacles to embracing structured problem solving (what I'll call "A3 thinking" in this post -- sorry, Jon Miller). A worker at one of my clients recently confessed that she was anxious about talking to colleagues in other departments about her A3. She needed to get background information about how this problem was affecting other areas of the company in terms of cost overruns, rework, etc., but she was afraid that her coworkers would be suspicious of her questions. Even though the company doesn't have the entrenched fiefdoms of a giant 10,000 person firm (it's only about 150 people), there's still a deep-seated wariness of someone from another functional silo poking around. She was also worried that her colleagues would see her questions -- and her A3 -- as merely a cover for her ulterior motive: a justification for her pre-determined and preferred solution.

Creating and sustaining a culture committed to learning and continuous improvement ain't easy -- if it were, we wouldn't still be talking about Toyota. (And I'm looking forward to reading Jon Miller's new book, Creating a Kaizen Culture.) But it seems to me that one critical step is in the process is to undertake A3 thinking with a true spirit of open inquiry.

You can't go into an A3 with a pre-determined solution. The A3 is a vehicle to structure your learning process and help you communicate your learning effectively. It's a visible way to guide your PDSA cycles. It's not a sales technique (although it does ultimately help sell your solution), and it's not a magician's misdirection. To use it in these ways is to breed cynicism, suspicion, and resistance.

An A3 is not a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's just a sheep.




Change management? Stop wasting your time.

Your change management efforts are a waste of time. And effort. And energy. And money.

I just returned from giving a talk at the Association of Change Management Professionals in LA. Just as with corporate mergers, the vast majority -- from 60-90% -- of change management initiatives fail miserably.

Why? It's certainly not due to a lack of change management models, books, or conferences. I think the high failure rate is due to the framing: when we talk about change, we talk about how *we* will change *them*. I think that says it all. No one likes to be changed, even if the change is beneficial to them.

In my talk, I argue that we should forget about "change management." Instead, we should involve people in solving business problems. Human beings are problem solving machines. We love solving problems. Someone invented the bow & arrow when she realized that the fastest human carrying a knife wasn't going to outrun the slowest gazelle. The brilliance of Angry Birds is that each level requires a new round of problem solving -- which birds to use and where to aim them.

Of course, I'm partial to using A3 Thinking to solve problems, but the truth is that it doesn't really matter what problem solving tool you use. The key is to pose a problem to the workers actually doing the job and have them design the changeThe autonomy and skill development that comes with solving the problem for oneself will do more to overcome resistance and motivate change than anything that a cloistered HR professional can develop. Dan Pink makes this point eloquently in his book, Drive. And in her new book, Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Leslie Perlow recounts the enormous change in work habits she was able to foster among BCG consultants by simply setting a goal and having them work towards a solution themselves.

It's commonly said that successful change requires you to explain to everyone "what's in it for me." That's not enough. If it were, you wouldn't have meetings that start late and end later, your mailbox wouldn't be engorged with a daily supply 75 irrelevant reply-all emails, and you wouldn't have 20-30% non-enrollment in employer-matched 401(k) plans.



Why reorganizations (almost always) fail

Reebok cut its sales forecast by 33% earlier this year. That means good news for the company that prints its business cards -- there will be a lot of job title changes. When sales forecasts decline, the typical corporate response is to lay off some people and reorganize. To that end, Matt O'Toole, Reebok's chief marketing officer, announced that

Earlier this year we announced the reorganization of the Reebok Brand team into six core Business Units (Training, Running, Walking, Studio, Classics, and Kids), designed to deliver against our ambition to become the leading fitness brand. Today, we continued this reorganization with the implementation of a new global-direct operating model between the global organization in Canton and our markets, and streamlining our satellite creation activities. These changes, which will go into effect January, 2013, will increase our effectiveness, our speed to market and our efficiency.

Now, I'm not exactly sure what "streamlining satellite creation activities" means. But I do know that reorganizing a brand team -- or any team, for that matter -- seldom results in a big increase in sales.

I've been involved in numerous reorganizations myself, and never once did they affect our sales. We moved desks, we got new business cards and job descriptions, we had different people in our meetings, but the product didn't change. And I predict that's exactly what will happen with Reebok.

Reorganization is a typical corporate knee-jerk reaction to a problem that's poorly understood. If you approach the problem of falling sales from an A3 mindset -- really trying to understand the nature and root causes of the problem, and to design a suite of countermeasures -- you'd see that that changing people's seats has about as much chance of improving the situation as changing the Weather Channel has of improving your actual weather. Why? Because consumers don't give a damn how you're organized internally. They buy products that meet their needs and wants, regardless of who works in what department or what their title is. And I can guarantee you that the product isn't going to change just because Classics is now a "core Business unit." The countermeasure doesn't tie back to the root cause of the problem.

Moreover, you may not even have the right people and necessary skills to staff the new organization. In one company that I worked for years ago, we split our product marketing team into business units to increase focus and sales in each category -- but we didn't have enough people to completely staff each business unit. The result? After a few months, we ended up doing pretty much the same work as before, and within 18 months, we reorganized again right back to where we started.

Let's also not forget the destruction of relationships, experience, and tribal knowledge that helps expedite decision-making and improve productivity. Reorganizations bulldoze those accumulated assets into oblivion, ensuring that for six months at least, the company will be operating much less effectively.

Reorganizations that work best don't just reshuffle the boxes on an org chart. They're strategically designed to take cost out of a process, or bring products to market faster, or expedite decision-making. Most of all, they're precisely targeted to address the root cause of the problem.

Otherwise, the only company that will see a sales increase is the one printing the business cards.



What problem are you trying to solve?

NPR reports that Virginia's new set of education goals are higher for white and Asian kids than for blacks, Latinos and students with disabilities. According to the story, Virginia's state Board of Education

looked at students' test scores in reading and math and then proposed new passing rates. In math it set an acceptable passing rate at 82 percent for Asian students, 68 percent for whites, 52 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for blacks and 33 percent for kids with disabilities.

Winsome Sears, one of the Board members, explained the new goals this way:

"So why do we have these different subgroups? Because we're starting with black children where they are. We can't start them at the 82 percentile because they're not there. The Asian students are there. And so the real question is why aren't black students starting at the 82 percentile? Why? Why are they not there? That's the problem the board wants to solve."

Perhaps it's because I've spent much of the last week with a client working through A3 thinking and root cause problem solving, but the inanity of the Board of Education's decision really struck me. I mean, what problem are they trying to solve? No offense, Mr. Sears, but how exactly does lowering the bar to 45% help you fix the problem of black kids missing the 82nd percentile?

If they really want to improve educational performance, lowering the standards hardly seems like the right countermeasure. That's like lowering food safety standards and claiming that the food is now safe because only 1 out of 1000 hamburgers are tainted with salmonella instead of 1 out of 100. Or saying that a car has achieve the highest quality rating because it didn't exceed the 25 "allowable" defects.

It seems to me that the Board of Education is solving an entirely different problem: how to avoid getting penalized for failing to meet the academic goals of No Child Left Behind. If that's the case, then this countermeasure -- changing the standards -- is wonderfully effective.

Now, you can make a good argument that No Child Left Behind is a heavy-handed, poorly designed, ineffective tool for raising academic achievement. (And as a former teacher, I'm more than happy to make that argument.) However, if Winsome Sears and the rest of the Board want to solve the problem of why black kids aren't starting at the 82nd percentile, it's difficult to see how re-jiggering the standards is going to help.

The truth is that most problems have multiple root causes and require a suite of countermeasures to improve the situation. Developing those countermeasures requires a deep understanding of the true problem, and a great deal of time, effort, (and possibly) money. It's so much easier to just change the standards.

For me, one of the great powers of an A3 analysis is that the format makes it easy to read your argument "backwards." Because the analysis is laid out on one page, you can look at the proposed countermeasures, see whether they address the root causes you've identified, and decide whether they really help you close the gap you've identified in the problem statement. The Virginia Board of Education decision clearly fails that test:

Lower academic standards -> Help under-achieving kids -> Get all kids to 82nd percentile. I'm missing the logic.

And my guess is that if you look at many of the countermeasures your company puts into place, you'll see similar gaps.



End the CEO (as we know it).

It's great to be king, isn't it? You've made it to the corner office (or the C-suite, or the VP level, or whatever position carries clout in your world), and you're feeling pretty good. Minions follow your instructions. You offload some of the scut work you've been saddled with for years. People create PowerPoint presentation for you, instead of you agonizing over Helvetica vs. Arial when creating them for others. Maybe you even have an executive dining room.

Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies in India, disagrees. He wants to get rid of the CEO.

Of course, as he says, he doesn't want to kick him or her out the door. He means that we should move beyond the quaint notion that the CEO should be the supreme corporate leader. As Nayar points out, in the traditional way of thinking, the CEO is expected to play the following roles: Creator of Value; Answer Machine; Strategy Wizard; Approval Granter; and Performance Reviewer/Mentor.

But in the increasingly complex and fast-moving market, when companies span the globe, it's unreasonable -- absurd, really -- to expect that one person can fulfill all these roles, no matter how talented, skilled, and experienced. More significantly, trying to do so has a toxic effect on the company:

At HCL I came to realize that, first, I could not play any of those roles and, second, none of them creates very much value for the company or the company's customers. On the contrary, the supreme CEO robs employees of initiative, stifles their passion, and inhibits their ability to do their jobs well. If employees do not have to find their own answers, develop their own strategies, formulate their own plans, and assess their own performance, what are they? Automatons.

His long-term goal is to transfer the responsibility for change to employees. By allowing the people who really create customer value -- the employees -- to drive improvement, Nayar realizes that the company can become a nimbler, faster-moving organization that reduces the amount of non-valued added activities.

Nayar goes on to list several specific steps HCL has taken to move in this direction: peers review annual business plans, making them higher quality and more easily executed. An intranet portal allows workers to ask and answer each others' questions, creating faster learning cycles and spreading ideas widely. Employee reviews and feedback are visible to everyone, helping people improve more quickly. Etc.

Now, these may not be the right tools and tactics for you and your firm. But the key idea -- that the supreme leader (whether CEO, VP, Managing Director, whatever) by definition robs employees of initiative, stifles their passion, and inhibits their ability to do their jobs well -- is worth attending to. This idea is the power behind the A3 and A3 thinking. The A3 provides a structured method for transferring responsibility and authority to the people actually doing the work of the company. In so doing, it fosters initiative, creativity, and autonomy throughout the organization. It leads to continuous improvement and greater engagement.

It also lightens your burden. After all, why should you have to be the smartest guy in the room when you've got dozens/hundreds/thousands of talented, smart, hardworking people who can help shoulder the load?

So think about abdicating the throne. See if you can become a CEO who is willing to admit he doesn't know very much, answers as few questions as possible, and is always asking for help.



Building consensus? Try standard work.

I recently visited a company that's almost totally consensus-driven. Virtually every decision that influences other groups or functional silos is made through consensus; no one makes decisions by fiat. This is neither good nor bad -- the world is full of successful organizations that are run autocratically. People self-select to work in that kind of environment, and they accept the benefits (speed, autonomy, a sense of progress) as well as the drawbacks. For this company, it works: it's a vital part of their culture, and while it does slow them down a bit, when they actually decide to move, everyone is on board.

But here's the thing: gaining consensus is a grueling process. Meeting after meeting after meeting, usually ending ambiguously with no clear direction and no clear action items to move forward. A nearly unending string of email conversations that are frustrating at best and confusing at worst. Two steps forward and one step back.

What this company is crying out for is a process for building consensus. In fact, let's call it by its lean name: standardized work: a clear method by which a person can build a case for the initiative, communicate it to colleagues, incorporate their feedback, gain their support, and thereby move forward. Slowly, perhaps, but consistently.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit like an A3?

In fact, I think the A3 is a perfect structure for building consensus. It replaces difficult-to-schedule, bloated meetings with shorter 1:1 meetings between stakeholders. It eliminates turgid Powerpoint decks with a concise story told on one page. And it structures a dialog so that people don't have an opportunity (or at least, less of an opportunity) to climb up on their favorite soapbox and air their grievances about the proposed initiative. In other words, the A3 can help mitigate the downside of consensus-building.

This company -- or any consensus-driven company, for that matter -- probably won't ever be the fastest to market. But once they have a decision, they can act with overwhelming discipline and coordination. And that spells success.



Hacking Work

Stop doing stupid stuff because that's the way it's always been done. Stop using crappy tools because that's what the company offers. Stop following inane rules because that's the policy. Over at AMEX Open Forum, Matt May brought the concept of "hacking work" to my attention. He interviewed Bill Jensen (author of Hacking Work) about this idea -- because let's face it: in a lousy economy where people feel lucky just to have a paycheck, breaking corporate rules doesn't seem like the smartest thing to do.

Jensen explains that

overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. . . . People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.

Jensen provides two examples of hacking that illustrate his idea:

we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.

Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.

Jensen is passionate about hacking. He believes that it's practically a moral imperative for the engaged employee to try to improve his or her work. Doing stupid stuff and following pointless rules is a soul-sucking waste of time and energy.

A few months ago, I started an online "community A3" project to figure out how to eliminate the waste of crappy meetings. One of the participants figured out that their team (like groups in most companies) had their meetings on a "push" basis: they scheduled meetings with a certain frequency and followed that schedule regardless of need. They shifted to a "pull" mode -- meetings were only held when needed to solve customer problems -- and reduced their collective meeting burden by 1/3. It wasn't the "way things are done here," but they freed up 56 hours per month to actually solve problems.

Matt points out that the hacker spirit is really another way to describe the mindset at Toyota, where people are constantly trying to find ways to banish waste and unnecessary work. So whether you call it "hacking work," or "A3 thinking," or "kaizen," the point is to stop doing stupid stuff so that you can do great work.


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Getting to the root cause.

While out for a bike ride with a friend of mine today, we talked about the class on A3 thinking that I'll be teaching this fall at the Stanford Continuing Studies Program. As I described the importance of finding the root cause, he told me about a fascinating example of root cause analysis by the National Park Service. (My source for this story is here.)

There was excessive wear on the Lincoln Memorial from all the cleaning it was getting because of bird droppings. The Park Service experimented with different cleaners and brushes to cut down on the wear. That didn't work so they looked at it differently and asked "Why are we cleaning it so much?" Because of all the bird droppings.

They put up nets to keep the birds out and it worked some but not well enough and the tourists complained about them. They went one step further and asked "Why do we have so many birds coming to this monument?" After studying it they determined it was because of the insects that swarmed the monument in the evenings. They tried different types of insecticides but nothing seemed to work for long. So they asked "Why do we have so many insects swarming the monument?"

They determined the bright lights that illuminated the monument in the evenings were drawing the insects. They found out that by turning on the lights 1 hour later each evening they could eliminate over ninety percent of the insects and the resulting bird droppings. The brushes and cleaners, nets, and insecticides all addressed symptoms of the root cause. The Root Cause was the lighting and once it was addressed the problem went away.

This story really exemplifies lean thinking at its best. The Park Service solved a major problem without spending large amounts of money or reallocating huge numbers of resources. By taking the time to understand the problem instead of jumping to solutions, they were able to institute a cheap, effective countermeasure.

As you know, I'm fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship people have with email, and the waste that it often creates. This story makes me think of all the technological solutions that companies are peddling to fix the email blight. Yes, they may work. But I'm not sure that they're really addressing the root cause of the problem. You can categorize, prioritize, analyze, sort, thread, and color-code your messages all you want -- but you're still going to spend a preposterously large amount of time dealing with mail. Perhaps it would be better to figure out why you're getting so much, and how you can prevent its creation in the first place.

How are you going to stop the (metaphorical) bird crap from invading your office?

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Lean and the power of communication.

I attended the LEI's Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit last week in Orlando and was impressed by all the attendees' dedication to improvement. The problems with our healthcare system -- and the healthcare insurance system -- are legion, but seeing the accomplishments of this group gives me some measure of hope that things might actually get better. Amidst all the value stream maps and photos of 5S initiatives, one thing that really hit me was how communication lies at the heart of so much of lean. From kanbans to value stream maps, from daily huddles to managerial standard work from 5S to A3s, I kept seeing how clear, concise, and consistent communication eliminates waste, creates value, and focuses activity and attention on what's important. When you think about it, a kanban is a form of communication that tells someone that something needs to be done at a certain time. Value stream maps are a kind of visual communication that helps reduce misunderstandings. Daily huddles are clearly about communication of problems (and solutions), while manager standard work is a way to routinize and clarify communication up, down, and across an organization. 5S is a way to help communicate abnormalities in a process or place. A3s are an elegant and concise method of communicating just about anything. And you can't go to any lean plant or office without seeing visual management boards that essentially are just forms of communication.

So this got me thinking about the waste of time, effort, and energy that goes into what passes for communication in most organizations. You know -- confusing emails with no clear purpose. Voice mails that don't answer questions, but instead just ask you to "call me back" (and race through the telephone number at the end). Soul-sucking meetings that serve no point except the aggrandizement of the organizer's ego. Proposals and reports that deforest half of Brazil without telling a coherent story. That's a colossal amount of waste.

By no means am I diminishing the importance of the lean tools that are so often discussed. But it does make you wonder: what would happen if we spent even just a little time on improving the quality of the communication within and between organizational silos?



Call for Community A3 Participants Redux

Much to my surprise, the response to Joe Ely's and my call for participants in our community A3 project has been, um, underwhelming. After some reflection with Joe and others, I've come up with the following possible explanations:

  1. Companies are so magnificently efficient that there's no wasted managerial time, and therefore no need for a community A3. No problem, no A3.
  2. Companies may have a problem, but have no desire to be involved with Dan and Joe because, after all -- who the hell are they?
  3. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but it's just not really a priority compared to all the other stuff they're doing, lean and otherwise.
  4. Companies may have a problem with all their really smart people stuck in unproductive meetings, but they're reluctant to share those inefficiencies with the public -- even the lean community.

I've ruled out #1 because having flushed more hours than we care to count down the toilet of flabby, pointless meetings, both Joe and I know better.

#2 is a good possibility. Aside from our devastating good looks and wonderful blogging voices, neither Joe nor I have double-top-secret Lean Six Sigma Infrared belts. (Actually, Joe might, but since it's double-top-secret, he hasn't told me about it.) But we're pretty good as coaches nonetheless, if only because, as outsiders, we can ask questions.

#3 is quite likely. After all, it's hard to measure the cost of waste of really smart people checking their Blackberries in a conference room for two hours instead of being out on the floor solving problems. It's a real opportunity cost, but it doesn't show up on the income statement. If this is the case, do me one favor: before you mark this RSS feed as read and move on to your next job, just try calculating how much time you've spent in the last week in meetings, and how much of it was waste.

Now, if #4 is the issue -- you're afraid of making either yourself or your organization look bad -- let me put your mind at ease: the purpose of this A3 is to share ideas for improvement with the lean community, not to embarrass anyone. We're more than happy to keep all participants anonymous. There's no need to put your name on your A3 -- we'll share the content (root causes, countermeasures, implementation results, etc. -- but not your identity.

So, with all that said, we still have room for a few more people or organizations to join us. Welcome; we'd love to have you.


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Looking for volunteers for our community A3 project

Joe Ely of Learning About Lean and I are organizing a community A3 project to figure out how to eliminate (or at least reduce) the soul-sucking waste of time masquerading as corporate meetings. No less an eminence than Peter Drucker believed that a company is "malorganized" if it causes you to spend more than 25% of your time in meetings. (See my post on this topic here.) Based on our own experience and conversations with others, we're guessing by that definition most companies are in trouble.  So we're going to take up arms against this sea of administrative troubles and by opposing, end them.

We’d like you to join our effort.  We're hoping that the collective wisdom of the lean community can give us more time to do important things (like, say, work) and spend less time in conference rooms sleeping through a 93 slide PowerPoint deck.

Here are the details:


  • To reduce the plague of meetings so that we can, you know, actually do some work


  • Participation is limited to the first eight companies (or groups) to respond
  • All members of the lean community are welcome to review the A3s at any time, or comment on the open access Google Doc


  • Dan Markovitz & Joe Ely will provide the problem statement for the A3 (this creates a uniform starting point for all groups)
  • Each company works simultaneously on its own A3
  • All A3s posted and readable (but not editable) on Google Docs to anyone who is interested during and after the course of the project
  • Comments/updates/funny cat pictures can be submitted on a separate Google Doc so that everyone can read them

Timeframe (75 days):

  • Target launch date: Monday, May 3
  • Target completion date: Monday, July 12
  • Two weeks to fill out the left side of the A3 (background; current conditions; goal; analysis)
  • Eight weeks for Do-Check-Act (proposal; implementation plan; follow up)
  • Report out/reflection by July 19

If you’re interested in joining us, please send an email to Dan Markovitz (dan ATSIGN with your name, organization, and contact information.  We’ll send you the link to the Google Docs area with the A3 template and problem statement.

Questions?  Comments?  Contact Dan or Joe (joeely618 ATSIGN

We hope you can join us.

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Leading without authority at Porsche.

John Shook often talks about "leading as if you have no authority." This kind of leadership is not only fundamental to a lean system and to A3 problem-solving, it's an equally valuable skill in any company. When you're working in a matrix organization or in a team, the odds are good you won't have the authority you might want to accomplish your charter. I thought of this principle when I read this statement by Michael Mauer, Porsche's head of design:

... at the end of the day, I do not tell them [the designers] to move a line exactly 50 mils lower or higher or more to the left or more to the right, because if the boundaries are too narrow you really kill all the creativity. I try to motivate people to think for themselves about the solution and how they could achieve the goal... Even if I have a solution in my mind, it is just one possible solution. There might be ten other possible solutions that are maybe much better, but by giving a direction that is too detailed or showing a solution, a way to the solution that is too detailed, I kill all the creativity. One of my major goals is to give the team freedom in order to have a maximum of creativity.

(Excerpt via Diego Rodriguez at Metacool. Full text of interview here.)

This feels to me very much like leading as if you have no authority. And more: it feels like the approach necessary for good problem solving. There's a recognition that there are always multiple solutions to a problem, and what you think is "the answer" might not be the best one, despite your knowledge and experience.

Leading as if you have no authority doesn't just mean not bullying people like Mr. Spacely. It also means avoiding the temptation to dominate -- however inadvertently, however well-meaning -- with your knowledge and experience.



Why not become CEO of your problems?

I had a chance a few weeks ago to take a class on A3 thinking with John Shook. He mentioned that one of the greatest benefits of an A3 is that it forces people to take ownership of a problem, rather than having it fall into a no-man's-land between functional silos. And we've all run into those, right? You know how it goes: "That's marketing's responsibility." "No, it isn't. Its definitely part of the sales function." "Yes, but sales gets that information from IT." And on and on it goes, with no hope of ever getting resolved. So I was struck by last week's NYTimes interview with Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga. Pincus tells the interviewer that one of his key methods of leadership is to make everyone into a CEO in the company:

Mark Pincus: I'd turn people into C.E.O.’s. One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, “By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re C.E.O. of, and it needs to be something really meaningful.” And that way, everyone knows who’s C.E.O. of what and they know whom to ask instead of me. And it was really effective. People liked it. And there was nowhere to hide.

NYTimes: So who were some of your new C.E.O.’s?

MP: We had this really motivated, smart receptionist. She was young. We kept outgrowing our phone systems, and she kept coming back and saying, “Mark, we’ve got to buy a whole new phone system.” And I said: “I don’t want to hear about it. Just buy it. Go figure it out.” She spent a week or two meeting every vendor and figuring it out. She was so motivated by that. I think that was a big lesson for me because what I realized was that if you give people really big jobs to the point that they’re scared, they have way more fun and they improve their game much faster. She ended up running our whole office.

Now, you can argue with Pincus's approach. It probably doesn't conform with all the tenets of "respect for people." And telling an employee, "I don't want to hear about it. Go figure it out." probably isn't the best way of training staff in how to think (which is one of the key functions of the A3). But making a person the CEO of a problem is, I think, very much in keeping with Shook's idea of granting ownership via A3, because it ensures that something will get done.

Have you ever whined about ineffective, time-wasting, soul-sucking meetings? Do you bemoan the plague of useless, irritating, and time-consuming "reply all" emails? Are you frustrated at the lack of an intelligent electronic file storage system? Do nearly constant interruptions by colleagues keep you from getting any of your important work done?

In Pincus's terms, are you willing to become the CEO of any of these problems? Or using lean methods, are you willing to take ownership of these problems with an A3 so that you can devise some countermeasures and make the office a better place to work?