Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Review: Managing to Learn

I just got the new book by John Shook, Managing to Learn. I was surprise and pleased by what I found

The book describes the use of the “A3 Process.” This process is, on the one hand, simple; it uses a piece of 11”x17” paper to tell a story of a problem and how to approach it.

Yet the book is anything but simple. And is anything but a description of how to write on a big sheet of paper.

Shook does the Lean community a great service in the book, comparable to his service in writing “Learning to See” in 1999 describing Value Stream Mapping. Shook delivers this value in two unique ways.

First, he uses the story format, with a young employee learning from a seasoned executive how to produce a good A3. “Oh, no, not another book of forced dialogue” I thought to myself when I learned this was the format. Rather than trying to be Eli Goldratt, however, Shook tells two stories; one from the perspective of the learner, one through the eyes of the teacher. The stories are side by side, in two different colors, presented simultaneously. The learner can’t understand why his early approaches aren’t good enough; the teacher struggles to know how to help the learner be enthusiastic while correcting his short-sighted efforts. The rhetorical tool works well.

I live in both of these roles and Shook’s description was right on the money. Rather than just showing the mechanics of filling out a form, he goes much deeper, to the learning process allowing people to see more, learn better and lead more effectively.

Second, the pace of the book “walks the talk” of the book. Central to the A3 process is finding the root cause of a problem. Shook forces the reader to agonize through this process. It does not happen as quickly as I would have liked. I found myself saying as I read, “John, get me to the point. Please!” And he didn’t. He forced me, the reader, the learner, to grapple with the difficulty of finding root cause, particularly in strategic, non-mechanical problems. For me, with Lean not a new thing at all, this was the most important lesson. The effort to get to root cause is difficult. And worth it. Shook forces me along that journey, a journey I need to take. Too many Lean books illustrate only the easy cases, the obvious paths to root cause. Shook takes a tougher path and it is worth it.

This book is a significant contribution to the Lean community. I suspect it was long in the making, as the book shows much reflection and a distillation of much knowledge. I recommend it highly.

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