I worked at TI for over 20 years. Many people recognize ‘TI’ as the initials of the well-known high tech company Texas Instruments. Internally though, we often joked that ‘TI’ stood for ‘training institute’. We were required to take a minimum of 40 hours of training each year. And, being in the high tech business, much of that training was on problem solving. We were trained on 5D and 8D, Kepner-Tregoe, Taguchi methods, DMAIC and perhaps a half dozen other methods that I have since forgotten. Still there were times, maybe more than we would admit, when we couldn’t get traction on a problem, or it wouldn’t stay fixed, or we just moved the problem from one place in the product or factory to another. However, we believed we were excellent problem-solvers. And perhaps, relatively speaking, we were.
Then in 2005 I was introduced to what is commonly referred to as the ‘Toyota A3 Problem Report’ and something called LAMDA, a systeminvented and advocated by the late Dr. Allen Ward. LAMDA is an acronym for Look-Ask-Model-Discuss-Act. Well, my initial reaction was rather cynical and sarcastic, along the lines of: “Gee. Just what the world needs. Another five step problem-solving process.” But these were key elements of the Set-Based Concurrent Engineering methodology which I saw great potential in, so it was incumbent upon me to learn more about it.
During my investigation of LAMDA and A3 Reports I came across a short video of Dr. Ward describing how he came to create LAMDA and what it meant to him. He explained during his five years studying the product development process at Toyota Motor Company, he observed that in addition to having a very different development process, the engineers and managers thought and acted very differently than those he had observed at other auto manufacturers. And this set of behaviors was not documented there. It was just who they were. It was their culture.
So Dr. Ward created the Look-Ask-Model-Discuss-Act model to describe this culture to others. What really caught my attention was a statement he made at the end of the video. Dr. Ward, whom I and many others recognize as the pioneer of the powerful Set-Based Concurrent Engineering methodology, stated, “LAMDA is the best work I have ever done.”
I didn’t understand why he said that at the time. But I soon came to realize that with LAMDA he had created a very powerful collaborative learning model. It isn’t a problem-solving process per se, but how a team goes about getting the facts required by the process. And it is how the team collaborates around those facts to arrive at the optimum solution for the company and their customers. It is not steps in a process where you do Look, Ask, Model, Discuss and Act one time. It is practicing those behaviors with skill continuously as you work through the problem-solving process. Or the proposal process. Or the project process. Or the process of discovering your customers’ true interests. Because LAMDA is about robustly learning what you need to know to make a good decision.
So how does this work? LAMDA is one part of a tightly integrated and symbiotic system. The second element is a one page visual knowledge tool we call a Knowledge Brief (similar to the aforementioned A3 report). And the third and equally critical part of the system is the mentor.
The Knowledge Brief provides a template of what a team needs to know to journey from the discovery of a problem or opportunity through a decision and implementation. Like an outline for an essay or research paper, it suggests the facts that should be discovered and their general order. Unlike a traditional report, it is a living documented that is continuous updated. It is more like a one-page engineering notebook for the team that says, “Here is what we know as fact today. And here is what we are going to learn and do next.”
LAMDA is behaviors the team employ to learn what it needs to populate the Knowledge Brief. Continually searching out the facts; vetting them through peer review and capturing them in the Knowledge Brief as they go. The act of making the knowledge visible reveals other critical knowledge gaps that need to be closed before a good decision can be made.
The role of the mentor is to guide this learning journey: to keep the team on track, to encourage deeper thinking, and provide them the resources they need.
What this system does is:
• Creates a deep inquiry to discover all the relevant facts before jumping to a solution.
• Eliminates the influence of bias, assumptions and opinions.
• Assures that all perspectives,opportunitiesand trade-offs are considered.
• Keeps everyone focused on the facts and the knowledge gaps left to be closed.
• Coalesces everyone’s individual mental models into a common, shared visual model of reality.
• Collects all the important facts and presents them visually, concisely and logically.
In short: It gets everyone on the same page and keeps them there. And as a bonus, at the end there is a concise, factual and validated knowledge artifact ready for reuse without any additional work.
How well does this system work? I have trained hundreds of problem solving teams in this method in locales from the south island of New Zealand to inside the Arctic Circle working in technologies as diverse as food technology and integrated circuits, and for products used in everything from deep sea exploration to space flight. In every 2-day workshop at least one complex problem has been solved or greatly advanced. The response of engineers has been universal: “this is just common sense”. And a senior vice president of R&D at the largest consumer products company in Europe was so convinced of the power of LAMDA that he declared he was going to start using it with his wife. Now I am not advocating this application – you would be on your own there. But it does speak to how convincingly powerful it is to people that have seen its results.
I became thoroughly convinced of the method’s effectiveness when I saw the results at a semiconductor equipment manufacturer. We had just turned around a major project there using Learning First Product Development and Set-Based Concurrent Engineering, of which LAMDA and Knowledge Briefs are foundational practices. That project was now ahead of schedule and promising to deliver technical performance far in excess of their original goals. So they had begun to apply the techniques to the XYZ Project, the next product on the strategic roadmap.
On arriving at their offices one morning, the Director of Program Management asked me to attend a meeting – they were going to cancel the XYZ project. I knew this product had been on their strategic roadmap for five years. It was in their financial forecasts. Commitments had been made to customers and the board of directors. The consequences of cancelling this project could be far reaching. However, the facts they had discovered said that was the right of action. Still,during my time as a product line manager, the longest and most contentious meetings I participated in involved changing the strategic roadmap. So I was curious to see how this meeting went.
To make a short story even shorter: There were 32 attendees representing three levels of management from every functional organizational in the company. Each attendee was given one A3 sized sheet of paper – a Proposal K-Brief. They were given two minutes to read the proposal. Then each participant was given an opportunity to ask questions or challenge the facts. In the end, the unanimous consensus was to cancel the project. Total elapsed time of the meeting: 7 minutes, 23 seconds.
Miracle? No. When this set of practices is followed, the best course of action becomes obvious.
As I mentioned earlier, we usually deliver this as 2-day workshop for four or five natural cross-functional teams within a company or organization. But this is rather expensive if you just wanted to discover what it is really about and if it would be right for your organization. So working with Product Innovation Academy, we designed a one-day Introduction to Collaborative Learning and Problem Solving Workshop. It will cover the same content as our 2-day workshop, but at less depth and with less skill practice and feedback. Even in this condensed version, it will provide you with some experiential insight into this powerful technique and you will leave with some new skills and understanding.
So gather a natural cross-functional team currently working on a real problem in your office (remembering other companies will be participating in this public workshop) and come join us for a day of accelerated learning. We might even be able to solve that problem.