Looking for 100% Employee Engagement? Try A3 Lean Management

My team at BDI and myself recently took part in a 28 question survey conducted by Don Rheem’s E3 Solutions Inc. It was designed to measure Employee Engagement (not satisfaction!) and to my surprise, my team received a 100% engagement score. That got me thinking about what I do differently as a Manager, compared to the other Managers and work-groups. The answer was pretty simple – A3 Lean Management.

Image Credit: https://donrheem.com/leading-actively-engaged-employees/

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee Engagement is an individual’s sense of purpose and focused energy, evident to others in the display of initiative, adaptibility, effort and prsistence directed toward organizational goals.

Macy, 2009

Engaged employees love what they do. They look forward to coming to work and are passionate about what they do. They feel like an important part of the big picture, not just a cog in a giant machine. Their energy and innovation make their companies not only successful but competitive as well. Actively engaged employees are about 3x times more productive than disengaged employees.

Disengaged employees are the ones that have mentally checked out. Oftentimes, these are the ones just going through the motions just to get to the weekend. They operate in silos, can be toxic and are quite often a source of frustration to engaged employees. Through their negativity, they can drag engagement levels down. They are disillusioned by the mission and goals. The cause for disengaged employees are usually bad managers, and bad managers can be disengaged themselves, causing employees to quit and create high turnover, which is damaging and expensive to the company in many ways.

The Brain Science behind Employee Engagement

brain science of limbic system versus prefrontal cortex
Brain Science: Limbic System vs Pre-frontal Cortex,
Image Credit: 2Gemba Consulting LLC

The study of Neuroscience as applied to workplace behaviors and performance tells us that the success of top-performing teams depend on two factors –

Psychological Safety

Studies have shown that if you feel a sense of safety and security at work (a.k.a won’t be punished for mistakes), you are more likely to take moderate risks, speak your mind and be creative, all of which are behaviors that lead to innovation.

In uncertain, unpredictive environments, our brains are hard-wired to process threats from our managers, public shaming by superiors in front of other employees, etc. as “life or death” threats. The Limbic system, which is responsible for survival, hijacks the entire brain and ignites the fight-or-flight response. During this time, the limbic system completely shuts down the pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for analytical reasoning and logic. It also floods the body with stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. Essentially, the limbic system handicaps scientific thinking in stressful situations.

Positive Emotion

The other factor that is common to high performing teams is Positive Emotion. Positive emotion helps us solve complex problems and build cooperative relationships. Trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration are positive emotions and help us become more open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent when we feel safe. When we feel safe, solution-finding and divergent thinking improve.

So, the key to engagement and top performance is to create a safe space for employees where they can take risks and challenge themselves, without feeling threatened. And this is where A3 Lean Management comes in.

A3 Lean Management

Toyota has been using the A3 Report for over 50 years and it is considered to be an indispensable tool for coaching employees in the mindset of scientific thinking and problem solving. The A3 Problem Solving Report is a one-page form (the size of an A3 Sheet of paper) that provides a standardized way for coach and learner to tell a story. It has two halves – the left half focuses on understanding the reality of the situation and the right is the tactical half.

  • Coordinates both fact and meaning in a common format.
  • Brings facts and reality together in a simple to understand format.
  • Encourages individuals to clearly articulate and share their problems.
  • Helps individuals explain how they intend to address those problems.
  • Provides a platform to other employees to elicit thoughts about a problem and their approach.
  • Creates a way for the people involved to communicate back and forth and to deepen their understanding of a problem.
  • Creates improved alignment and agreement between problem solver, coach and other stakeholders.
  • Provides a safe space around problem solving where employees know they can focus on finding the broken processes that failed the people.
A3 Management report template
Using the A3 Report to create a safe space around problem-solving
Image Credit: 2Gemba Consulting LLC

The Connection between A3 and Engagement

connection between A3 management and employee engagement
A3 + Brain Science = Engagement
Image Credit: 2GembaConsulting LLC


The first half of the A3 revolves around understanding the problem and the reality of the business situation. By clearly defining a business problem and articulating how it ties to the company’s overall strategic goals and mission, the A3 helps employees gain clarity around expectations and the mission of the company. They also understand their role in helping the company achieve that success. This leads to focus and clarity of purpose.


A big part of employee engagement is how they feel about the quality of their relationships, the value they add and recognition. The A3 provides a standardized way for them to build relationships and rapport with other colleagues and stakeholders as they collaborate and cooperate to problem solve. Once the A3 is completed and the problem solved, it provides a clearly documented platform to recognize and celebrate their achievements and milestones, making them feel more valued.


Employees often feel like they aren’t equipped with the right tools to do the job. The A3 provides a template for them to develop the scientific-thinking mindset that is critical for companies to make innovative break-throughs and create an army of independent and self-motivated thinkers.


In A3 Lean Management and Problem-solving, good managers always encourage employees to look for and find the systems level processes that failed the person(s). This helps the employees know that the focus is on improving the company’s processes and is not about assigning blame, thereby creating a felt sense of safety and security.

The leaders at Toyota knowingly or unknowingly tapped into the science of human behaviors and created an enduring and powerful tool to use to develop scientific-thinking in their employees. I’ll leave you with this quote from Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota

We want to not only show respect to our people, the same way we want to show respect to everyone we meet in life, we also want to respect their humanity, what it is that makes us human, which is our ability to think and feel – we have to respect that humanity in the way we design the work, so that the work enables their very human characteristics to flourish.

Speech by Fujio Cho, Toyota Chairman, 1997. Excerpt taken from “Managing to Learn” by John Shook
Don Rheem’s Tedx Talk

Citations: [1] Rheem, Don. Thrive By Design – The Neuroscience that Drives High Performance Cultures, 2017 [2] Delizonna, Laura. High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It, Harvard Business Review

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