Teaching Experiences

Teaching Experiences: Using A3 Problem Solving Method to Coach Master Thesis – Initial Results

I still remember the challenge to develop my undergraduate thesis 25 years ago. I remember my thoughts around it and most of them focused on the output – the document, not the process. I had a very good thesis director but his advice emphasized the output – that was my perception in those days. During my master degree, the thesis development had a more rigorous approach (the thesis was a formal model by the way) but it was until the PhD when I got a better perspective about the methodological aspects required to develop a thesis – the scientific mindset.

Now, I had been a teacher for more than 20 years and I had the privilege to advise many master and PhD thesis. During my first advisory work I tried to replicate what I experienced in the past. I also did a research about developing a thesis in books and articles to be better suited for the job. I had good experiences doing the advisory work using what I learned during my previous academic and research work. I was driven by the rigorous documentary exploration and having rigorous requirements for some sections and also “directing” some decisions. But, to be honest, sometimes the student showed two situations that forced me to think deeply the way I advise a thesis:

  • Students did not understanding the role from the advisor
  • Students were strongly biased with the solution since the beginning
  • Students did not have a good definition of what a good solution was for the problem they were solving
  • Students did not own important decisions leading to the lack of some accountability

These situations usually ended in having students lost in the experimentation without a good target goal. It was hard and expensive (in terms of time and rework) to realign him and recover the direction after some failures.

Many years ago, I was exposed and trained in Lean concepts and Lean tools, up to the point that I became a full time coach in an organization. Influenced by the Lean mindset, I decided to run an experiment to change the way that I advise students to develop their thesis work by using the A3 method. For my own safety, the A3 problem solving is a method with sound scientific principles adopted in the industry and in some universities, such as the Avans University, are replacing the thesis document for an A3 problem solving project. See the next link. This article shares three core learning experiences from using elements from the A3 problem solving methodology.

The first learning that I got was the transformation for the way I approached the students, where I reduced the mentoring part and I increased the coaching in most of the interactions. In this way, I empowered them to be accountable for the work they develop as well as to make decisions about it. It was a fantastic experience ask them about their opinions and encourage them to take some risks and run experiments.

The second learning was the focus in the definition of the problem statement. This focus came from mentoring several A3 problem solving efforts. I found many students with the natural tendency to focus on the solution rather than understanding the context and the problem that was being solved. For example, I got a student wanted to do a master thesis in the domain of Artificial Intelligence using Machine Learning. He got many problems trying to articulate the problem that he was trying to solve. After some coaching conversations, he realized that he wanted to explore the Machine Learning Technology to solve problems. Then, we redirect this energy to find a good problem to solve where such technologies could be applied as a possible solution.

The third learning was related to the definition of the target state. In other words, how they know that they solved the problem they found. This was another interesting experience for one student who clearly defined a problem related to the process efficiency in an organization, however it was very complex to define what means to solve the problem. The organization where the problem appeared where very strict and they do not wanted to share or expose the data.

These experiences are changing the way that I advise thesis where I am starting to train the students in Lean Concepts and A3 Problem Methodology as part of the activities they have to complete in order to develop the thesis under my supervision. I can say that investing in training the students in such concepts and techniques are actually saving a considerable amount of time not only for them but also for the advisor.

This is a great path for exploration that I will continue investigating. If you are interested join me into this new journey where I want to foster a lean thinking for the work in master students.

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