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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: A sensei lights the fire of the kaizen spirit

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Thursday, May 1, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

A dictionary definition of a “sensei” is simply someone older then you as age is respected in Japan. It also is a formal title for a teacher of some sort. Most relevant it is a title to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill. This definition says it is earned, not granted by a job position like professor or consultant. And a sensei is dedicated to developing mastery in others. It is typical that lean consultants are expected to do some teaching, say of an introduction to lean, but primarily they are asked to lead the transformation of operations to lean and develop some internal “experts” so the organization can be self sufficient. The difference between the sensei who develops others and the consultant who leads projects, does some teaching, and develops some internal staff experts is more a matter of philosophy, attitude,and level of expertise. The philosophy of a lean sensei who truly understands TPS is to develop people so they can achieve challenging objectives through kaizen. The foundation is Plan-Do-Check-Act. The sensei understands two things that are critical: 1) The transformation requires a mental revolution starting from the top of the company. 2) There need to be some internal sensei developed who have a high level of mastery.

Few lean consultants qualify as sensei. They simply have not worked long enough, hard enough, with strong enough coaching to have a high level of mastery. A sensei must master the basic tools, which is the lowest level. Then must master the tacit knowledge required to approach any new situation and understand the current condition, define an ideal condition, set a challenge related to the strategic priorities of the organization, and lead a process of iteratively improving in the direction of the challenge. Finally a sensei has to learn how to teach all of this. It takes years, in most cases a minimum of 10 years of totally dedicated practice, like a virtuoso musician. Strong lean consultants might be good students of a sensei and can move the next level, though often they have developed a rigid way of thinking about lean transformation and are hard to teach. Most of the “experts” who are trained by consultants who do 2-3 year gigs in the company mostly judged on results are at the novice level and would benefit greatly from a sensei developing them over a 5 year period, though few organizations would make that kind of investment.

We see the difference in results between a sensei led transformation and the transformation of a typical consultant mostly in the long term. Does the work of the sensei or consultant spark that revolution in thinking that shows us as engagement of leaders throughout the organization in improvement. A fire has been lit and people are being developed, processes are transformed to significantly higher levels of performance, processes are getting linked together and the product or service is flowing faster and with higher quality to the customer, and there is something in the air—a tangible excitement about improvement. The consultant leaves behind a spreadsheet of results that the senior executives can brag about, but often the organization is demoralized and little improves beyond what the “experts” personally transform which are mostly physical changes to the process and to documentation. Which would you prefer?

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