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Samuel Obara

Sammy Obara: Sensei means professor

By Samuel Obara, - Last updated: Saturday, May 3, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I am not sure what is just semantics when we differentiate a consultant from
a sensei. Is consultant a title and sensei a role? Is that a matter of
posture? In Japanese, sensei means simply professor.
I strongly believe that a sensei can be a consultant and perhaps vice versa.
In fact, some of my Toyota senseis became consultants after they retired.
Now, how good a consultant were they?

Some Toyota senseis who were very respected in Toyota and even had direct
learning from Mr. Ohno, became very poor consultants according to their
clients (“according to their clients” is the key piece of information here).
Some complaints I heard from clients were that the sensei didn’t have the
“posture” of a consultant, another one was that the sensei wasn’t sensitive
to their corporate culture, etc.

I think there must be some alignment on what to expect when hiring a sensei:

1) When senseis ask for something, we just do it, we don’t typically
challenge them. Senseis appreciate the efforts, if we do it wrongly, they
prefer to correct us later rather than to explain more before we give it a
try first.
2) When they ask a question, we have to understand it as a command. Very
often they are not explicit and they do come disguised as a question.
3) They expect us to do all (100%) of the work and keep them updated
throughout the process. For example, they could draw a few lines showing
what kind of data they are looking for, but all the collection and analysis
are done by us. Senseis will then challenge our reasoning along the way.
4) Senseis will ask questions, all the time. This makes us highly prepared
before we go sit with them.
5) One common trait I saw in many of the Toyota senseis was that they were
very patient and at the same time very intolerant. Many times they could
ask something at the end of the day and expect us to show them some results
first thing the next day. To avoid the severe consequences, we would at
least prepare something to show we gave it a try. If they saw us putting
some effort, even if not successfully, they would patiently coach us on what
to try next. If they saw we didn’t bother trying not even a little, they
could be furious to the point of sending people out of the room (and I saw
that happening more than just a couple of times).
6) Another features I thought were very common in Toyota senseis were that
many of them had a military rigor and discipline. Although they were very
rigid during the day, they were very friendly after work, and wouldn’t talk
business during happy hour. Finally the senseis I worked with, none of them
used Powerpoint or kept groups for too long in a meeting room, they were all
gemba deep. I suspect many of them don’t own a laptop.

I hope this helps organizations set their expectations so they don’t get
disappointed when they come across real senseis.r

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