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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: No real lean without a sensei

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Sunday, May 4, 2014 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

I believe the “sensei” idea was introduced in Lean Thinking for a reason: we seek new words when the current vocab doesn’t quite capture the specific thing we’re trying to describe. Sure, the word “sensei” originally means teacher in Japanese. Certainly, consultants will try to turn it into something they can put on their business card (regardless of whether they’re legitimate or not). Absolutely there’s an amount of unnecessary mystique around the word – but I feel this is because there is a specific “sensei” function in lean that is neither ex-Toyota nor teacher, coach, consultant, but unique to lean difference.

Having observed and work with various sensei, (and, much like pornography, you can’t describe it but you know when you meet one), I believe I can see two key roles for “sensei” in lean, one technical, one political.

The technical role of the sensei is unique to lean thinking itself: teaching the tools to create a “visual management” (and I don’t mean ppt graphs on boards) work environment where the tension between just-in-time (flow, flow, flow) and jidoka (stop, stop, stop) is apparent in a way that everyone from operator to CEO can see what is going on. As Ohno pointed out, without clear visual management, executives on the gemba are mostly disruptive – they interrupt, they ask fool questions and give thoughtless directives (What? Never had a boss?). On the other hand, a strong visual management supports a deep discussion into what the problem really is with operators, and also supports operator initiative – which teaches something to the executive about the processes and policies he or she has put in place.

As one of my father’s sensei taught us, the first job of frontline managers is to maintain and develop the visual management so that:
1. Problems appear clearly at all time
2. Management steps in to keep kaizen activities going and follow up
3. In order to develop people
4. And improve management processes and policies

This “visual management” is unique to lean pratice and can’t be thought out of thin air – there is a sixty years tradition of it, and it needs to be rethought for every new industry or function. Wrong re-interpretation of visual management practices in a more convenient fashion for middle-management is often the source of large lean mistakes.

The political role of the sensei is no simpler. Lean is not agnostic, it can only work on the basis of a few shared values which Toyota has tried to inscribe in its Toyota way. The essence of TPS is to improve customer satisfaction by improving employee confidence and know-how, and the guidelines to doing so are:
1. Genchi genbutsu: the sensei is there to systematically take the management team out of the office and back to the gemba, and stay there long enough to finally see facts firsthand rather than rely on third-party analyses or reports;
2. Challenge: the sensei helps executive to face their challenges with, in Toyota’s terms, courage and creativity. This is far from obvious as we’d all of us prefer to solve what we know how to solve (an in-built basis in our stone-age brains) rather than tackle uncertain problems.
3. Kaizen: the sensei needs to constantly remind executives not to seek ultra-solutions (a throw of the dice on a gamble that would solve the problem once and for all) but to work with local teams in kaizen, step-by-step improvement until the problem is better understood and avenues for improvement clearer.
4. Respect: it’s also the sensei’s job to reaffirm the intent to make our best efforts to understand every stakeholder’s perspective – understanding doesn’t mean agreeing and not every one might be pleased in the end, but the sensei is there to make sure the nemawashi does happen as thoroughly as possible (which is often contrary to the executive instinct to keep the ball moving by rolling over opposition).
5. Teamwork: finally, it’s the sensei’s job to constantly emphasize operator learning in both technical and teamwork terms. In every situation, the sensei needs to pull the executive back from resolving the immediate problem and ask: who is learning what here? What next?

Both technically and politically, sensei have a critical part in lean implementation. Unfortunately, that also makes them lean most critical bottleneck since it takes at least ten years working with a sensei on the gemba to acquire some degree of “seneihood”. The problem is compounded by the fact that many consultants and project managers seek the “sensei” qualification yet are little enclined to truly learn sensei skills (ten years, on the gemba, with your own sensei). So far, in lean, sensei tend to be in a training line that goes all the way back to Taiichi Ohno, but that also greatly limits “real” lean expansion.

All this to say that, as an exec, if you’re not working with a bona fide sensei, you’re not doing lean – you’re probably doing something very good, but it’s unlikely to be lean. Finding the right sensei for you is part of the lean journey, one that you can’t sidestep without taking huge risks.

On the other hand, we, in the lean community, should focus far more on the sensei role to get much better at developing sensei – by first taking the mystique out of the word and understanding the skill-level minimum role of your neighborhood every day sensei.

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