Looking through the lens I see lean through, I think the word “sensei” can be subjective. I think each and every one of us can have a different definition of what a sensei is based on our own experiences. These differences doesn’t necessarily make any of us right or wrong, just perception I suppose; and what our current knowledge base is compared to others on the journey. For example I could have a client who has studied for 5 years and internally to their company they might be considered a sensei based on their 5 years of practice. I think there also can be a distinction between practicing lean and theorizing about it as well. For me it’s all about how you learned, what processes you improve to get good results, and how you develop others and their thinking based on your past experiences practicing it. Teaching past failures along our own journey are such a part of a sensei/trainers role.
When I learned from my Japanese trainers, at that particular time (1988-1998), I didn’t refer to them as a sensei (as the word), they were my trainers to me. I personally correlated that particular description to my Karate instructor in my younger days, but I think the same thinking applies. He was a 6th degree blackbelt and I had only made it to first degree. So I would always consider his experience and knowledge to be greater than mine hence the title.
My trainers/sensei’s were there to teach me how to think, help me learn, witness me make mistakes and channel my frustration at times. I always felt they knew based on their “hands-on” experience and also who they learned from. Some of my trainers had learning opportunities with Taichii Ohno. So I always considered them to be a source that “lived, breathed, and felt” what it was like to learn with trials and tribulations along the way. They also understood all the fundamental skills and technical knowledge to do the job based on their time in grade. Those fundamentals being:
Development of people (Respect)
Teamwork (across the silos-order to customer)
Initiative (practice Toyota Way)
The “Thinking” Production System (TPS)
I remember learning TPS from a very small handbook (3″ x 4″) that was written half in English and half in Japanese, our trainers had them and always made sure we learned the “thinking” (principles and philosophies), and maintained the integrity of it at all times, even when production wasn’t going to plan they were willing to stop the line and ask “why”. When we learned we were always on the floor (gemba). I cant remember a time when a “trainer/sensei” had me in the classroom going over a powerpoint.
Although it is necessary sometimes these days, their teachings resided where the work happened with many questions as to why, how, where, what and when? I learned by doing and they were my shadow(s) along the way. Although I didn’t always see them, they knew when something was right or wrong, so they would get to the root of it, and ensured I learned with hopes I wouldn’t make the mistake again. As they would always say – “1st mistake is learning- 2nd mistake for same reason is unacceptable”. I never forgot that and try and guide my students in that way today.
I’ve been called a sensei myself and honestly I wouldn’t consider that a title on a business card, I just consider it a privilege to have learned from some of the best and now blessed to share it and continue to learn as I grow. A true sensei has the knowledge, but shouldn’t be above learning from others with less experience or “fresh eyes”. I’m personally a sponge, I soak in all I can to learn how to be better the next day, that is a role of a sensei/trainer to me – Continuous Improvement, right?