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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Pick you sensei with care, the sensei manages the learning curve

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Thursday, January 24, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

If you want live music for a party – do you decide how large the orchestra should be, or do you worry about picking the right conductor? There are two ways to look at this question: the taylorist-lean way and the Toyota-lean way.

In the taylorist-lean way, the problem is quite mechanical. You’ve got a number of sites and processes, you want to apply the “waste-reduction” machine to each of these processes, and you need kaizen officers to do so. The question is then a matter of size and payback – how many kaizen officers do you need to hit every process in a reasonable amount of time. My experience in industry is that in general you have a central office of three to ten people according to the size of the company, and then one person per site plus external consultants. The payback is usually pretty good in the first two years as these guys stumble on the low hanging fruit, then the program tends to hit the swamps, and finally top management wakes up as says: okay guys, good show for all these savings, but where is the impact on the bottom line? As a rule-of-thumb, when you find your kaizen promotion officers “improving” administrative processes, you know you’ve lost your way.

In the Toyota-lean way, the problem is trickier. The issue is to develop the kind of leadership that will sustain the next phase of growth by satisfaction (customers, employees, partners, etc.). This is a completely different problem as the issue is to develop in every manager (actually, every employee) a science of value, waste and PDCA:

–       What does the customer (immediate and final) really values in what we do?

–       What are the unnecessary costs we add to the product or service because of our own processes?

–       How do we confirm and improve through PDCA?

To do so, of course, requires just-in-time conditions in order to steer the learning by lowering the water in the lake to make the rocks appear. In this vision, a kaizen promotion office doesn’t make much sense – all that matters is the sensei. A good sensei will use the tools steer you towards the right problems, and help you learn. A bad sensei will get you lost in technicalities and indifferent improvements.

So, no kaizen promotion office at all? Not quite. Certainly none in any company up to $ 50 -70 millions. As companies get larger, another layer is added to the problem. In order to learn, the sensei and the executive need a gemba. In a small company, the executive is usually close to his gemba, but that is less the case when the firm is larger. For larger set-ups, kaizen promotion officers are essential to set-up the right kaizen experiment to teach senior execs about value and waste, and to teach local middle management greater autonomy in their problem solving.

In Toyota, the role of the Kaizen Promotion Office is closer to commando interventions who step in a line that has problems to show the management how it’s done – but it remains the responsibility of the local coordinator (and/or sensei) to get site management to learn to achieve the same on their own.

So, don’t worry about how to structure your KPO. Do worry a lot about how to pick your sensei. I’d love to hear different, but I’ve so far not come across any successful lean transformation without a sensei’s involvement. This is a huge barrier to entry as true sensei rare, busy, difficult and expensive. But finding a sensei you can work with is part of the learning journey. As Pat Lancaster from Lantech told me ten years ago, leaning your company is not that hard: start from the top, find a sensei you can work with, drive it through the line.

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