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Learning to Learn with the Lean Sensei

by Lean Leaper
October 28, 2020

Learning to Learn with the Lean Sensei

by Lean Leaper
October 28, 2020 | Comments (0)

The essence of lean continues to be a topic of vigorous exploration today, decades after Toyota developed its first comprehensive production system – and more than a century after Henry Ford laid the groundwork for lean (nee “flow”) production. Proof of this can be found not only in the pages of the LEI book The Lean Sensei, but in the prestigious Shingo Institute’s recent decision to award the book its award for publishing excellence.

The book presents lean as a system of education more than a system of production. It argues that Toyota’s genius can be found in the myriad operational innovations it has developed to support this – while simultaneously applying this work to successful and enduring enterprise. It focuses on the unique role played by coaches – sensei – in this approach.

In announcing the award, the institute noted:

“Lean thinking is the alternative business model for our age, focused on value, learning, growth and improvement. From observing pioneering experiments in all kinds of activities across the world, the authors have learned how Lean fundamentally challenges traditional business thinking. Behind all the tools for operational excellence and the different management system needed to support their use, lies a much deeper challenge: to develop the human potential of everyone to create a culture of accelerating continuous improvement to meet today’s changing circumstances. Learning is truly at the heart of Lean.

The Lean Sensei provides both a conceptual and hands-on toolkit for developing Lean leaders—and becoming one yourself. It will challenge you to reflect on how you coach; share mindful questions that improve your awareness of what to look for; and keep both you and your students focused on the signs, symptoms, and syndromes that can slow your Lean success.

This book shares a radical vision of how to flourish with this approach. The authors argue that Lean is a system of gaining competitiveness by continuously developing people, and as such, sensei play a vital role in helping others deepen their thinking every day. To be effective in transforming processes and the people who operate within them, any sensei "must first learn to transform yourself," they write. Whatever your role, this story will change the way you think about Lean. It is frankly essential reading for those seeking to make real progress with Lean.”

The book’s radical and yet practical message has been endorsed by folks such as Daniel Jones, co-author of lean titles such as The Machine That Changed the World, Lean Thinking, and Lean Solutions. Dan contributed an introduction to this book, and says, “No one can do Lean for you. It is up to you. But you will also need a sensei to help you discover new ways of seeing and acting, and to help everyone learn to adapt to a rapidly changing world. These lean pioneers discovered what sensei really do. Learn from them before you search for your own sensei.”

The Lean Sensei “begins a debate about the important role of the Sensei as a guide to leaders and others trying to do lean themselves, rather than turning to consultants and experts to do it for them, which we know from experience does not last,” he adds. “It challenges us all to rethink how we support lean initiatives to develop lasting capabilities to tackle future problems. It has also received warm support from several Toyota sensei who guided the team writing the book.”

The book is written by six authors from around the world: Michael Ball&eqcute;, Nicolas Chartier, Pascale Coignet, Sandrine Olivencia, Daryl Powell, and Eivind Reke. They share their grounding for writing the book by saying, “From observing pioneering experiments in all kinds of activities across the world we have learned how lean fundamentally challenges traditional business thinking. We have also discovered that, behind all the tools for operational excellence and the different management system needed to support their use, lies a much deeper challenge: to develop the human potential of everyone to create a culture of accelerating continuous improvement.”

Framing the heart of lean as an act of learning—and coaching others to create a culture of learning—represents one of the book’s key messages. Chartier, who is the co-founder and CEO of Aramis Auto, notes: “As a CEO, it is extremely important to understand that success greatly depends on the conditions you create in your organization. The sensei will help you to create these conditions. Personally it has been very important for me to realize that to change things – you must first start to change the conditions. The fact that a sensei could help me with this has been a game changer for me.”

He cites the book’s comment that, “Sensei work at CEO or COO level and their aim is not to solve one problem and improve one process, but to show how to create the conditions for systematic problem-solving and kaizen in order to orient the company towards greater competitiveness.”

Indeed, this emphasis on the nature of learning impressed the Shingo assessment committee, which wrote: "Framing TPS as an education system rather than a production system is genius. The practices of TPS are aimed at exposing issues so people can respond and then learn how to improve. As the authors note, “experienced sensei tell you there is no knowing TPS, there is only learning the TPS. The more you practice it, the more you see it as a system and understand how the various principles interact.”

To close with a passage from the book elaborating on this idea:

“Lean is not a production system, it's an education system. The "TPS" name itself is unfortunate and misleading as it suggests this is a collection of production practices to copy. Indeed, some Toyota veterans have told us they prefer to call it the Thinking People System. The trouble is that many people think they can replace their current practices with the "best" practices of TPS. They fail to understand that the TPS evolved as the sum of responses Toyota discovered as it faced specific obstacles. Rather than a system of practices, Toyota engineers came up with a system of learning: a way to discover problems and resolve them. The aim is not to replace one's own production system with Toyota's, but to use the TPS to improve your own production system by teaching better thinking – everyone, everywhere, every day.”

(To get a ten percent discount when purchasing this book from the LEI bookstore please add the code SENSEI_2020 upon checkout. Discount valid through 11/30/2020.)

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