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Learning From The Sensei Way at Work

by John Shook
June 14, 2021

Learning From The Sensei Way at Work

by John Shook
June 14, 2021 | Comments (3)

Improve consistently by cultivating a daily discipline of mindfulness, says John Shook in his foreword to Dan Prock's new book The Sensei Way at Work. In noting paralells between Buddhist practice and lean ideals, Prock reveals healthy approaches to coaching that can help deepen mindfulness and point both teacher (or sensei) and student (or deshi) on a path of higher learning.

The Questions

How is a factory like a motorcycle?

How is throwing a baseball like a Zen stick?

How is being a sensei like fixing a motorcycle?

If you find these questions compelling, this book is for you. And you’ve found the right guide in author Dan Prock.

The Challenge

Dan is a former baseball pitcher, engineer, student of Zen meditation and Western psychology, a lean consultant, and an executive coach for the Toyota Way. In our first conversation in 2013, he made a statement in a manner that was both matter-of-fact and bold: “Sakichi Toyoda was a Buddhist engineer, I know because I’m a Buddhist engineer, and I’m going to write a book about it.” I was taken aback. “How presumptuous,” I thought, “making claims to know the mind of Sakichi (inventor and founder of the Toyota group who lived from 1867 to 1930), who died almost a century ago!” Later I learned that Dan had been both a Zen student and a fastball pitcher, and he wasn’t afraid to throw under your chin to make a point. Chin music meets Zen stick thwap!

The Sensei Way at WorkThe book will be published in August and is available for pre-order from Routledge. 

Dan’s words served their intended purpose and got my attention. Sakichi Toyoda was indeed a Buddhist. Yet the religious affiliation of the founder of the Toyota group of companies is not the usual fodder of books about lean transformation. So, you may rightly ask, what does that have to do with achieving a lean business transformation? The answer can be found in Dan's The Sensei Way at Work.

Lean thinking enables improving work systems or transforming an organization, which in turn entails improving capabilities – the technologies employed in an operation and the thinking and skills of the humans who comprise it. Since the beginning of organization improvement as a formal discipline in the early decades of the 20th century, the question of how to transform an organization and impart new knowledge and skills to employees has steadily garnered increased interest. Cottage industries have cropped up: organizational development, business transformation consulting, and skills training and education. Now, in the early years of the 21st century, executive coaching has emerged as a core discipline to enable organizational change.

In fact, in lean organizations, managers are compelled to develop coaching skills in order to not only achieve results but also elevate the capabilities of their people. Lean managers are entrusted to both “Get the work done and develop your people.” No less an authority than Sakichi’s great grandson (and CEO of Toyota today) Akio Toyoda states unequivocally, “We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.”

But few mortal managers are equally equipped to accomplish both tasks. In fact, managers who excel at one are usually frightfully deficient in the other. Ambidexterity is required. But just how many ambidextrous pitchers have you known?

Enter the Sensei

Since sensei is just a word, we humans can define it however we wish. It is often used as just another word for teacher or coach. Dan has a definition in mind, which he will share with you. For now, the word itself begs some exploration into its Japanese roots. Many Japanese terms have been introduced to the English-speaking business world and many of them take on a life of their own, straying far from their original meaning in Japanese.

According to most popular Japanese-English dictionaries, sensei simply means “teacher.” In Japanese, it’s a compound word – composed of the two kanji or Chinese characters for "sen" and "sei" – meaning “one who was born before,” or “one who has gone before,” or “one who teaches on the basis of experience or age.” Medical doctors are commonly referred to as sensei, and sometimes simply being old is enough to be called sensei. Beyond that, it means “one who has gone before,” and entails sensei who engages in the direct transmission of knowledge or skill to a leader – that is, one accomplished “mind to mind.”

Usage of the term sensei in LeanWorld is not particularly unique, but it does have its specific connotations especially in connection with the founder of Toyota Production System (TPS) Taiichi Ohno, his band of direct disciples (notably Kikuo Suzumura and Fujio Cho, but many more, both inside and outside Toyota), and the thousands who have received transmission from them.

Importantly, as with many key Japanese concepts, the term sensei implies a relationship. In the case of sensei, there is a relationship between the “teacher” and the “learner” that invokes the connotation of “master” and perhaps “apprentice.” When Ohno’s disciples refer to “Ohno Sensei,” they use the term with deep respect for their teacher and in reverence of their relationship with him. Different terms can be used, but a common one in this context is deshi (another compound word). In domains that require many years of deep study or practice, there is no sensei (teacher) without a deshi or someone being taught. Thus, the sensei is one part of a dyad that includes, of equal importance, a learner. (One can easily imagine how the famous slogan – “If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught” – of the American Training Within Industry program had such immediate resonance when it was introduced to Japanese ears in the late 1940s!)

Once formed, sensei–deshi relationships typically last a lifetime, entailing obligations on each side. Neither side quits unless the other betrays or fails to hold up his/her end of the mutual obligations. Former Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho was a direct deshi of Taiichi Ohno and is a sensei for Akio Toyoda. This important dimension is usually missing in the Western (LeanWorld or other) usage of the term. (To learn more of the deeper cultural dimensions of the term sensei, read the novel Kokoro – kokoro means “heart” or “the heart of things” or “heart-mind.” The original title in Japanese was something like Kokoro – A Sensei’s Testament – by Natsume Soseki.)

Considering the complexity of the term sensei underscores a deeply held doubt regarding language that is shared between Buddhists and Toyota lean sensei: they both distrust language implicitly. Those curious Zen koan you’ve heard about? As much as anything, they are intended to clear the mind of the false dichotomies that are present whenever we define things. For example, a motorcycle is not a car. Clearly. On the other hand, they are both vehicles to move around people or goods. Does two wheels versus three matter? There are cars with three wheels, and there are motorcycles with three wheels. If you try to answer a koan with a Kierkegaardian yes or no, the sensei’s response will likely be a crisp thwap with the Zen stick. The teacher’s intent is to clear your mind of either-or dichotomies in order to enable you to see things as they are, as part of a whole, each thing in harmony with all the others. You can’t even have yes without no.

TPS isn’t a “thing” so much as a way of thinking to get things done.

“Name it and you kill it” were the words of Taiichi Ohno (so I am told) when his team insisted on naming the system of work organization that has become known as the TPS. Prior to that time, the system of concepts and techniques including Just-in-Time, pull, Kanban, Jidoka, poka-yoke, and so many more were known either as “the Ohno system” or “the Toyota system” or “the Kanban system” or “JIT” or nothing. Ohno would have preferred it remain nothing. TPS isn’t a “thing” so much as a way of thinking to get things done.

A Process? A Way to Think? A Way to Be?

Most modern definitions of “coaching” in a business context (there are many kinds of coaches) draw a distinct line that the coach mustn’t cross between concern for the process and concern for the result. Coaches coach only the process, concerning themselves little or not at all with the actual task at hand, which is up to the learner, who is, after all, the “expert” who must “own” the outcome.

Indeed, that any result is the result of a process is a core belief of lean thinking. If you want a better result, focus on changing the process. And, indeed, ownership of the outcome must remain with the learner. And which is it that matters – the outcome or the process? Ask that question and expect some chin music from Dan the pitcher, or a Zen stick thwap! from the author.

Yes, focus on the process. Improve the process and the result will follow. Kaizen, kaizen, kaizen. But how do you know if you’re making progress? How do you know if the changes you are making on your process are “right” or are progressing you toward your goal?

Here’s how to address that question in a way that is opposite the philosophy of most executive coaching models: Whether you call yourself coach or sensei or teacher or consultant – did your learner improve the work? Was quality made better? Did you take some “muri” (overburden) off the workers back? Did you alleviate some struggle? Was some cost eliminated to provide better value for the customer? Did the motorcycle start?

The 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig introduced many Westerners to an interpretation of Zen Buddhism. The book wasn’t much about Zen, really, but the Zen idea expressed in the book is that the best teacher for an apprentice motorcycle mechanic is an inoperative motorcycle. The apprentice can apply every tool in the shop, but his or her efforts and learning will come down to one ultimate thing: whether the damned thing starts. If it starts, okay, perhaps you learned something; move on to the next. If it didn’t start, step back, clear the mind, focus on the problem, access your accumulated learning (sorry if what comes next sounds like pop Zen from a Keanu Reeves movie), and let your way of being become one with the task at hand. Just try. Try, reflect, learn. Improve the work. Any good baseball pitcher comes to grips with this idea of being. (If you want more on sports and Zen, try the book that was Mr. Pirsig’s inspiration, Zen and the Art of Archery, which was written by a German living in pre-Second World War Japan. You’ll never read a more profound expression of “mind the process, shoot the arrow, throw the pitch…just mind the process.”)

What Then, Does the Sensei Own?

Which brings us back to the factory as a motorcycle and how it relates to what Dan calls the Sensei Way. Before my experience working for Toyota in 1980s Japan, where I was on the receiving end of many proverbial Zen stick thwaps from my many sensei there, I experienced literal Zen stick thwaps at Eiheiji, the Zen temple founded in the 13th century by Zen master Dogen. It was in order to learn more that I decided to next seek work at the most culturally Japanese company I could find. I felt certain that the spirit of Zen was still alive in Japan, not in temples or in martial arts classes, but hidden just beneath the surface in the teeming life of Japanese corporations. I was right, and I was wrong. I had presumed all Japanese companies were the same, a misconception, which is far, far from the truth.

In The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, D. T. Suzuki argues, “Zen is a discipline, not a religion.” At Toyota, I found Zen practiced in the dogged focus and the discipline of minding the mundane; the sensei’s ethos rang through my being as I received job instructions that enabled me to perform quality work safely and efficiently as I climbed in and out of a Corolla 500 times a day.

The TPS now has a name, but naming it hasn’t killed it. And even today, motorcycle mechanics are still learning in the same centuries-old way.

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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Jones June 14, 2021
5 People AGREE with this comment

It is gratifying to see this essential dimension of lean as a path of learning being discussed in the lean movement. I remember arguing strongly at one of my last Lean Global Network meetings that we should focus on this rather than traditional do-it-for-me consulting - and getting no resonance at all from members! Which led me to encourage Michael Balle and team to write The Lean Sensei book. Hopefully that book and this can lead the next generation of lean students to find their Sensei and later become Senseis to others. There is still much to learn about lean as a path of personal and organisational development the world desperately needs.

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Rose Heathcote June 14, 2021

Nicely put. 

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Bob Emiliani June 15, 2021
2 People AGREE with this comment

Over the last 40 years we have learned how inaccessible TPS has been to generations of business leaders in terms of its tools and methods -- JIT being the most visible example. And kaizen consultants who have taught (coached) the Zen mind over that period of time have mostly failed to influence subsequent generations of leaders. The "kaizen mind" remains elusive as ever among business leaders. This, unfortunately, is the current state. So, we must ask "Why?" It is worth noting that most of the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts (ethical trainings) are at odds with the common understanding and practice of business as it emerged from the late Middle Ages and as it exists today. While one is always hopeful that awakening will soon occur among business leaders, the Institution of Leadership remains poised to vigorously defend its sacred traditions. I suggest it would be advantageous for Lean-world to gain a thorough understanding of this formidable Institution, the current state, to identify and direct actions necessary for creating the future state that we all wish to see.


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