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What I Could Only Learn from a Sensei

by Michael Ballé
October 29, 2015

What I Could Only Learn from a Sensei

by Michael Ballé
October 29, 2015 | Comments (1)

Preparing for the upcoming webinar on the Gold Mine Trilogy Study Guide, I showed my presentation slides to Jeff Liker, who’s always generous in his feedback. In typical sensei fashion, he asked directly to the point: "So what? What’s the story?" It made me take a step back and return to the original reason Freddy and I wrote these novels, to share with readers the experience of working with a Toyota sensei. Jeff then asked me: "What did you learn from your sensei? What could you not figure out yourself and are trying to convey in the books and the study guide?"

I have had the good fortune of having many senseis – Jeff one of them, but my main sensei happens to be my father and co-author, Freddy. Jeff’s last questions left me wondering: what did I learn from my father than I could not ever have figured out for myself, by myself?

When Freddy retired, I stopped teaching and we decided to try to coach others in the way he’d been coached by his Toyota senseis – he had been the CEO of one of Toyota’s suppliers. By 2003, I had already studied lean for ten years. I had done more VSM projects, experimented with more processes and carried out more kaizen activities then I’d care to remember. I had even helped Freddy structure the “system” format of the Sommer Allibert Excellence System, and then the Faurecia Excellence System. I felt I knew something about lean.

I was wrong.

Working with Freddy on the gemba found me completely wrong-footed, and, when I had recovered some of my balance, led me to rethink completely what I thought I understood about TPS and lean. which eventually led to writing The Gold Mine as I convinced Freddy we should try to communicate this.

How was Freddy’s approach so different from what I expected? With hindsight, I can see six main points that I could not have learned on my own, ever.

  1. Start small and work upwards: On the gemba, Freddy had a different approach to investigating the causes of problems. He never used a VSM or other generic big-picture tool. He always went straight into the technicalities of the process, whether injection presses, paint, assembly, and worked backwards to management problems, never the other way around. He would pick a very narrow, detailed point and observe and discuss until he understood it to his satisfaction – and only then would he ask why. It took me a while to understand that he worked from the observation of a point of cause upwards, rather than look for a generic problem and find a specific instance. Unorthodox? Maybe. But it worked. I remember him once using this approach to get the CEO of a one-billion-euro company completely change his mind about his main business challenge by holding fast on a quality problem that everyone else dismissed – it turned out in that company that quality was the key to productivity.
  2. The business challenge matters: As John Shook has pointed out with the lean transformation framework, lean is deeply situational and the business challenge defines the problem. As a CEO, and previously a longtime Renault senior executive, Freddy understands the automotive industry better than anyone, particularly the various competitive pressures that end up causing problems (his take on the VW crisis is that someone in Volksburg got tired of hearing that Toyota was twice as profitable and four times more productive and successful in the U.S. market than VW, and then found a “creative solution”). The three novels in The Gold Mine Trilogy exemplify this as well – in each, the business problem is far, far more relevant than most people think. A good example of this is found in The Gold Mine, where we see an innovative product that hampers its own growth because production can’t deliver on time, thus creating a cash problem in the process. The business challenge matters.
  3. The precision of the lean tools: In all the classic lean tools, Freddy showed me that their purpose was narrow, precise and that they applied in very, very specific situations. His advice was to always be wary of loose understanding and over-generalization. The question he’d always go back to was “What is the role of the operator with the tool? How does this develop the person?” as well as making production more efficient.  

    Freddy was a stickler for the precise understanding of every lean tool, and I realized (often through painful trial-and-error) how little I understood and how much I took for granted. For instance, one of the key tools he’d introduce right away was the Production Analysis Board – the hourly target/actual tracking on cells. This, it turned out, was not about tracking production in general but 1) giving hourly stretch goals (the average of five normal cycle times) to show true potential and orient towards improvement, 2) paying hourly attention to the actual and showing the gap to target, and 3) creating space for operators to write the obstacles they encountered. Once, I though I was being clever by adding the cumulative number of parts required for the shift (are we making the needed amount of parts?) to the hourly target. Wrong! In doing this, I opened the possibility that the parts we didn’t achieve in one hour could be caught up on in the next, taking us away from takt time. It also took me a while to understand that the boards were not there to pressure operators in achieving the target (how could they work any faster?) but for them to show management all the topics where their work could be made easier, so that the target (set without any variation in the cycles) would be easier to reach.
  4. Don’t give up until you understand: On several occasions, Freddy taught me not to let go of issues until they made sense, no matter how hard managers tried to fudge the point or make us go away.  This can get rather emotional as many conversations can easily heat up, but it was another important lesson I would never have learned on my own: try every factor one-by-one until you find the right one. Learning is learning, even when it’s negative – and what doesn’t work is just as much acquired knowledge as what finally works. I can recall one time when we were at a Singapore factory that made electronic credit-card chips. The manufacturing process was completely unfamiliar to both of us, but even so Freddy could not figure out why there was so little inventory in the factory. He asked again and again about batch sizes and changeover times but simply didn’t see it. I had been ready to give up hours before, but Freddy kept looking for the inventory – and eventually found it. There was an 8-level Kardex storage device hidden with a low ceiling in the room. Behold: the missing inventory.
  5. Management must jump in to point out problems: But facing one’s problems is the foundation skill of TPS thinking outlined by Taiichi Ohno – it’s just hard. The energy needed to overcome the challenge has to come from managers who jump in and point out problems that the visual management system reveals, as Freddy knew. Pointing out problems means orienting people, but not deciding for them. The second part of jumping in is to not solve the problem, and not doing someone’s job in their stead.

    At first I was very taken aback with the directness with which Freddy would address management at all levels on issues he saw on the gemba. This often led to heated debates and, I felt unnecessary friction, which could rip into full-blown conflict. But human beings, by nature, find it very difficult to face their real problems and the easiest way to avoid facing the problem is to make the story about the sensei’s orneriness. Freddy never seemed to mind sparking debate to overcome this tendency. I still do, but the fact remains that without this essential part of lean on the gemba, progress simply won’t happen. Top management must step in, point to problems and ask for resolution of very specific problems to sustain the improvement dynamic, which is very hard to fathom unless one has seen a sensei do it.
  6. Figure out what they had in mind: “Ask why, not who” is an oft-repeated phrase in lean conferences, and certainly a firm “no blame” attitude is foundational to developing people. But I’ve often heard Freddy ask questions like, “Who made this decision?” “Why is this product defective?” “Who made the decision to continue to produce?” And so on. It is really not a question of blame but of trying to understand what people have in mind. We always assume people have a good reason to do what they do, although the outcome can turn to waste. Still, we need to understand what is in their mind.

    A striking aspect of working with Freddy was that for all his reputation for toughness on the gemba (well deserved, I have to say), he actually listened better than most. He paid very focused attention and always took the time to understand what people were thinking, which is not always something they’re willing to share. Lean is different to every other management method because if we take the basic “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” cognitive framework of how people come to make the choices they do – whereas taylorism is exclusively focused on controlling actions and forcing decisions – lean is about influencing through observation and orientation (which is why visual management is so important). Lean is the only management method I know that actually examines what’s on people’s mind and not just at decisions and action plans.

Readers familiar with the Gold Mine books and the Study Guide will find each of these six elements recurring through the three tomes. Many assume these to be literary ploys to make the plot more interesting or appealing, or exciting - but the truth is that these aspects of lean are very difficult to find in any manual. 

Now that I’m somewhat autonomous (even though I still consult my senseis frequently) and can see for myself the incredible results in sales, cash and margin lean can generate in just under two years, I’m amazed that more people don’t jump in. Still, this tacit dimension to lean thinking remains very, very difficult to learn for yourself, by yourself. Indeed, to this day, on the gemba, Freddy loses me in the level of detail he gets interested in, as well as the scope of the business insights he’ll come up with in many cases. And I still can’t help disagreeing with him and afterwards having to admit he’d been right all along.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Sabine Gowsy October 29, 2015
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Search Posts:
Lean Leadership: Through the Transformation and Beyond
Chris Vogel, Jim Luckman & Joe Murli
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By Michael Ballé and Freddy Ballé with Tom Ehrenfeld
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By Michael Ballé and Tom Ehrenfeld
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