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How Do You Find - or Develop - the Right Sensei to Lead Lean?

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Dear Gemba Coach

I am struggling with the problem of training our leaders to become lean leaders. After a full year of doing lean at our company, it is clear that the individuals leading the effort have been transformed. While they were cautious at first, they are now asking many questions, and are always seeking ways to visualize their performance and discover more improvements. But now we are trying to continue this momentum. It turns out that we have become skilled at indicating what goes wrong, but solving the problems is not our strength. Making the transformation to problem solving and kaizen feels like a challenge of leadership—how do we make this happen?

You're asking a deep question that everyone practicing lean gets confronted with sooner or later. My answer, unfortunately, may not seem all that helpful - but it's the most important thing to do. And that is: find a sensei that your CEO can work with, and have them visit the shop floor together regularly. This advice will not help you much, because I've found that most companies who start lean are reluctant to make this step, which they see as a huge commitment. In fact, it's far less of a commitment than launching a program, getting early results, slipping back, having to do it all again and so on - but try telling that to them.

Senseis are rare, expensive, unavailable and generally a pain. But they're essential to lean transformation.

When I first met Pat Lancaster from Lantech, I was struggling with the question of why so many companies try lean, yet so few succeed. Since he'd succeeded, I asked him outright for the secret. In his own inimitable manner he just smiled and said "start from the top, find a sensei you can work with, and drive it through the line." At the time (and probably now as well), most companies approached lean by creating a lean office, and then hiring consultants to implement "kaizen event" drives. So I found his answer striking. That’s not to say it was a great surprise - my father Freddy had implemented lean twice by following this exact same recipe. Yet I wanted to be sure, so I asked the same question to everyone I knew who had done lean for real, and they all said more or less the same thing - though rarely so nicely put.

This raises an interesting question: can lean be done without a sensei? I've yet to encounter one convincing case of this - and I am looking. I'd love to be proved wrong because it would take away the largest bottleneck to lean diffusion. Yet the evidence that a real sensei must lead is compelling. Last week I visited a company that had achieved good lean results three or four years ago. Yet when we visited the Gemba, while there were some traces of visual systems, by and large, the efforts were lackluster: no standards, no kaizen and... no results. When I asked them why, the people there eventually shared that they used to work with a very tough Japanese sensei, but stopped for a variety of reasons. They felt they needed to be autonomous.

That clearly was at the root of their problem! This is like a top athlete telling you he's so good that now he doesn't need any more coaches, coaching, or even going to practice. How does this sound? Will he still be winning medals? In fact, top athletes need more coaching not less as they climb the ladder.

Change Behavior First

Here's another way to think about the need for a lean sensei. Lean is essentially about applying the PDCA to your own processes. In doing so, you are teaching the people who run the process daily to improve their performance by improving how they do the work. This will also develop their autonomy and their satisfaction, because they’ll have better results, and because they'll be more engaged in their jobs. But there are a number of issues about following the PDCA cycle correctly that are very hard to solve without a sensei.

First, as John Shook has brilliantly written in his Sloan Management Review article on How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI, it's very clear in lean that changing thinking comes from first changing behavior: you learn by doing. However, this "change behavior first" approach requires that you get the topic right. If you change behavior on the wrong issue, you'll have the wrong result or (indifferent ones).

The sensei is key at the Plan stage because he or she will point out the right problem that needs solving NOW. As we’re trying to change behavior first, so that thinking will follow, we can only take one step at a time - if not, it's going to be hard to draw conclusions. Senseis have seen many lean implementations and will often tell you the initial step to take. In many cases, you won't agree - and that's the whole point: solutions are rarely found in the mindsets that created them. For instance, Shook describes how at NUMMI, the Toyota folks started with "stop the line." Has anyone come across any company crazy enough to start lean by "stop the line"? I haven't. It's always been: "improve the flow" or "do some kaizen to eliminate waste," etc. When I tell people we're going to start by focusing on quality and ergonomics (i.e. overburden) they usually tell me I know nothing of their business and what they need is cost reduction NOW.

The second point where senseis are very useful at the Plan stage is making sure that he "Check" mechanism is already planned at the "P" stage. On the Gemba this means having production analysis boards, red bins, shop stocks, etc. and understanding how the paraphernalia of lean tools actually works as "Checks" to specific problems. Again, getting this part right usually requires a lot of lean experience and is hard to figure out on your own.

At the "Do" stage, the sensei is usually reluctant to get involved. At this point it's important that teams are developing autonomy. They should be willing to try something on their own. Consultants can be used to hold their hands, but I find that the process of using consultants tends to turn expectations from "solve the problem" into "have a good event." In general if the problem is clear, people will have ideas on their own, and if they are given permission to try and encouraged to see potential "failures" as good failures, they'll do something on their own.

The sensei is essential at the "Check" phase once more. That's because experience on the shop floor is essential to see whether the Check the team has done actually corresponds to the reality of the "after" situation. In many cases, something has happened, and they have done their check, but completely missed other issues and areas they were not looking at: you think this happened, but let me show you this ... and so on.

Different Perspective Needed

Finally, and this is probably where the sensei has the largest impact, it's very hard to draw conclusions from your own experiments. Learning occurs when someone else gives you a different perspective on what you've just done. Most "ahas" occur when people have tried something, are interpreting what happened according to their usual mental models and the sensei reframes the situation and shows them they could draw vastly different conclusions. Certainly, all my own learning as a "deshi" has occurred in situations such as this: I was inferring a conclusion from something I'd tried and my sensei turned it on its head and showed me something profound - and "aha!" (and wow!)

Mike Rother has made a research breakthrough by modeling lean learning as applying "katas" - formal learning steps that sustain problem solving and kaizen. To answer your question, the issue here is to develop these katas in your company. Toyota has invested in a people structure to do so: there are sensei at the executive levels, and then coordinators at the frontline management level. For many years, we'd assume that Toyota's practice of "doubling" frontline managers with Japanese coordination was an issue of control, but the people being doubled always denied it. As David Meier once told me of his experience as a Supervisor at the Georgetown plant, his coordinator sat all day long with his feet on the table dreaming up exercises for him to do - on top of running the line. Now, this is surely just an image, but it conveys strongly the role of the coordinator: keeping frontline managers doing their katas as well as running operations day to day.

I know, I know, none of these answers are very palatable: the door is narrow. But there is a lot of collective experience in this:

  1. Thinking more amongst yourselves won't help. The lean model is to change behavior, then figure it out, as opposed to change your mind first, and then do something. Going through training courses or debating amongst yourselves simply offers distractions from the real step: doing something.
  2. Doing without guidance is tricky because one can do a lot of trial-and-error before figuring things out. Just as you can't learn math without a teacher (and not necessarily a good one), you can't learn lean without a sensei (and not necessarily a good one either).
  3. Creating the lean culture is a result of establishing "learning katas" throughout the organizations. This is very hard to invent oneself because you need to know both the katas, and where/when which kata is appropriate. This is what your sensei does.
  4. Developing the lean culture overtime involves reinvesting some of the performance result in a "coaching" structure in which every five frontline supervisors have a kaizen coach to make sure they continue to improve and teach their teams how to solve problems. Without this coaching structure, the double-loop learning mechanism won't get started. The sensei is there to coach the coaches as well as the senior execs.

You can't think your way into becoming a lean leader, just as you can't think your way into becoming a golf pro. Whatever your mind tells you, doing it is another matter. Experience shows that the entry ticket to lean is finding a sensei and getting senior execs on the shop floor once a month to discuss what the key problems are and how to plan their resolution, then checking the outcomes of the actions and drawing the right conclusions; Without this basic learning structure, you can wander a long time in trial-and-error without ever getting past the low-hanging fruit. Finding a sensei (which is not easy) is indeed the first test of commitment to a lean culture.

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