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How Can One Be A Better Sensei?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Our operations VP is disappointed with our lean program. Despite his close personal involvement with the program, it is not delivering the level of results he expects. How can he be a better sensei? Is this even the right question to ask? Both of your recent books stress the importance of the sensei role. What advice should I share with my VP so that he can support greater results from our lean work?

The role of sensei (an experienced coach or mentor) in lean programs is indeed problematic, and probably the greatest bottleneck to the widespread diffusion of “real” lean. True senseis are rare, expensive, and uniquely difficult to work with. They often work with senior managers who doubt their value, since these executives believe they’ve got enough brains in-house to run the lean program. They are often considered too expensive, intrusive, or unnecessary by companies convinced that they are indeed lean.

So why is it that I have yet to come across a convincing lean transformation that occurred without a sensei’s help? And believe me, I’m looking. If somehow we could circumvent the high barrier to entry the “sensei” represents, we could greatly accelerate the speed of lean diffusion. It’s just that in my experience, while many companies show some improvement with their lean programs, they fail to distinguish themselves dramatically from their competitors. The dramatic results are to be found in the few instances where the management team has worked with an experienced sensei. Here you will often see a specific – and highly recognizable – blend of radical results obtained through small-step kaizen improvement. We’re talking 15% productivity improvement, 50% defects reduction and 25% stock reduction per year (after two or three years, the gap with competitors really shows). Any given company may not achieve all three aces, but certainly at least one, and sometimes all three.

(These significant results are obtained by radical changes in the process as well, usually visualized by a working pull system and a low-level focus on problem awareness and problem solving.)

So what is it that the sensei actually do? Their power has nothing to do with day-to-day coaching, or a great formal Playbook that he teaches individuals to follow. Recently I visited an automotive parts plant that I’ve known for years. The plant has reduced their in-process WIP to about .7 days, which is good. They had switched off the computer tracking as a way to manage their internal flow even better, as it forced their supervisors to work exclusively with kanban cards. A recently-hired value-stream manager was struggling with the absence of scheduling software. “Guys, what’s the parallel system?” he asked his workers. “I’ve worked in automotive before: no one ever really follows the cards. There has to be a scheduling software somewhere: you can tell me, I’m your new boss.” It took some time for him to accept that there really was no phantom system—that the continuous WIP improvement was due to maintaining the tension on the kanban cards; and pulling some out regularly (which, of course, created many headaches in machine availability and changeovers and so on).

This new manager was just as surprised when he asked to see the manual, and was told that there wasn’t one. “But you had a consultant help you with implementing this pull system,” he asked, “surely he left you some slides?” It wasn’t like that, he was told. The consultant visited once every couple of months and discussed what we were doing with your predecessor. Mostly he pointed out areas where we were not following up on our own ideas and then argued about the one or two big things we should work on for the next step. There never was a manual, because we did all the work ourselves, explained his colleagues. It sort of came together over time. We used to have four days of work in process inventory when we started, but we took it out step by step.

Learning by Doing

This response didn’t help much the new value-stream manager – who, by the way, continued to struggle for a while before figuring out that working at further reducing the WIP was the best way to get “into” the pull system and learn – but it describes fairly well the sensei’s role. Lean’s learning approach is learning by doing, not learning by design. Rather than have several presentations about the ins and outs of a pull system and then try to implement the perfect system all at once, lean learning will occur by working out one problem after another according to a regiment devised by, you’ve guessed it, the sensei. A sensei is a coach who has the experience of taking people through the implementation journey and who can (1) demonstrate current problems and (2) explain what the next step should be (in Mike Rother’s “kata” terms: the next target condition).

Why can’t people figure it out by themselves just by reading the books or using a consultant who will “implement” the tool for them? The trick is to realize that not only does the sensei control the direction of implementation (making sure the lean tool is working as it should on the Gemba), but also the rhythm of learning.

By and large, we all feel that we like learning and are eager to do so on the job. But what we mostly have in mind is learning (1) what we think we should learn and (2) at our own pace. What this means, in our culture, is learning more about what we already know to fill in the gaps and get into more detail, and take the time to read and discuss and debate and think before we actually commit to action. Working with a sensei is very destabilizing on both accounts because first, he or she will push you to learn new things (that you haven’t done before at all), which is kinda scary, and worse, will push you to do it at his or her own rhythm – not yours. The deal is “do and then think”, rather than “think, and then do.” This sounds at odds with the notion that the Japanese culture is about “aim, aim, aim and then fire” rather than our tendency to shoot from the hip, but the misunderstanding comes from the fact that “aim” in lean often means “try” in a kaizen situation, before you commit. Learning will occur from reflecting on the kaizen experiments and getting it right until we go for the large-scale radical change.

On the Gemba, it’s not an easy proposition. Most people resist the sensei’s comments and indications for a number of reasons ranging from distrust (what does this guy know of our daily work?) to fear (if I start doubling the number of changeovers, I’ll never hit my production numbers) or straightforward annoyance (who does this guy think he is to show me up like this on my own turf? And if he knows the answer why doesn’t he just spit it out?). The point is that most of these emotional reactions to the sensei’s challenge are just that – resistance to having to learn at an imposed pace, rather than at our leisure. Consequently, these reactions are also understandable and totally okay (it’s a free world) as long as they don’t hold back the learning process. You don’t have to like your sensei – just get cracking and do the kaizen.

Any business is an interconnected system: that is an inescapable truth of wholesale improvement. In order to get budget-level sales, cash, cost and capex results one can’t focus only on piecemeal issues – fixing one leg of the table won’t help much is all the other three are not rebalanced as well. Obtaining sustainable business results of the order we discussed simply can’t be achieved by just fixing a few local issues in operations. Experience shows that eliminating a “bottleneck” only means creating another one. It’s the balloon syndrome: squeeze at one end and it will bulge on the other.

Sustaining Improvements

The sensei will help you to construct an approach that encompasses the full company or business unit. For instance, the pull system we were discussing is a particular case of a more general approach. In order to deliver to customers and obtain cash results, the value stream needed an improvement process – not a way to make it work, but a process to drive the improvement on the delivery and cash dimensions. The pull system they built under the guidance of the sensei is this mechanism. The game is not about replacing the MRP with kanban cards, it’s having a system that will lead to improvements sustainably. And indeed, by working with the pull system (first building it and then running it), the value stream manager (should he want to) could identify at every visit one specific area for improvement which would deliver on-time delivery and reduce inventory.

At the plant level, the sensei and the plant manager spelled out a “north star”, a list of dimensions which needed to be improved day in, day out, in order not only to deliver results right now, but also to ensure the future existence of the plant, and its flourishing. These dimensions ranged from the obvious operational issues of safety, quality and lead-time, to cooperation with engineering, machine maintenance, developing technical expertise in specific areas, growing people, working with suppliers and so on.

On each of these dimensions, the sensei helped the plant manager to set in place an improvement process (for instance, what would be the improvement process for better working with engineers? In this specific case, the first step was creating full-size cardboard cutout cells of new projects to collaborate before the machines were finalized). And within each improvement process, the discussion at every visit was about which necessary improvement came out of the process and whether this improvement would deliver results both right now and for the future.

In the end, the resulting lean program had nothing in common with the frequent “apply the roadmap” approach. It could be summarized on a couple of A4 sheets in four columns: Area for improvement – improvement process – specific improvement topic – did it work or not?

The fun part is the sensei really doesn’t know what shape these improvement processes will take – it completely depends of the organization and the personalities involved – just as the sensei won’t have specific ideas about what to improve in each case. The lean program’s fundamental aim is to develop local leadership in improvement so the specific form it will take is unique, a blend of lean principles, the people in the bus and the contextual spot the company finds itself in. The only thing we do know is that if people work hard, they will deliver an order of magnitude in results. It might sound like religion, but that is what tends to happen.

I believe you’ve got to be a genius to learn math out of a textbook. We didn’t like it, but most of us learned math with a teacher who got us through the curriculum. Top athletes don’t require less coaching, but more to keep on the top of their game. Similarly, I’m certain it is possible to learn lean on one’s own through trial and error, but without a firm guiding hand, this is likely to take a while, with not much to show for it in the end. Learning IS hard, and it cannot be delegated. To sum up, the sensei’s role is to:

1)      start from the Gemba.

2)      highlight problems and show the right direction.

3)      maintain a rhythm of learning.

4)      build up the improvement process, and show good judgment on improvement ideas.

The next question tends to be: “okay, where do I find a sensei?” And to this question as well there is no easy answer. But indeed, this is the first step on the path of “real lean”, the path that leads to radical transformation and spectacular result. And the only answer I know to this question is that finding one’s sensei is the first challenging task in the lean journey.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Matthew Spielman September 7, 2010
Isn't Follow the Learner a story of improvement without a sensei?  That isn't to say their journey wouldn't have been faster if they had a sensei, but Dr. Bahri's practice has been successful.  I often wonder how senseis skip to new areas--from the shop floor to the back office, or to healthcare.  Is this leap something that makes experience a handicap?  Or, at least, something that neutralizes experience because of the different environment?
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