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Role of the Sensei

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Isn't Follow the Learner a story of improvement without a sensei? That isn't to say the journey described wouldn't have been faster with 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?

This is an interesting and important that question I get asked often. I believe that sensei questions are critical to understanding lean practice because I see “lean” essentially as a learning method (in which people use the discipline of eliminating waste systematically as a way to learn more about products, processes, people and how to make them work). Consequently, the teacher/student relationship is a core dimension of lean. Now, while determined individuals can learn mathematics or Tai Chi on their own, through trial and error, there’s no question that having a sensei helps enormously. In fact, when you look at high-performance individuals in any activity from sports to business, I believe you will find that the more advanced the student is, the more coaching they get – not the less.

How does this work at the Gemba? To dig deeper I asked this question of John Bouthillon, the CEO of a family-owned construction company, who I know. He made the leap from book learning to working with a sensei, and when he picked a sensei he chose one without any previous experience in his particular industry. Here are his thoughts:

“I have been working with a sensei for almost three years now, in an area he didn't know at all. I was looking for a sensei whose expertise was in lean itself, as opposed to my particular business, since I believe that Lean can be applied to any field of activity. In other words, I was looking for a Lean sensei, not for a Lean Construction sensei.

If you are looking for someone who can change your company, you should pick someone who knows your company's business. But, if you are looking for someone who can help you change your company yourself, then I would recommend finding a specialist in change and in people, a personal teacher (a better definition of a sensei).

This type of experienced sensei can help you understand how change can be made, how it can be made faster by raising your understanding of Lean. The faster you go and succeed, the better the sensei.

This sensei will:

  • teach you to see and understand your problems before (and instead of) imposing solutions. He will push you to ask if you are working on the right issues .
  • teach you to learn from your experience (PDCA). The question here is: What does a decision I make mean? What hypothesis am I testing? How can I do the "Check" ?
  • teach you to change your behavior, to act in the same manner that you speak and believe  (put customers first, go to the Gemba, practice 5 whys - not 5 whos, respect people...)
  • do all this as fast as you can do it well (challenge).

I believe that the more experienced the sensei, the higher the chances of success. It might even be that by changing areas the sensei has to go back to basics, must avoid shortcuts and gains more experience than by staying in the same business he knows. But this is pure speculation, because I am not a sensei...”

I recently visited a company that is trying to do lean without a sensei. Although they are doing good work they still encounter the usual problems that plague many lean efforts. Workshops improve the local situation spectacularly but (1) the improvements rarely last and (2) they don’t generalize to the point where it has an impact on the budget. In this respect, companies often make two typical errors in their approach to lean:

  1. They see it as a stabilization tool – trying to standardize and rigidify every process – and miss the fact that it’s essentially a dynamic approach, which brings standardization as a result of problem solving, not the other way around. Lean is indeed about learning to change: a change directed towards a lean ideal and not a random walk, and a gradual small step by small step change rather than break and rebuild, but rapid and constant change nonetheless.
  2. They adapt the lean tool to their situation and pull its teeth out. Clearly, some adaptation of the tools is necessary (for instance, to construction as opposed to automotive or healthcare) – but this adaptation has to be very cautious. The aim is to make the company leaner, not to water down lean. Many of the tools have evolved through half a century of lean experience and are the way they are for specific reasons. Local adaptations are often nothing more than workarounds – something in the tool was too hard to implement (the learning point), so the tool was changed so that it could be implemented, but now without the learning benefit.

Getting Better
How does a lean system work? First you implement a tool, which will not do much in itself other than reveal a problem. Second, the people who run the process figure out how to solve the problem. Third, you either (a) use the same tool again more rigorously to visualize more of the fundamental problem or (b) you implement a second tool to attack another issue. Four, people learn to solve problems more rigorously, using PDCA, and so on.

As the lean work progresses, on the one hand a “system” starts appearing: interrelated tools which, altogether, create the learning system (or the business system) and, on the other, people get better and better at PDCA, choosing the right problems, formulating them more clearly, testing factors, seeking root cause, experimenting with alternatives, confirming solutions, sharing learning. Results become transformational not so much because the problem solving fix all that was broken in the processes, but because as each individual person gains in his or her skill to (1) visualize problems (using lean tools) and (2) solve them (mastering PDCA), their level of skill increases tremendously, which is leveraged across their entire job – and will deliver transformational results for the business.

In this context, a sensei provides value in three main ways: knowledge and understanding of the tools themselves (and their underlying principles); experience with the problem solving process; and handling of the pace of change.

The detail of the tools matter. The presentation of the production analysis board frames the question that we ask the operators. For instance, adding a column for the supervisor to “sign off” every hour says something radically different about how the company understands “respect”: it adds a control dimension that is not necessarily conducive to increasing mutual trust. Even choosing to display just the hourly target or double it by the cumulative target changes the message. To a lean novice, these debates might sound like hair splitting, but experienced sensei know just how much details in the tool itself affect its use. The tool asks a very specific question to the people in the process, a question they’ll work hard to answer. Different questions lead to different answers. If the question does not address the fundamental problem, the answers will not deliver the hoped for results.

There is now more than fifty years worth of experience with both the tools and their underlying principles. Knowledge at this level of detail is not written down, but transmitted orally, by tradition, mostly by arguing with your own sensei. When two sensei meet, onlookers often feel they are innocent bystanders in the “battle of the sensei” – what is really happening, is that the experts are sharing (not necessarily nicely, but that’s up to them) expertise at a very involved level of knowledge.

Tools only reveal problems – they still need fixing: bad parts in the red bin require understanding of what caused them. Empty shop stocks need resolution. Experience shows that solving problems correctly is far from immediate and must be learned, often the hard way. Lean practice has evolved a considerable amount of experience in the field of problem solving, from learning to look for oneself, seeking to figure out what is the right problem (and what is annoying but we can live with), testing hypotheses to focus on the right factors in complex, muddled situations, learning to ask why? Repeatedly to look for root causes, experimenting with multiple alternatives to explore the world of the possible, and confirming the results of one’s solutions (as opposed to taking it on faith). None of this is easy, and often requires determination. Learning is not particularly easy, and professional life is often rife with pressures and burning fires not very conducing to in-depth analysis.

Finally, organizational learning is rarely easy – as it combines individual learning, both at senior level and on the shop floor and collective learning as whole groups take on board kaizen projects. As John Bouthillon points out, it’s hard to maintain the rhythm and momentum of learning, particularly when the going gets tough. Dropping the issue or looking for a workaround are natural behaviors and a sensei is often key to sticking with a problem when the first or second attempts have not yielded quick benefits. Moving further in terms of lean systems implementation and “try again” in terms of following through with problem solving all the way to the root cause often require a guiding hand.

Evolutionary Learning
I have no doubt that Dr. Bahri’s practice has been successful, and it is an inspirational story – but that doesn’t change the fact that learning is easier done with a teacher, and that the transformational dimension of lean generally requires a guiding hand. Lean systems co-evolve with root cause problem solving, much as the lean learning conversation co-evolves between the sensei and the CEO. I believe this one of the key messages of Takahiro Fujimoto’s groundbreaking The Evolution Of A Manufacturing System At Toyota: the system’s strength is its evolutionary learning capability. Which is also why although the principles and tools of lean are fairly set (as a result of long evolution), no two transformations follow the same route and roadmaps are a pipe dream.

Large businesses are uncomfortable with the notion that it all rests on the specific people and that the business system is not the careful thought-out work of experts in their ivory tower, but the result of a continuous Gemba interaction between the CEO, the sensei and the shop floor teams (the fact that the system is evolved for a specific person is starkly obvious when senior executives change). To answer your question about whether the sensei needs experience in the industry, it appears that’s not the case. What is certain is that the sensei needs experience in using lean as a transformational process to help the company’s leadership to lean their firm by involving their employees in better satisfying their customers and lowering their costs – every one, every day.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Matthew Spielman October 1, 2010
Thank you for the very complete answer!  I am in IT, although my company is very far down the lean path in manufacturing & engineering.  I had been reluctant to seek someone out from those organizations due to the change in environment.  I feel better now about my odds of finding a sensei from this deep pool.