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My boss has asked me to take on the sensei role for the company. What does that mean?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How do I become a sensei? My boss has asked me to act in the sensei role for the company but I’m not sure what that means – any advice?

Interesting question. “sensei” is indeed one of the remaining mysteries of lean. I’m not sure it’s a role. As I understand it, the Japanese term originally was more a mark of respect towards a teacher -– no person would call themselves sensei, but students might call their teacher sensei, literally “a person who has come before another.” Yet, it is a fact that, particularly in the U.S., sensei is becoming a role. Some consultants are defining themselves as sensei, and some companies are even advertising for the role. Tricky.

What do senseis do? When he was CEO of an automotive supplier, my father had a sensei. Mr. Nampachi Hayashi was a senior executive in Toyota, a TPS expert, who had worked for Taiichi Ohno. He would come every couple of months and visit plants with Freddy. He would essentially walk the plant and point to things making (often cryptic) remarks, check kaizen efforts, and then offer brief feedback and explain (sketchily) a point or other.

Freddy and his team would then scratch their heads trying to figure out what he meant. One time, for instance, during the plant tour, the sensei turned to the plant manager and asked him “what are you paid for?” As you can imagine, this created something of a stir. It took a good long while to figure out that the plant’s manager main job was to create a visual environment where everyone could distinguish at one glance normal from abnormal. The sensei never said so directly –- this was the team’s interpretation after much soul searching and practical experimentation.

The Toyota sensei was supported by a Toyota consultant who helped the company use the tools properly. In the early days, we all thought it was all about the tools to get productivity: squeeze the lemon, get the juice. Over the years we realized we had it completely the wrong way around. The shop floor consultant’s role was to use the tools locally to do what became known as “model lines” to create a teaching place for Freddy, the CEO. The idea worked this way – the sensei would NOT explain but would SHOW, so he needed areas where the difference between a “lean” cell and the rest of the plant was stark enough even dumb gaijin could see it. The shop floor consultant was not there to provide direct results, but to demonstrate the tools –- results were the ultimate proof that the tools worked.

At first, of course, Freddy thought that by simply replicating the tools across his plants he’d leverage those results, but soon realized this worked rather randomly. After a couple of years he figured out he needed to be the sensei for his plant managers. At the time he ran 50 or so plants around the world and would visit each plant once a year (a logistical challenge). In these visits, he’d (1) look at the plant key indicators and ask about the plant’s main challenge, (2) walk the plant and look at the kaizen efforts, (3) check the plant’s budget with the site manager to see whether resources where being allocated to the correct problems in his opinion. Freddy has been retired for 15 years now, but I still meet people who remember these visits … very well.

Hit-and-Run Workshops

The fact is that spreading lean through kaizen blitzes is a western approach. In Japan, as far as I can understand the history of it, lean first spread internally around Taiichi Ohno’s department and then others, and then to the supply chain through the senior officers. I guess it helped that Toyota was both a major client and often a minor shareholder, but basically, the word got around that if you wanted to work with Toyota you had to apply this just-in-time stuff, and that if you asked nicely and showed commitment they would teach you how –- from the top.

For practical reasons (Japanese consultants coming to the US in short trips), the lean revolution started with the kaizen hit-and-run workshops, which gave lean a very different trajectory. The sensei, in this sense, is the person that helps the CEO draw the right conclusions from the kaizen efforts and to face the company’s challenges. When the CEO changes her mind, the company changes trajectory.

What practical tips could help you to get into this role?

First, find your own sensei. I’ve yet to meet someone who understood lean thinking on their own. A large part of the sensei’s value is in knowing the lean tradition and thus knowing how the lean principles apply differently in different settings. I can’t count the times when I applied what I thought was the correct lean principle in a given situation only to have my father point out something I’d not seen and explain that, in this case, it applied completely the other way around –- leaving me to tell the team we had to pull everything down and try again.

Very recently, I visited a plant where they’d done what I’d suggested and created a leveling box to pull product through the plant … for the week (one column per day). Later I had to explain that if we don’t pull at least every hour, we’re not pulling at all -– and that we need to optimize flow, not make it easy for logistics. That sort of detailed situation-based knowledge is impossible to discover on your own and must be taught. My personal rule of thumb for senseis is their own tradition: how many degrees of separation with Taiichi Ohno? The heart of the matter is that you need to keep learning about the tools no matter how proficient you think you already are.

Second, pitch for a full day a month on the Gemba with your CEO. That’s the deal. If the CEO isn’t willing to commit, don’t take the job. The day a month is essential technically, because this is the opportunity to teach lean to the CEO by showing her the practical difference between anti-lean, not-so-lean, leaner and very lean so that she understands better how she is running her company – this is described in detail in our latest book Lead With Respect. But also, politically, privileged access to the CEO once a month in a very visible way will give you much greater clout and will make many of your battles to get things moving a lot easier – and I mean A LOT. A day a month Gemba visit is the make-or-break issue.

Thirdly, set up an obeya. A key skill in playing the sensei role is to:

  1. Formulate business challenges in terms of quality, lead-time, productivity and morale. This in itself establishes a lean framework around vague business problems.
  2. Make sure the line is involved in solving problems rather than staff department coming up with new ways to control the shop floor (audits, kaizen programs, etc.) without having responsibility for bottom-line results;
  3. Focus on problems small enough so that the people themselves can resolve them practically.
  4. Show the CEO how the detailed kaizen relates to the larger issues –- and how people’s shop floor initiatives could open up much larger opportunities.

The “See” Level

One of the most interesting constraints one has as a “sensei” is not being permitted to explain (I have to say, I fail all the time – I find myself explaining this or that) but, ideally, being only allowed to demonstrate.

This is the crux of the job. You need to set up clear areas for kaizen efforts as well as a pull system to string them together and give yourself an architecture for kaizen, and then take the CEO there to make them see:

  1. How most of the obstacles to flow and productivity come from policies or decisions they themselves instigated at some point for very valid reasons. For instance, I can think of one CEO of an engineering company who had completely externalized all production. From visiting suppliers and engineering, he realized that this decision did not allow for any VA/VE efforts and actually hindered the improvement of products, and so he started to produce some in-house. He then realized that by producing in-house with a lean approach he was an order of magnitude cheaper that his supplier could ever be: the company’s strategy changed progressively from the Gemba visits.
  2. How people’s initiatives to solve problems can open up new initiatives for business development. For instance, through regular Gemba visits, one COO realized that most new products did not sell (plenty of them in the inventory), because they were essentially a reflection of what engineering thought would be best by customers. However, learning from shop floor kaizen effort, they then focused on designing a new product with the same functionalities but better and lighter, which the market took up right away.

The difficulty is therefore not to make points by arguing with them, but by having the right kind of kaizen effort going at the Gemba and letting the CEO make up their own minds.

Fourthly, become an expert in pull systems, in order to always refine the tension between delivering just-in-time and built-in quality. I don’t know what your background is, but maybe lean promotion officers these days manage to do their job by focusing on kaizen events or A3s and without a clear idea of how to set up pull. Pull is your ticket to credibility with senior management as it brings together local problems by visualizing the overall flow. Pull absolutely needed to keep the pressure on the shop floor to highlight problems and solve them. Without pull, I doubt you can achieve any of the other points meaningfully. A pull system is never finished and it’s a great way to demonstrate that the goal of continuous improvement is …  continuous improvement.

Learn to Speak Finance

Finally, take a finance class. If you want to talk to the CEO, you need to talk their language, which is finance. If you want to help the CEO with wider business issues (and translate them in terms of quality, lead-time, productivity and morale), you need to understand the business case.

This is not something that you will have picked up on the shop floor, no matter how good you are at your job, and you need to acquire it. Learn about finance, talk to financiers, see how they see things. If you go back to the two Ohno classics Workplace Management and Toyota Production System you’ll find many pages on the situation of the automotive industry in Japan and what kind of financial decisions companies can make. People often skip over this in search for “lean” explanations, but, to me, what this demonstrate is Ohno’s deep grasp of the company’s business problems at the time and his search for a different kind of industrial solution. You can’t have the latter without the former. Take the class.

I doubt there even is a proper job definition for what it means to be a “sensei”, but my hunch would be to start by applying lean principles to yourself and define a development plan: what are your own skill gaps and how do you intend to develop yourself (no one will help you there unless you find your own sensei). I’ve shared a few pointers from my own experience, hopefully that can help, but I have no idea whether this kind of experienced can be generalized. I’d be very eager to hear how you’re doing with this one. If we could clarify the sensei issue in the lean movement, we would definitely have kaizened ourselves!

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Christopher Mahan October 28, 2014

The best way to teach is by example.

Do your everyday work following the system you want others to emulate, and deliver awesome results.

People will want to emulate you.

Then you'll be a sensei.

Vitezslav Pilmaier October 29, 2014
This is a very good article - a lot of things to think abou definitivelly. What I can add is just my personal experience - it was hard with sensei, but now it is much harder without sensei (our sensei has retired), because we have found, that for the shopfloor people we (as kaizen & quality officers) must be able to replicate sensei work, but we do really struggle as we do not have any sensei to replicate it from...
Daniel Breston October 30, 2014
Applying lean to yourself and creating a development plan is probably the hardesdt thing I have ever done.  Not sure I have it right but it is fun trying (PDCA yoursefl).  As for asking management to let me walk the walk with them, well they were surprised when I said I was gone if this was not possible.  Not sure if they were more embarrassed that they do not do this already or that I had to show the CIO were the Service Desk is.  Thank you Michael!
Jon Miller October 31, 2014
Why did the boss want you to act in a sensei role?
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