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Does being “sensei-ed” show respect for people?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

If lean is based on respect for people, why are sensei Gemba visits reputed to be so tough?

Difficult question – partly because precisely, lean is based on respect. What do we mean by “respect”? First, making all our efforts to understand the other person’s perspective from their experience. Second, make sure they can work safely and without harassment. Third, commit to their development in order to support their success. But what if the person is fixated on an attitude that we believe will ensure failure?

A sensei is a finger pointing at muri, mura, muda to try to make people see the next area of self-development. Senseis don’t tell you how to solve a problem. They show you areas where they see problems they believe will help you grow. They can also teach you a tool to explore this problem area for yourself. A sensei will say, for instance, try stopping at every defect on the line for a couple of hours and see what happens. Or try one-piece flow exactly (not three-piece flow) for a shift, and see what happens. Try reducing a batch by half. Try letting a team organize their work area by practicing 5S and so on. The sensei is not telling you what to do. He is telling you how to explore your problem in the lean tradition.

The assumption, however, is that the manager being “sensei-ed” accepts the premises that (1) the sensei has something valid to show them and that (2) by following the sensei’s exercise they will learn something valuable for themselves that will improve performance. These assumptions are not always shared.

Angry at Being “sensei-ed”

Recently, the COO of a large industrial company and his lean sensei did a gemba walk in a plant run by an excellent fire-fighter. The COO’s perception was that the plant manager had done an excellent job of getting the plant in some form or shape, but it was still a poor performer (no longer a disaster, but still at the bottom of the list) and more was needed. During the gemba visit they pointed out a few obvious problems such as safety (electrical equipment open because the ventilation fan was broken), quality (quarantined products still not inspected after several weeks), batching, and poor maintenance of some critical equipment.

The plant manager explained his difficulties and did not question the fact that what was pointed out was, indeed, a problem – no difficulties there.

However, during the debrief, he would not accept any share of responsibility for any of the problems that had been spotted. The safety issue was due to a fan replacement order sent but not signed by higher management due to cost. The quality issue resulted from the engineering department (not under his remit) who would not come and look at the faulty products. Batching was essential to protect throughput because the poor state of the equipment would not tolerate one-piece flow. Maintenance was impossible on his tight budget and with the maintenance crew he had, and so on.

The COO tried to explain that what was expected of him was to learn to better work with others (corporate, engineering, maintenance, etc.) rather than constantly assign blame, which was, by now, being echoed by his own teams and worsening the reputation of the site. But the manager just got angrier and angrier, blamed the sensei for his arrogance and ignorance and lack of respect for his heroic efforts at saving the plant and … left the room slamming the door.

Then what? I don’t know. Not all sensei visits are tough. Most I’ve witnessed are uncomfortable, but also very interesting and exciting. Still, the fact remains that the job of the sensei is to point at what you’re not looking at, and every human being tends to resist seeing things from another perspective or looks at things previously ignored. That’s why lean is so insistent on a “problems first” attitude (refraining from shooting the carrier of bad news even though you really feel like it). It is precisely because lean respects the person’s experience and perspective that people are not ordered to simply do things, but shown in the hope that they’ll grapple with this developmental zone and come up with a new way of doing things. Yet, let’s face it, this learning process is never easy:

  • Problem facing: First, you have to accept there is a problem where you sees none (it’s happened to me a number of times, and it’s never pleasant to be shown you’re completely missing a trick).
  • Problem framing: Then, you have to challenge the way you think about a problem and to explore a different calculation (try to explain one-piece flow to someone used to batching).
  • Problem solving: Now comes all the hard work of solving a new problem without additional resources, and by stumbling in the dark until you finally get a handle on the issue.

Respect and Refusing to Learn

Some people get problem finding; enjoying discovering new problems as learning opportunities, realizing there are always new perspectives to any situation (the elephant we’re exploring blindfolded is not just a trunk, a leg, a belly, but also tusks, ear, tail, etc.). They actually enjoy learning and the feeling of increased mastery. Others will never get it. This doesn’t mean they’re bad workers – they’ll get what they know done – but it certainly creates a leadership problem in a lean context.

Really, the question is: how do you respect someone who refuses to learn in a lean environment? If we are committed to helping people succeed that means reducing the scope of what they are asked until they’re in their comfort zone – but I doubt they see this as success. No easy answers, and to be honest I don’t know for sure. I have no doubt that (1) respect-for-people is a clear commitment in lean thinking and that (2) lean starts with each person’s individual commitment to self-development. When these two assumptions collide, things do get tough, and I don’t have any general answer other than try to deal with the situation case by case making the best effort to be respectful even though it is unlikely there’ll be a satisfactory outcome in the end.

9 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt August 17, 2015

Thanks Michael.

I have found that the Sensei Gemba walks become far more effective in teaching when the walks transform from "Uh oh" moments to "Aha" moments.

Mohan Boovaragan August 18, 2015

Excellant Article Mike..I fully agree with you..Not all sensei visits are tough...great thoughts!!


Gary Sheehan August 20, 2015

Is there a point in time when we agree that the current practice around this problem is not working?  The statement "what do you do with a manager or leader who refuses to learn" is somewhat telling.   Is this really the problem or is that a symptom of a root cause that we are refusing to recognize?   Michael's response of "No easy answers and I don't know for sure" should tell us as a lean community that we have a problem to solve and none of the current practice or state of knowledge is producing the results we need.   I know that this is the biggest problem my organization is faced wtih.  I also know that its not as simple as a refusal to learn.  I think its a far more complicated collection of obstacles that they are faced with.  If we start with respect for people we have to accept this and find new and easier ways for them to act,  to achieve success and thus learn instead of insisting that they learn first and experience only failure on that journey.

Michael Balle August 22, 2015

Thank you for your comments,


To tell the truth, in my experience, such debates occur early in the relationship. When things click, this disappears are relationship build up and people get more comfortable with the exercise.

Sensei skill is also an important dimension, not in terms of being "nicer" but in terms of bine spot on on the things pointed at. All in all, it is a matter of mutual trust and, obviously, in the early days it has to be earned by both parties.

In this game, some go in open minded, and some are defensive from the get go - but still change their mind after thinking about it. I suspect that defensiveness after several sessions is the tip of the iceberg that hides deeper issues, often all the way to the power structure or ambiguous stances by CEO and so on.


Life at the front! It's always messy, but never a dull moment.

Steve McGee August 23, 2015

In my experience, resistance is an education problem.

The person doesn't understand something - for example, the intention of the gemba analysis, or the expectations for how the manager might 'work better with others'.  

My assumption (which I'd test) is that the manager is unaware of how the lean folks think all of this works.  He probably imagines scenarios where going to the other managers to get help will turn out badly.

Education problems can be resolved with training or coaching.  Coaching would seem appropriate for the example in the post.  Training would work, in my opinion, well if it were built-in to a procedural training of some sort.  For example, a sample script or template for addressing an issue in 'my department' that can only be resolved by 'someone else's department'.

Vitezslav Pilmaier August 25, 2015

Very good article - once again I had to think about our sensei and our relation. I think there is a bit more we could add:

- the difference of expectations - I have been trained in "deffend the position" style audits (corporate, ISO, customers, local authorities...), and when sensei came I have "entrenched" myself and, of course, it ended with conflict (my personal observation since these days: entrenched people are not open to anything) 

- the difference of respect - the Lean principle is respect for people, but the people tend to build emotional connections to things, that, well, very often even do not deserve any respect. I have fallen to this pit with our sensei too - I have been too proud to something (that was my baby), that actually and honestly was, well, at least silly, but probably stupid (my personal observation since these days: people have to first loose the emotional connection to things before they can change them)

- the difference of time (or relation level) - after some years we have built up a very mutually respectfull relationship with our sensei and later (when he was to retire) he told us, that the Gemba visits should be tough from the start as it serves to sort the "willing" from "unwilling". And consequently ti saves time (and nerves) of the sensei to avoid wasting the time on "unwilling" (my personal observation since these days: there always will be "unwilling", we can respect them as individuals, but their individual unwillingness is a disrepect of the team) 

Nicolas Stampf August 28, 2015

Also I agree with the article (Michael as a sensei knows better than anyone else, of course!), I'm a bit puzzled by the way the problem is stated (people refusing to learn).

Although they do exist managers refusing to learn, what I mostly see are managers trapped learned helplessness (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness) coming from various sources: their own experience of course, but also peer-pressure from other managers (same level, upper, lower/subordinates) that would pressure not to change anything for fear of the resulting situation worsening.

And indeed, when you don't have enough resources to engage in kaizen, and the more you invest time in thinking for a solution (what is asked from the sensei), the less this is time for firefighting... then it's tough job.

As already said elsewhere, it's a leap of faith to embrace the kaizen culture and well, let the least important burn to ashes while you try to save the most important things. And what's important in the eye of a COO might not be the same as in the eye of a sensei, who knows how things usually turn out on a much longer term.

I don't remember if there are dynamic system models on this deadlocked situation, Michael in your book Managing with Systems Thinking, but I surely sense the system negatively feeding back onto its managers. (http://www.amazon.fr/Managing-With-Systems-Thinking-Dynamics/dp/0077079515)

Now, that being said, provided we create a systems dynamics model of such a situation, the question's still open: where's the leverage point? Undercover question is: does senseis fingerpointing waste is the most effective (ie, quick) method?o

I know you already answered that question in some of your book ("don't bother explaining to people because they will just argue back, just tell and wait for people to do... or leave") but that issue still isn't resolved it seems ;)

Michael Balle August 29, 2015

Good points; In practice, this is much simpler. The sensei's job is like a sports coach, and as such not easy at all but quite straightforward.

the sensei needs a model of what are the factors to improve performance. These factors show up in the way standard work is done, in the form of concrete work elements. the sensei needs to:

- look at work, job by job

- see what goes well and what not so much (capability)

- translate it in terms of basic skills (competence)

- narrow down to ONE skill that can be developed

- think of a concrete exercise that the person can do everyday both to discover their own lack of technique and learn to correct what they currently do.

So far so good, never easy, but clear enough. In a healthy sensei-learner situation, the learner will agree to do the exercise (he or she is free to grumble and bitch about it as much they want, it goes with the territory). If the exercise is well designed, the insights they will gather from DOING will turn them around very quickly.

For instance, I know someone who's done last week their first trade-off curve (after months of dragging their feet), and they were immediately blown away and super enthusiastic, and now need to do several before they grasp the full implications of the tool.

But others plain refuse to do the exercise. They ask for either more convincing and explanations (tell me again why should I do this?) or flat refuse (I don't have time for this). This is an outright refusal to learn, and back to the column - how do we deal respectfully with someone who won't make the learning-by-doing step, either staying in the "talk" phase, or getting all defensive and, in the end not doing. This is where the real conundrum is.

In practice, again, not such a big problem for the sensei as there are enoguh people who want to learn to ignore those who don't and move on, but for the executive, this creates real headaches as when learning is unevern across an area, so are the results - it is a system.

Nate October 2, 2015

Interesting article.  My question would be what support or advice did the COO offer once he identified the problems?  Saying that what was expected of the manager is to work with others is (in the manger's ears) placing blame on the manager and absolving all others.  If he is facing issues with departments he has no direct influence over (engineering, higher management, etc.) then shouldn't the COO look for ways to help or coach the manager through the problems?  This could be direct involvement on the COO's part or he could suggest another person in higher management that would be able to support this manager.  The plant manager is already under pressure to support and improve the plant.  The approach of the sensei can either lead the plant manger to improvement or apply further pressure on a stressed employee.

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