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What's the difference between a sensei and a consultant?

Michael Ballé
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Is there a difference between a sensei and a consultant? Beyond the way they market themselves, don’t they do the same thing?

There is a fundamental difference between a sensei and a consultant, but you’re right, it’s hard to tell simply because there are so many consultants and so few sensei and, as you note, many consultants position themselves as sensei – adding to the confusion.

Consulting was born of Taylorism. Frederick Taylor set himself up as a “consulting engineer” and his method of “scientific management” was taken up by many others at the turn of the 20th century, eventually creating a full blown management consultancy industry.

Consultants are hired to improve efficiency. They solve a closed problem: the problem is known, the method is known, and although the specifics of the solution are not yet known, it is known there is a solution, which will eventually be found, and the shape of the solution is known.

Typically, a consultant will look at a production or delivery process, and measure it’s productivity – whether as output per worker, as in traditional Taylorism, or as value-adding time divided by total lead-time, as in “lean” – and show the potential gain in efficiency.

The consultant will them map out the process, whether on his/her own, or with a team of representatives from the process (managers and a few workers), and highlight the main causes of inefficiency, mostly “variation” that appears because of differences in the way people work.

The consultant will then sketch out a “future-state” process that will then be fleshed out by the study team, who will then produce an action plan to implement this future state.

Some consultants check out there, others stay a bit longer to support the execution of the plan, mostly by enforcing the discipline on work teams of actually doing what was planned until results are forthcoming.

Unless the teams revolt and rise up in arms, this always works because any process’ efficiency can indeed be improved this way. Unfortunately, these results are seldom sustainable because this method solves existing problems but not the ones that will appear when the new process hits daily reality. Since the people who manage and do the work themselves have not been trained in depth to solve their own problems (beyond the lip-service to problem solving), as new, unexpected issues appear, the new process soon starts faltering and eventually efficiency will return back to its original position, sometimes a little better, sometimes a little worse.

The transaction between the consultant and the client is about the consultant showing the client (1) the improvement potential, and (2) proving it can be achieved on a pilot project. Sometimes, it includes (3) training teams in problem solving, but this is unavoidably sketchier. Not sustained results are therefore the client’s problem as they have failed to have the discipline or will to maintain execution discipline.

This method is very attractive because of quick gratification – results are almost always forthcoming in a matter of weeks – and scalability – it can be taught to junior consultants or internal consultants, and rolled out to a large number of teams following similar processes. The downside, of course, is that it is something of a scam. Firstly, if you add the consultants in the efficiency measures, you’ve not progressed that much because, yes, the output is higher, but so is the spot management resource.

Secondly, unless you have a process similar enough to have the exact same operational issues across different teams/locations, when you start rolling it out, you will hit unexpected snags and falter. Still, it sometimes works, and it feeds the wishful thinking machine for management – the dream that complex problems can have simple solutions, and that all you need is a hammer because if you treat everything as a nail, all will turn out well.

Completely Different

Senseis do something else altogether. Senseis do not sell their wares; clients come to them to solve open problems – problems hard to define without a known solution or indeed, maybe no solution at all. A sensei will help with, for instance, where to focus effort to improve perceived quality on a product. This is an open problem because if you get it right, you spend money on the right issues, improve quality in a way that touches customers, and increase sales of your product or service. If you don’t, you can expend a lot of effort on something that won’t pay back, or worse, if you bungle it, you can actually lower the product’s value in the customer’s eyes (think, for instance, of purchasing “efficiency” by choosing the lowest cost suppliers, irrespective of quality or delivery, and inadvertently demolishing customers’ perception of quality or service).

Faced with an open problem, the sensei will get you to explore the issue by tackling a number of smaller, closed, problems. Let’s investigate this customer complaint by asking why five times? Let’s understand why this part of the delivery process is often late because of so much rework? Let’s draw a functional architecture of the product or service to see how various parts affect each other? Let’s spend a lot of time on the shop floor to observe how operators deal with tricky production processes? And so on.

The sensei is not solving the problem per se. He or she is creating dots (visualizing or materializing to be more specific) for the client to connect. The sensei doesn’t teach you to work better. He or she asks the question “what does working better mean in your circumstances?”

To be able to do so, the sensei needs an enormous amount of knowledge to be able to focus attention on “teachable points.” In a complex, messy and often charged situation, a good sensei will point the client towards specific exercises to investigate the specific aspects of the process that, when better understood, trigger the “aha!” needed to improve. On the other hand, if the sensei points to the wrong problems, he or she is adding confusion to an already messy situation and further distracting the client with red herrings that lead nowhere. Contrarily to the consulting situation that tackles closed problems and will always, eventually, find an efficiency solution, sensei work is much higher risk, and so demands a much higher commitment to deep knowledge.

Senseis don’t ask questions in a Socratic, open thinking way. They ask questions for the client to figure out some rather specific aspects of the problem they’re facing together, and learn to come up with their own solutions (solutions the sensei already has a few hypotheses about, but will not say them out loud).

Sensei-ing is clearly more powerful and useful to the company than consulting. For one thing, the impact on the business trajectory is much larger and for another, clients being sensei’d learn how to solve their own problems in a wide variety of situations, so they rarely revert to not-knowing when a new problem arises.

However, sensei-ing is a very impractical method. It is difficult to teach as the depth of knowledge needed is often embedded in an oral tradition that can only be taught from sensei to student. Sensei-ing is about judgment and experience as much as method (my personal way of understanding senseis is counting the degrees of separation with Taiichi Ohno, to understand which specific lean tradition they’re part of ). It is also difficult to scale because real sensei are few. It takes about 10 years to train one, and not every manager is receptive to this approach. You can’t force sensei-ing on someone, they have to come seeking the knowledge by themselves.

Rebranded Lean

One of the most frustrating aspects of lean is that I have, so far, not yet seen firsthand a true lean transformation without a senior manager working with a sensei. I keep hoping it’s possible because this would mean that it’s possible to open up the bottleneck created by lack of sensei availability. On the other hand, few managers truly seek to challenge themselves with deep lean thinking. Most are happy to satisfice with consultancy rebranded as “lean.” All in all, the world keeps turning happily round and round. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose (excuse my French).

In any case, consultants and senseis are two very different breeds of coaches, as one tackles closed problems with a rigid method and the other helps you to face open problems by leveraging your own experience and common sense with their experience and judgment. Both have their uses in different situations, and the trick is to learn when to use which.

9 Comments | Post a Comment
TC Goong October 31, 2016

I am hiring as a consultant and act as sensei. And my client set up the Lean team which leader is CRM director and the team member has manager to shopfloor staff. We have 1 project successfuly and another one is only 70% and another one is less than 50% achievement. However, I think to apply Lean Thinking and created Lean System in a sustaining way, it's need time with truly understanding and it have to look for big picture and long lift time of organisation growth, it's like a business plan that you have to have short, middle and long term plan. Therefore some can do immediatly, some take times and some take very long time. We just have to know where we are and where we want to be.

Nick W. November 1, 2016

Pretty divisive piece, which paints consultants with a broad brush in a not too desirable shade. Having been a consultant and having worked with consultants, the line isn't as thin as you suggest. There are many consultants who go to work on a closed loop problem with a defined method, but take a coaching role to simultaneously work on the soft skills and underlying organizational behaviors that build a more sustainable solution. And to paint problem solving training as an enhancement of the "scam?" Examples of this type of "good" consultant would be those I've worked with recently who are contracted through the very organization promoting this article. Remember, Lean, Consultant and even Sensei are terms that have many various interpretations and to so forcefully place them in a box is not productive or helpful to the greater cause, in my opinion. "Sensei-ing is clearly more powerful and useful to the company than consulting." Really? 

Katie Anderson November 3, 2016

Michael - I appreciate your effort to distinguish between two types of ways that someone in the role of "coach"/"sensei"/"consultant" can show up in service to supporting the development of an organization filled with problem solvers. However, I disagree somewhat with the langague and description you put forth.

One framework that provides another way to think about this topic is the one Edgar Schein put forward in his book "Helping". There are three roles that he found that people play in organizations in service to "helping": 1) "expert" - someone who has deep expertise and who ultimately ends up owning the problem (this is the model of consultant that you describe here, but certainly isn't the only model of consulant"). 2) "doctor" - someone who diagnoses and presribes a solution. They try not to own the problem, but often do. 3) "process consultant" - someone who coaches and keeps the problem ownership with the person the process consultant is helping (the "sensei" in your description). I've worked with many consultants who stay in the "process consultant" model and I've worked with "senseis" who think they are the experts who have the answers. The title is not what is important, but the intention and the behavior of the "helper".

I agree completely that all senior managers need to work with a coach (be that person called a "sensei" or "consultant") - someone who is going to help support him or her develop skills to develop the capability in others for problem solving.

Michael Ballé November 3, 2016

Katie - the difficulty in describing something new is not to bring it back to existing labels. If sensei was the same as expert, coach, doctor or consultant, I'd happily be using those terms.

I've been working for the past five years with a group of retired executives who used to practice lean in their jobs (with a sensei) and are now sensei-ing other execs, and we're trying to figure out how sensei is specifically different. Attitude and intent do matter (we haven't found a way to replicate this to make big bucks, for instance ;^), but not only attitude. 

What we've found is:

1) a sensei must be committed first to their own continued learning of TPS, and teaching it to others is a by-product of that personal quest;

2) a sensei must be taught by a sensei, in a tradition that goes back to the original TPS group at Toyota, because there's so much implicit knowledge in the tool interpretation you can't learn this stufff from books and, as we all know from painful personal knowledge, we learn it wrong when we learn it on our own.

3) a sensei must also understand the business langauge of finance and what goes on on the business chessboard to be able to see the bigger picture (not necessarily to advise (never) or to approve (hardly), but to get it).

4) as sensei's success is seen by their deshi's promotion - either growing the value of the company when they're a CEO either getting promoted when they work within a corporate group

The distinction mostly lies in the commitment to learn all the learning structures of TPS as opposed to narrow it down to the one issue we've figured out and replicate it. For instance, it became progressively very clear to me that I couldn't understand what Toyota did on the manufacturing shop floor until I started to see more clearly product design choices and engineering processes, and so on.

This also means we have no clear way of tackling the sensei-bottleneck: true senseis remain rare and difficult to work with. So far, I've not seen any successful sensei-making process in all the various atempts I've seen.

I'm getting a surprising amount of pushack on this piece - I can't even remember writing it or what prompted it, but the deeper difficulty here is to continue to define the language of lean in ways that highlights how this is a new way of thinking rather than assimilate it back to tired old descriptions of how we used to work in the past.

So, no, the sensei is not a coach - at least not in the process consultant sense, yes, more in the sports coach sense. Certainly not a process consultant. In my experience the sensei is someone who points at specific things to explore and demonstrates the lean alternative way to think about some issues. But the sensei also has to know a lot about the industry and its dynamics, because truly, sensei discussion are far more equal to equal than psychanalytical. Content matters, always.

I agree with you that titles don't matter much - but we can't dismiss labels. My intent in discussing the distinction between sensei and consultant is exactly that, clarifying a new label, for a new activity that is ubiquitous in the lean literature (I've yet to see a true lean turnaround without a sensei involved - which is a huge problem in itself) that remains vague and myth-shrouded. I believe sensei are fully part of the lean puzzle, and it's our job to clarify that part - regardless of how many people seem to want it to reduce it to stuff we already know :^)


Kelly November 4, 2016

I like that this article makes us think deeply about the lean transformation.  I was a consultant for many years and the approach I took with companies was as a coach.  I would always engage all levels of the company and work with the production employees as problem solvers. 

Most companies would give me the back door policy.  Which is they literally give me a key to for the employee entrance and I would should up unannounced and coach/visit the team.  I never charged for this as I felt it was my obligation of teaching forward. 

So Yes I was a consultant, but I was not in it to get rich, my reward was seeing the transformation and Ah Ha moments when they would solve issues.  Also I strived to make it a complete transformation not just on the shop floor but all aspect of their business.  This was attainable since most companies I worked with were less than 300 employees.

sid joynson November 7, 2016

The star sensei leads their students to an understanding of the subject where the student can shine. Star consultants demonstrate their own brightness. The ultimate sensei teaches their clients how to consult and engage the brilliance of all their own people. The master can open the door, but the student must go through themselves. Zen saying.

Katie Anderson November 10, 2016

Michael - thanks for sharing your additional thinking about the uniqueness of the role of sensei. I'm curious to why you say "the sensei is not a coach - at least not in the process consultant sense", based on my earlier comments. Schein's point about the role he labeled "process consultant" is that the *ownership* of the problem remains with the problem solver/client/learner.  I see this as directly the role of a good sensei and a good sports coach. He or she is there to help the client/deshi see issues or point out opportunities, and even at times teach how to do something correctly, but allows room for the client/deshi to learn and discover. The client/deshi must be allowed to fail. If the sensei always gives the answer, the learning is limited. 

Subrata Das November 11, 2016

There is a huge difference between the two.

You pay a Consultant to TELL you what is Wrong and what is Right.

But you pay a Sensei to TEACH you how to recognize Right from Wrong so that you continue to do that when the Sensei is long gone.


Albert Firster November 13, 2016

This is the first article I have read since I joined some months ago.  I purchased a template you offered and just left it at that - what a mistake.  This really srtuck a chord with me !  Kind of like the light went on in some respects of my lean journey to date !  The more I learn the more I know I don't know.  Thank you for one hell of an article and well written.  Really hope I get to meet you some day.  I'll be spending a lot of time here reading catching up.

Take care

Al Firster