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How can I tell good lean consultants from bad?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

If lean’s not a scam – but there are scammers -- how can I distinguish good lean consultants from bad?

Oh, well, that’s easier. There are no good lean consultants.

I’m not saying there are no good consultants. Of course there are; same bell curve as in every profession -- but the very idea of consultants reflects the Taylorist mindset. Frederick Taylor himself was the first consulting engineer. He opened a consulting practice in Philadelphia in 1893.

Consultants have essentially two missions:

  • Solve a problem for you. They investigate through audits, benchmarks, analysis, to come up with a diagnostic and then recommendations, mostly in the form of a report.
  • Get productivity out of your teams. They use work improvement methodologies, essentially Taylorism, to implement more productive processes.

In both cases, consultants are used by top management to substitute for failings of middle management and get things done. This obviously, flies in the face of the basic tenet of lean of “to make products, first we have to make people.” Consulting is an extractive industry, where specialists are used to extract more value out of people and operations, whereas lean is fundamentally inclusive, showing the people themselves how to create more value while generating less waste – and sharing that extra value.

Lean does not have consultants, but a different role: “senseis.” The sensei approach to developing people is not about making them apply rules or methods, hoping they’ll assimilate them (I’m not dissing that; it has proven a very effective way to teach over centuries), but, as Yoshino-san, one of Toyota’s most revered veterans taught us recently in Japan, to create experiences for people so they get outside of their comfort zone and figure out things differently by themselves.

Yoshino-san was in charge of the fabled NUMMI experience, and told us how they chose to send American team leaders to Japan, not speaking a word of Japanese, and put them on lines with Japanese operators, not speaking a word of English, and let them both figure it out (both sides understood what was at stake). For the most part, he said, this was a transformative experience on both sides.

What about those that didn’t get it? Well, Yoshino-san suggested, always a little more patience and a little more open-mindedness.

A Sensei Approach Example

The sensei role is not to make you do this or that, or to solve your problems for you, but to point to opportunities for improvement you had not seen before. The sensei will make you see a problem that they think is important for you to solve, and watch whether you tackle it or not, and what you try or don’t, and then discuss the type of solutions you sought, encouraging some and discouraging others. (Often by giving you an exercise to practice).

The sensei points the way, but, as opposed to a consultant, does not solve your problems for you, or make you do anything.

How does this work out on the gemba? Well, I was visiting a hospital where we saw two very different experiences.

In the cardiology department, for instance, the professor in charge of the ward has been working with his team to reduce the waiting time for patients for a procedure from 24 hours to less than three. He has reduced the queue to 80% of patients in less than three hours. However, he felt that the dynamic he’d created in the team was flagging. But he also felt there wasn’t much to gain to reduce three hours to two or go beyond of 80% because of all the special cases.

The sensei discussed three possibilities for progress:

  • Reduce lead-time from three hours to two hours
  • Increase the percentage of patients under  three hours from 80% to 90%
  • Investigate morbidity in the ward (why do we lose patients?)

The professor, not unreasonably, pushed back on each of these issues feeling there was not much to gain. One the one hand, he felt the waiting queue issue had basically been solved. On the other, he felt that the morbidity issue was mainly a medical one and that since he had a top department in the matter and was referred all the more difficult cases, the numbers might make him look unfairly bad.

The sensei’s argument was that it wasn’t about gains, as about learning: what is the next step in the learning curve?

 The sensei also argued, that in lean terms, the topics are quite well defined:

  1. What would it mean for us to increase patient and staff safety?
  2. What would it mean for us to increase the quality of care?
  3. What would it mean for us to reduce lead-time by increasing flexibility?
  4. How does increasing quality and flexibility lead us to find ways to eliminate muda and reduce total cost
  5. You can’t do any of the four previous things without working closer and closer with the teams themselves.

 Respect for people is a natural consequence of trying to do challenging things – the harder it gets, the more you need the people. You can’t move forward if you don’t engage them in solving the challenge, if you don’t listen carefully to the obstacles they encounter and support them, and if you don’t share the results with them. More importantly, if you’re not determined to learn from their own discoveries, to grow even deeper teamwork in the team.

To his credit, the professor saw the logic of the learning argument and committed to reconsider his position and think more deeply about this.

Management Stand-in

In the same hospital, the sterilization unit had been using consultants to improve their turnaround times of sterile instruments to wards, and mainly the operating theater. For a while, the consultant achieved quite visible and rather spectacular results. But on yesterday’s gemba walk, a couple of months after the consultants had left, the sterilization unit was in worse shape than ever, causing supply problems all over the hospital and facing issues of burnout, conflict and all the usual healthcare dysfunctions.

I’m not suggesting the consultant did a bad job. He achieved visible results as long as he was there, substituting for local management and micro-managing issues. I’m suggesting that using a consultant is the wrong approach in this case.

Senseis (and trainers at shop-floor level) are the lean response to consultants and a very different approach.

Which begs the question, how can you tell a good sensei from a bad one? (Or, in the current situation, true senseis calling themselves  consultants from consultants calling themselves senseis, as the terminology is not settled yet).

A good sensei is one that understands there is no set process for taking good decisions. Every case has to be looked at on the merits. A good sensei also understands that you can’t ever “teach” lean to someone. You can explore with them what lean means in their situation, and discover with them where that takes you.

What Good Senseis Know

But a good sensei also knows inside-out some basic mechanisms of lean:

  • Mura leads to muri leads to muda.
  • Rework leads to quality issues and overcosts.
  • Improving flexibility with a strong focus on quality leads to reducing overall costs. Visual confusion leads to ambiguity, rework, and mistakes.
  • Not treating people as individuals (but as “resources”) and not recognizing individual efforts leads to disengagement and mindless work.
  • Without stable teams and good team leaders, kaizen can’t happen.
  • Faulty technical processes and equipment (separate human work from machine work) lead to frustration, anger, and acting out.

And so on. A good sensei is also steeped in the lean tradition and has seen these principles at work in many varied situations. Finally, pragmatically, these guys tend to be difficult, so a good sensei for you is one you get along with. It’s a journey of discovery together, so the relationship is essential!

I don’t have much advice to offer about finding the right sensei. This is part of your own learning journey. The lean community tends to know who is who. My own personal standard is counting the degrees of separation with Taichi Ohno.

Lean is not a religion, it’s a practice. Lean can’t be learned in books; it’s learning by doing. Lean studies by professors won’t teach you much.  I was persuaded by the Toyota guys I studied while perusing my PhD that if I wanted to learn this stuff, I had to get involved, personally, on the gemba.

Because lean is not something we do to someone – that’s what professors or consultants do. Lean is something we practice with someone. The real challenge is not to teach someone to apply lean in their conditions. The challenge is to discover with them what would lean mean for them in their situations and what undiscovered potential for improvement could we explore so that we continuously deepen our understanding of the job. Lean is never known, it’s always learned.


34 Comments | Post a Comment
June 19, 2017

I posted the comments below on a previous thread on the value of consultants.

ARE YOU CONSULTING THE RIGHT PEOPLE?                                                                                                      YOUR FUTURE DEPENDS UPON IT.

Many organisations employ external consultant organisations to improve their performance.      What I have found is a major force multiplier & a more certain way to ensure continuity of the improvement process, is to show clients how to consult, develop & engage the abilities* of all their own people. Our job as consultants/helpers is not to show clients how clever we are, but more importantly, to show and demonstrate to them the cleverness of their own people. ‘Star consultants/helpers make their client’s people shine’. When our job is done the people should say, “We can do this for ourselves.” We must give our client’s people the understanding, techniques & skills to create flow in four areas.


 1) TAOZEN . This is the management system to identify, create & sustain the flow of the correct changes throughout the organisation. The central theme of Taozen is; ‘Star managers make their people shine.’ The role of the manger is not only to demonstrate their own ability*, but more importantly to release and focus the ability* of the people they lead. --- The system also requires a fundamental change in attitude within the organisation. The traditional organisational structure has the directors at the apex of the pyramid, with everyone else beneath them. The Taozen system requires the pyramid to be inverted. Directors now support managers, who then support their people, who will then identify & support the needs of the market & their customers. --- Before we start a programme we insist the senior management team have two days to study this subject. This will give them a common understanding & vocabulary for their role in creating & sustaining the change process/environment to support the introduction of TPS/Lean... ---


 2) TPS/Lean.. The smooth output of a waste & defect free flow of existing & new products to customers. This must give them; what they want, when they want it, in the quantity they want. The output of your organisation has three main dimensions P, S & E. P - physical products. S - the services you provide to support them. E - the experiences (physical & emotional) your customers will enjoy when using them & in all their direct & indirect contacts with your organisation. Your goal is to produce the best values of; Quality, Cost (lowest ownership cost), Delivery (OTIF), & Customer Delight in your industry, (Q – C – D – D. Pronounced Q, C double D). The future of your organisation depends on improving these values faster than any existing or future competitors. ---


3) TPM. The smooth flow of materials, products, information and services through machinery, processes & systems. In this area the goal is to achieve Zero 4D’s. Zero - Downtime. (Unplanned). Zero - Delays. Zero - defects. Zero – Damage and Danger to people. (Accidents). We must move from 2F’s to 2P’s. .Finding & Fixing problems to Predicting them & Preventing their occurrence,


 4) KAIZEN. The flow of people’s ability* to drive the waste elimination, continuous improvement & customer delighting process. The goal in this area is to release & focus the total ability* of all our people to achieve the goals in the first three areas. The equally important personal goal is for our people to make their jobs, easier, faster, safer & more fun/enjoyable. ---


I find this concept of the four flows gives a clearer understanding of the overall process/nature of the TPS/Lean journey. It also helps everyone to understand their roles & goals within it.


From the combination of these flows you can produce a torrent of competitive advantage.

We must always remember that the ultimate goal of all our activities is to produce organisations that can compete successfully on the global battlefield, now and in the future. They must also be secure, challenging, fulfilling and enjoyable/fun places to work.


*Ability has three dimensions. 1) Talent, the ability to existing tasks well. 2) Creativity, the ability to continuously improve what we do and the way we do it. 3) Enthusiasm, the emotional ability/energy to do the first two.. ---


 *Ability for managers starts with the understanding that, ‘Star managers make their people shine’. They must also define and implement the 3 V’s and 5P’s. –                                          -


3 V’s. -- There are three V's needed to guide our activities.

 1) VISION, what is your purpose. What do you want to achieve or create?

 2) VALUES, attitudinal, behavioural & numerical to guide, support & focus your vision.

 3) VECTORS, the direction of your activities to make them a reality.

The key to success is to ensure the 3V's are shared by all your people, & everyone knows their team’s & their personal roles & goals to achieve them.         

5P’s -- There are 3P’s that should guide your personal activities & performance; Purpose, Passion & Persistence. Organisational performance requires two additional P’s; Practised by all your People --- ‘Purpose, Passion, Persistence – Practised by all your People. Job done! The leader’s job is to define the Purpose, create the Passion, support the Persistence & ensure all their People are engaged in the Practise.

 I think for clarity, we should give the final words about who we should consult to Mr Clinton;




Anyone wanting to understand the activities of the major consulting companies should read, ‘Dangerous Company – The consulting powerhouses & the businesses they save & ruin’. “Brilliant reportage produces uncomfortable evidence that, for many clients, the price is too high, the contribution too low.” Robert Heller. ’An engrossing credible analysis of the influence & perils of the advice trade, & their apparent willingness to do what the authors call a company’s dirty work.’ New York Times.




Steve Bott June 19, 2017

Great post Michael. The version of lean you describe is spot on but also explains exactly why lean has only delivered a fraction of its potential. Certainly in the U.K.  

Consultants have been reluctant to bring client teams with them for fear of losing repeat business. And managers often just want the problem fixed without all the complexity of investing time and energy (and cost) in their staff 

The combination of these two factors has resulted in a commoditised, tool based, version of lean prevailing - with inevitable results. Many people dont even recognise what you described in your post as being the true sense of lean. Very sad and a huge missed opportunity for everyone. 

Jay Bitsack June 19, 2017

Hi Michael,

Without question, your delivery style (intentional or otherwise) is on the “edgy” side.  I say this based on what I’ve read that you’ve written and the presentations that have delivered at conferences which have been recorded and made available on YouTube and/or other channels.  In this particular case, I have to say that the “edgy-ness” I’m referring to is manifest in the way you go about employing what I consider to be an OVERLY BROAD AND LOOSE DEFINITION OF THE TERM “CONSULTANT.”

Clearly, the way you have gone about building and presenting your case is based on YOUR LIMITED PERSPECTIVE, regarding WHAT CONSTITUTES NOT ONLY A CONSULTANT, but also WHAT MAKES FOR A UNIQUELY GOOD ONE; particularly one that delivers their consulting services in the CI/OpEx arena, and does so with a particular emphasis on employing/conveying TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING competencies and capabilities.  How it has come to be that I can have such an impression is due to decades worth of hands-on CONSULTING experience that has been accrued across a wide range of practice domains (i.e., IT Strategy & Architecture, TQM, X-Functional Integration, BPR, SS, Lean-based OpEx Transformation, etc.) , industries (i.e., discrete and continuous manufacturing, transportation/logistics, retail, electronics/high-tech, insurance, health care, pharmaceuticals, publishing, finance, etc.) , and service delivery channels/modes (i.e., Big 4/5 professional services, boutique firms, and independent).  Interestingly, from the get-go in my consulting career I was mentored to the belief and practice that the TRULY BEST CONSULTANTS are distinguishable more on the basis of the QUESTIONS THEY ASK, than for the ANSWERS THEY PROVIDE.

And what’s so uniquely value-adding about this definition is the fact that it establishes the practice of CONSULTING as being analogous to a TWO-WAY STREET; where the ultimate determination of value-added is based on a TWO-WAY INTERACTION rather than the all-too-often hyperbolized mythical model of a consultant as an all-knowing and all-telling entity.  Rather, it’s those organizations/institutions that understand TWO-WAY DYNAMIC that needs to underlie any value proposition that can – and do – benefit the most from their strategic and tactical leveraging of consulting resources.  In essence, they do not pay these VALUED RESOURCES to tell them what to do and how to do it; but rather to GET THEM TO THINK AND BEHAVE DIFFERENTLY.  And the difference results in not only the development and evolutionary enhancement of existing COMPETENCIES (at the individual, team/group, department, and enterprise-wide levels), but also the leveraging of RAPID/ADAPTIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING and ACCLERATED LEARNING directed toward the discovery and subsequent application of the NEW KNOLWEDGE required to support/enable the sorts of COMPETITIVE CAPABILITIES (at the individual, team/group, department, and enterprise-wide levels) needed to gain and sustain superior performance now and into the foreseeable future.

According to your expressed POV, there is a difference between what I have just described as being the BEST FORM OF CONSULTING INTERACTION and what you describe as the typical/characteristic behavior pattern of a person/individual who interacts with the members of an organization/institution under the title of being a SENSEI (from Wikipedia: Sensei (??) is a Japanese honorific term that is literally translated as "person born before another".[1] In general usage, it is used, with proper form, after a person's name, and means "teacher";[2] the word is also used as a title to refer to or address other professionals or persons of authority, such as clergypersons, accountants, lawyers, physicians, and politicians.[3] or to show respect to someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery in an art form or some other skill, e.g., accomplished novelists, musicians, artists and martial artists.)  And in the CONTEXT OF THE PRACTICE OF TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING (ala the TPS/TW), it appears from your posting that this sort of individual is so uniquely qualified that they are the only “means”/“mechanism” by which or through which the hallmark COMPETENCIES AND CAPABILITIES associated with TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING can be acquired, and continually evolved – ideally on a SYSTEMIC LEVEL – as necessary over an extended period of time.

IF that happens to be a correct assessment of your POV, I have to respond by stating that I believe it is too narrowly defined and limiting in nature to be of maximum benefit to those who are most in need.  In fact, I believe it’s a highly biased and prejudicial POV, at least within the CI/OpEx community of practitioners.  Yes, without a doubt, AS IS TRUE IN MOST – IF NOT ALL – professions, some practitioners are better than others in terms of their wherewithal abilities and potential for adding value to their clients/patients.  But as is UNQUESTIONABLY THE CASE IN THE PRACTICE OF MEDICINE, the best practitioner alone is NEVER SUFFICIENT.  There must be a willingness and aptitude on behalf of the client/patient that’s equal to the challenge of transforming itself in ways that will ensure its longer-term viability (aka “healing itself”).  And, in fact, the overall transformation (aka healing) process can only truly be gained and sustained by the client/patient.  And where the BEST CONSULTANTS (aka healers) come into play in this equation is in catalyzing the required changes in the THINKING AND BEHAVING patterns that exist within/throughout the entire organization/institution.  And the best way to do that is by asking the tough/probing/challenging questions, NOT BY PROVIDING THE STANDARD ANSWERS that have become ubiquitous across (aka infected)  the overall CI/OpEx practice domain.

In this regard, I believe it’s high time that we – in the Western world – begin moving away from the stereotyped visions of what’s best and why.  Instead, we – as active members of that world – would best/better be served by following our own Western tradition of THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX and basing our hopes and aspirations for long-term social and economic and environmental sustainability on what PETER SENGE refers to as the ONLY TRULY SUSTAINABLE COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE…  IS THE SPEED WITH WHICH AND ORGANIZATION (as a SYSTEM) IS CAPABLE OF LEARNING; AND THEREBY ADAPTING!  Ergo, whether it happens to be in the form of a GOOD CONSULTANT or that of a SENSEI, the most important value-adding contribution potential that can be carried by such an individual or consulting entity is manifest in their ability to stimulate/catalyze the needed THINKING AND BEHAVING PATTERNS within and throughout an entire organization (aka SYSTEM).  The sorts of thinking and behaving patterns (at the individual, group/team, department, and entperise-wide levels) I’m referring to are those which form the basis/foundation for an organization’s/institution’s ability to engage in behaviors – as perceived by customers and competitors alike – that are superior.

[Note: At this point in time, it can be reasonably stated (and believed) that the pattern of THINKING AND BEHAVING that exists – and will likely continue to exist well into the foreseeable future – within and throughout TOYOTA and its partner entities (ala the TPS/TW) represent some of the “BEST IN THE WORLD;” particularly  when it comes to: 1) designing and producing/delivering the right products and services, 2) to the right [targeted] customers, 3) in the right quantities, 4) at the right time, 5) in the right place, 6) for the right price, 7) with the desired/expected level of quality; and doing so while: 8) consuming the least amount of resources possible, 9) respecting people/humanity to the maximum extent possible, and 10) ensuring the sustainability of environments in which it has chosen to operate.  Accordingly, patterning an organization’s/institutions THINKING AND BEHAVING patterns (on both an individual and collective basis) after those of Toyota will go a very long way in helping any organization/institution attain and sustain superior performance-enabling COMPETENCIES and COMPETITIVE CAPABILITIES.  In this regard, it’s NOT ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to rely on a highly-pedigreed SENSEI to be the catalyst.  IT’s POSSIBLE TO ACHIEVE THIS LEVEL OF THINKING AND BEHAVING via one’s own commitment to RAPID/ADAPTIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING AND ACCELERATED LEARNING, but to do so first requires being ready, willing, and able to GET OUTSIDE-THE-BOX.  A good example of an organization what was able to do so over an extended period of time is CHAPARRAL STEEL.  It relied on its own ability to leverage its partners/consultants/SMEs who routinely participated in and contributed to the breakthrough thinking and behaving that was endemic to the organization.  And believe it or not…there were NO SENSEIs per se involved at Chaparral Steel, just good’ol OUT-OF-THE-BOX THINKERS AND DOERS in the form of both company employees and outside partners/consultants!]

Mark DeLuzio June 19, 2017

I wonder if you feel the same way about your Phd educators as you do consultants?

Katie Anderson June 20, 2017

Michael - Your post and reference to Isao Yoshino reminds me of some words of wisdom about coaching and being a sensei that Yoshino-san shared with me one of my visits with him in Nagoya:



Robert Kluttz June 20, 2017

Your post might be proving a point you didn't intend to make.  You can improve wait time in cardiology without improving the end-to-end patient experience.  You can improve the morbidity in cardiology without making a real difference in clinical effectiveness.  You can improve lead time without impacting cost or quality.  

Wait time in cardiology isn't necessarily the constraint.  Cardiology can choose to treat more clinically complex patients despite the fact that their morbidity rate would be impacted.  Lead time might be a function of spending more time reading scans and lab results.

This issue isn't that we have too many consultants or senseis in healthcare that don't truly understand Lean.  The issue is that we have too many consultants and senseis in healthcare that don't truly understand healthcare.  


Mark Graban June 20, 2017

Sure, there is a difference in approach between a typical consulting approach and a Lean consulting approach.

But, it's inappropriate to label oneself a "sensei" as a blanket term or label. The word is situational... you can choose to call somebody else a sensei, but somebody isn't a sensei to all people. You shouldn't call yourself sensei.


The mindset and approach matters, not the name or word.

Mark DeLuzio June 20, 2017

At the end of the day, it is the consultant's client that determines the value of the consultant...not the opinion of another consultant.

Jim Hudson, Lean Consultant June 20, 2017

Michael, you are right. We Lean Consultants should stop pursuing global Lean transformation (and getting there faster) because we are not within two degrees of Ohno and don't use Japanese words to describe systems management. I am going to relinquish my practice today and look for a new line of work, since you don't think I am worthy due to my title.

You make some excellent points about "exemplifying the Lean leader" as a way to get leaders to shift, but I think you neglected the "change" aspect of this paradigm shift. Effective Lean consultants have to know the content of Lean, but the actual job is that of change - individual change and organizational change. 

Rather than attack titles, a different answer to your viewer's question could have revolved around the change expertise of a coach, and the methods by which that change is achieved quickly, effectively, and smoothly. 

Michael Ballé June 20, 2017

Isn't it amazing how this columns gets so many long and heated responses while the preceding one that actually discuss what (I hope ) is a deeper lean point gets far less attention? Kinda proves a point, I guess :^)))

Frank Sabala June 20, 2017

Great article.  Great points.

Need for Some TPM June 20, 2017

Jay, your CAPS LOCK key is sticking. I suggest you call tech support.

Great bait mate! June 20, 2017

Diminishing Lean fans' contributios to the spread of Lean ideas, and self-aggrandizing as an equal of Ohno and as a self-proclaimed sensei is SURE to make everyone like Lean and the Lean Enterprise Institute SO much more!!

Utterly brilliant! 

Now pardon me, I'll go read some more Lean books and fantasize about taking orders from a sensei so that I can finally become Lean instead of remaining a filthy Taylorist and Fordist peasant.

kevin kobett June 21, 2017

Testing must be done to differentiate good consultants from bad consultants:

How do you diminish the effects of backbiting (office politics, back stabbing, bullying)?

How do we change the company's culture?

How do we identify job applicants who have a propensity for lean manufacturing?

How do we identify employees who will benefit from coaching?

How do we build on past successes?

How do we maximize kaizen savings?

Put the potential consultant in a room with a tablet and a pencil. A sensei should be able to answer these questions in a couple hours.


Consultant June 21, 2017

Maybe you should call your column "Gemba Sensei."

Mark Graban June 21, 2017

I wonder if many people got upset by the first paragraph and didn't really read the rest calmly.

I think Michael's piece would have been less upsetting if it had been framed as, "How to be a better consultant" instead of getting into the "sensei" thing.

There's a often a tension, where clients are used to a consultant giving them an answer. That might be what they think they are buying from a "lean consultant." So, the consultant has the choice to push back (as I've usually done) and say, "I'm not in a position to give you answers, but I'll help you and your team find things to test..." or you can fall back into "OK, I'll give you an answer because you're pressuring me to."

Lots of good food for thought in this piece.

Michael Ballé June 21, 2017

Thanks Mark, 

I still think the sensei issue needs to be addressed - I personally haven't come across of a single successful lean transfirmation without a lean CEO/sensi pair leading it - Something Pat Lancaster pointed out to me 20 years ago.

The irony of course is that consultants are so busy getting huffy and defending their business pitch, they miss the real failure of the lean movement: we have failed, so far, to break the sensei bottleneck.

the deeper problem, I feel, is how do we develop more senseis (whatever they call themselves)? I doubt we will ever redolve it by first avoiding to face it, or indeed, shooting the messenger(s)


Michael Ballé June 21, 2017

BTW thanks for the show of support from the many consultants that have set themselves on the sensei journey, no matter how hard it is to join a real lean tradition and learn how wrong we are how often and from the many mistakes we make.

And for the record, I don't consider myself a sensei - I m thankfully way too young. I m a lean writer, and proudly so!

Beau Keyte June 21, 2017

This reflects a traditinalist view of consultants and the language around consulting.  A couple of thoughts:

First, if continuous improvment is important to consulting, then some good thinking consultants have probably migrated from a 100 year old definition to someting where they focus on how organizatoins build up their own muscle. I personally know several of these consultants.  And they don't call themselves senseis.

Second, offering yourself up as a sensei has a couple of problems: it is not seen as a humble position from others, in fact Edgar Schein would label this an example of "one up" in social theater as using a foreign toungue to describe yourself is setting you apart from the people you are trying to help.  And, there are a lot of folks out there who put up barriers when someone starts using terms taken from the Toyota playbook.  Time to meet the client where they are, not where you are.

I'm fine with a hard line on the different ways that outside support is used, what their particular methods are, and how the client can benfit from different approaches.  I'm not clear on the purpose of needing different words (one in English, one in Japanese) to differentiate the situation.



Michael Ballé June 21, 2017


Let's look at this empirically - who are the sensei we really know, that lean practictioners would acknowledge as such. They're not necessarily all Japanese, but all the ones I know are in a tradition - they've been taught by senseis - and have at least 20 years + practice of TPS on their own gembas, mostly as top execs, occasionally in coaching role. 

In any case, to me the hard distinction is not about what they do as much as the source of their knowledge: having been taught through learning-by-doing by their own TPS sensei, on the shop floor, with executive decision making responsibility.

By nature, this would be a small number of people with distinctive knowledge and experience, mostly ex Toyota. Outside Japan, John Shook is a sensei, Tracey Richardson is a sensei, my dad is a sensei, At Smalley and Art Byrne are sensei, but I would not consider myself as one, nor I believe would Dan or Orry.

I believe we need to understand this distinction because it is core to the transmition of lean knowledge, and indeed both a problem and an opportunity.

Mark Graban June 21, 2017

Michael -

I think you keep making the same error... calling anybody a "sensei" as a general label.

You're being too humble... somebody who is learning from you might choose to call you a sensei.

You, in turn, might call somebody else a sensei because you respect them and are learning from them.

I think it's been well established that somebody can't call themselves "sensei" and there's nobody out there who is automatically going to be "sensei" to everybody else.


Ralf Lippold June 22, 2017

Lean - when I first stumbled across this word it was in the early 90s when studying in Bamberg economics. Reading through "The Machine that Changed the World" I was constantly amazed to hear on how processes can be done differently (with given resources) to achieve a different (positive) outcome.

I wrote a paper about Toyota and its production system a few years later in the late 90s in Eastern Germany where the transformation was still pretty much visible.

2003 I joined a major automotive OEM in Germany and lean (due to one of my former professors) was already an "old thing of the past". Yet, I had not seen much of it, and even colleagues and friends urged me not to talk about this as would show a sense of weakness and that processes are not state of the art and efficient as the public, the shareholders and the board would expect. 

Only a decade later after my initial touch with lean (quite unexpectedly I have to say) organizations began to bring lean into the workplace, conferences and consultants soon after caught the nice looking and money promising label. Certificates were provided by established consulting companies. 

10 years further down the road, what has changed? 

The change in the world has risen dramatically and the urge to change processes accordingly in order to keep the pace and be still profitable can be sensed everywhere. 

But does "lean" really mean (at least from what Toyota emerged from after the WW II, and even before)? 

What you truly need to become a lean champion (or a champion in your field in general) is someone (like a coach in sports) who is mindfully observing the status-quo and challenging all people in an organization to question the status, prototype improvements and make (if they are workable and beneficial for the overall result) standards from where to improve further. 

Can a consultant play this role? 

I doubt it, as a consultant's main role is to serve his/her mother company bringing in revenue (from contracts with clients).

Were Taiichi Ohno or Shigeo Shingo a consultant? 

Changing the culture (in a sustainable way) can only by achieved by being an active part and literally a worker inside an organization. A most recently read quote from Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" brings that to the point (even though the circumstances of his words are totally different from what we are touching in this conversation):

"Only the man inside knows" 


PS.: However consultants are still valuable as they can bring the technical tools and methods into the processes after the mindset and culture of the organization has changed to a truly living "learning organization" and #ScalableLearning has become the norm as each and everyone is eager to enable more value creation with given resources. 

Ken Eakin June 23, 2017

Great article.

Sadly, I bet it's pretty hard to put bread on the table by being a lean sensei outside of Japan/Korea. Companies on a Lean journeys think they want consultants and probably need sensei instead. Yet he who pays the piper calls the tune...

Western business culture doesn't have the same reverence and respect for wise teachers.  I wish it were different, but I can't imagine sensei finding work outside of academia and those few truly lean companies in the West.

How might we break this catch-22?

Michael Ballé June 24, 2017


Yes, it's a difficult chicken-and-egg problem, but if we breal away from the histrionics of consultants defending their jobs, there are some leads.

We had our six monthly lean-in-france conference yesterday, and two of the presentations were done by managers working with sensei. These two senseis are retired C-level execs who had worked with a sensei and transformed their operations, and then continued to work to help companies - still working and discussing with their own sensei.

And when they see this, execs in other companies are curious about it - offer creates demand, kind of thing. It's certainly slow and maybe not scalable, but it is possible.

The key to all ths is a genuine commitment to learn TPS, that's all. These "sensei"s are not superhero types, but people who's stance is that tehy use TPS and tools to transform company culture rather than adapt TPS tools to company culture to keep the client happy. So this hinges on:

- a personal commitment to keep learning about TPS/tools in order to deepen one's understanding of them

- a deal with the client that we're not going to teach but discover together what TPS/tools can teach us in the current situation.

The key is a commitment to learning more oneself before teaching others, and it turns out the "teaching" part is far more collaborative and less I say-you do that many expect. On the other hand, the work these guys do is very clearly different from what any consultant does.

So there are good leads, interesting experiments, but this is a conversation that is difficult to address publicly because some consultants (by no means all) get into attack mode and successfully stop the debate right there and then.

In the end, I believe it's not about titles and roles but stepping away from the business of lean while recognizing that, yes, to some extent, who pays the piper calls the tune (love it!) but that is not completely true as some execs are genuine in their desire to renew performance by trying somehting truly different. It's more a question of creating the right marketplace, which we haven't even tried to do yet. Does that make sense?


Daniel Breston June 24, 2017

Hi Michael or Mark

Sensei or consultant: agree could be semantics as I know several consultants that do not impose but iinstead try to "consult" as to Why there is an issue; How it is making things worse now or in the future and What can be done by the organisation to begin to improve better, faster, safer (DevOps but dont jump to tech just yet).

My more immediate question to you both: do you fell there is adequate learning or training or teaching for those that want to become "sensei"? There are many training companies with courses from foundation to leadership. What are your thoughts and yes i agree you have to do to become better, but the question is the opportunity to learn BEST practices that you can then go try. Is there an agreed way across the "Sensei" of lean for this to now happen?

Michael Ballé June 24, 2017


There is no such thing as best practices in lean, only deeper understanding. 

The way to become a sensei is to find a sensei. Sensei's offer experiences to deepen your understanding by learning-bydoing. They set you a challenge, you do and learn - or not.

Senseis also loose interest in you if you just want to talk but never actually practice, nor demonstrate deeper insight from having done something and changed your mind and practice.

So yes, we don't have enough sensei, but we also have way too few people actually trying to become sensei themselves :^)))

Mark Graban June 24, 2017

Michael asked: "My more immediate question to you both: do you fell there is adequate learning or training or teaching for those that want to become "sensei"?"

1) No, that training is called real life and experience. Hopefully you have someone you consider to be a sensei

2) Who says they want to "become a sensei?" That seems to miss the point... it just happens (maybe)

Somebody who has been practicing Lean for just 5 years might be considered a sensei by somebody who is new to Lean (if sensei means "one who has gone before"). It's a judgment call, not a set of standards or criteria.

I've seen people call themselves "a certified lean sensei," which just makes me howl in laughter.

I probably wouldn't consider that person a sensei even after getting to know them. The people I would call "sensei" (choose to call them that) are more experienced, they're teachers, and they're humble.


Mark Graban June 24, 2017

Here is an audio clip of a guy who doesn't get it.

1) He calls himself a sensei

2) He says sensei means expert


Daniel Fisher September 1, 2017

Thank you for that cringe worthy audio, Mark.

I agree that there are both good consultants and bad. My biggest problem with the "bad" consultants is that A) They give real lean efforts and those of us with an honest passion to help improve a bad name and B) Their concern is not always with creating a strong foundation for a lean deployment. Their efforts can be diluted by the need to create a resume they can tout to the next potential client. "1.5 billion dollars in total cost savings, 190 trillion SF of greenfield created, productivity increased 2,000%!” etc. The focus is lost on creating real, rooted change. No sustaining efforts are present and if there are, they are weak at best. As soon as their time is up they are onto the next client. If the last company backslides, great, it’s the company's fault and they will call the consultant back in to help them. Please Mr. Lean Consultant, we just couldn’t do it without you! Show us the error of our ways! -_-

synergy 360 June 14, 2018

Good article about consultancy department.The main focus of the consultants should be satisfaction of the clients and their services but they give more priority to money.People are really disappointed by those consultants.We are committed to achieving client outcomes every time. Our reputation is built on this.Synergy 360 understands capability. Whether you require new equipment, information technology.

Matt Snyder July 2, 2018

For a project, I was trying to estimate how many Lean Manufacturing consultant companies there are across the country.  I suspect it is a surprisingly-high number, but has anyone ever run across such a statistic?

Tom February 20, 2019

I wouldn't limit myself to Toyota. I believe Ford, GM and Chrysler all successfully made the transition to Lean. As Taiichi Ohno leaned a great deal from Ford, The Big Three learned from Toyota. The proof is in the numbers. Take a look at JDpower and Harbour reports. Toyota is no longer the leader in quality and productivity. It is not because they retracted, rather it is because the world learned from them and implemented their system. Given that, there should be no requirement to be a Toyota protege for being a Sensei. There are many brilliant Lean minds from Detroit. One could make the argument that the transition from Mass to Lean produces a more knowledgeable Lean Sensei than growing up in the existing system. 

Jon Evans June 3, 2019

I spent years believing that I was introducing lean and even paid a couple of consultants who failed to make any lasting improvements.

Recently I attended a course at the Toyota Lean Management Centre. I learnt that there is no magic and the key to TPS is people and more importantly the culture that is created by management.

I left Toyota inspired and now believe my lean journey has only just begun.


Parpella May 30, 2021

Great post.

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