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A Sensei in One's Own Land

by John Shook
August 9, 2013

A Sensei in One's Own Land

by John Shook
August 9, 2013 | Comments (10)

Hardly a new thought, it’s probably at least 2,000 years old. “You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” the proverb goes. While not new, its wisdom struck me anew following three recent gemba visits.

On visit one, I saw reams of consultants not just providing consultation but doing the actual improvement work. The executive of the company was happy to be getting results and grateful for the hard work of the consulting team, which was accomplishing things he knew his team could not accomplish on their own. The youngest member of the consulting team was indeed working hard, putting in outrageous hours and reaping the benefits of priceless learning that will serve her well for the rest of her career.

The following week, visit two found me at a comparable organization in the same industry, but this time no consultants were in sight. Unfortunately progress has been so slow that neither improvement, nor learning were in sight either.

Visit three revealed the best-of-both-worlds ground which is all too rare: deep consultant involvement (especially upfront), but involvement that moved steadily to the background, focusing less on directing actual change and more on coaching neophyte internal coaches.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I have a very hard time telling an executive “you really should hire a consultant.” But, despite my aversion to offering this advice, I know there may in fact be no substitute for “borrowing the learning curve” of those who have gone before. If pressed, I must admit that rarely, if ever, does an organization make great progress in lean thinking and practice without taking advantage of advice from someone serving as a consultant, advisor, coach, or “sensei”.

So, just what is the value that “consultants” or “sensei” or outside advisors provide? Three things:

1. The power of the outside voice. The ancient proverb is true: it can be extraordinarily difficult to be a sage counsel in your own organization. Use the outside voice to say the things that you yourself know need to be said and understood.

2. The value of a fresh set of eyes. It is well known that we humans have a tendency to become blind to the truth that is right in front of us. Sometimes we can be too close to the trees to notice that the leaves are turning green to red.

3. The reality of the occasionally good, useful advice and counsel that can only come from deep experience.

Consider also, though, that there is good and bad use of consultants. As you ponder whether to use a consultant, consider even more deeply how to use a consultant. As in the third example above, recognize that FROM DAY ONE you must be intent on internalizing the capabilities provided by the consultant.

As your use-of-consultant plays out, continually ask yourself: Who is doing the learning? Us? Me? Somebody else? Without the vigilance of deliberate learning on your part, it may be the consultant who takes home the real prize: the learning that is the foundation of all sustainable improvement.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  leadership,  management
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
RalfLippold August 09, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Dear John, many thanks for your insightful thoughts, that I agree in part. 

An "outside advisor" with a "fresh eye" is always a benefit. However a consultant often comes from the same culture as the team to be consulted (being invited by a higher rank executive who shares the consultant's culture, often engineering in the production world). Organizational cultures can be quite closed (as Ed Schein touched during his Cape Cod course in summer 2009) so really fresh view seldom are allowed into the room.

However this will open really a lean leap forward, as the fresh view, and humble inquiry (questioning the status quo to learn, and make the team aware of what can be improved) are openly invited (not only from the organization's outside, but rather from within it (!)).

What, from my point of view, is the real power of the outside consultant, is that he/she can "shake things" so an unfreezing of the current state of operation can happen, and new behavior can made possible.

Lean thinking, as much as initiating the start of a successful lean tranformation across the organization is a kind of art, that seldom is taught in its dynamic complexity, especially involving the power of the social networks within the firm that play a role larger than often imagined.

Best from Dresden,



PS.: Glad that just being an economist I had the privilege to ask my colleagues "innocently" and frankly about how and why their processes ran like they did, and so achieved productivity gains that were pulled their interests, and skills rather by myself implementing the solution. Here is btw the dilemma, as when you don't implement the change yourself, your standing in the eyes of your boss often is diminished, because "doers" and "heros" who change things with their own hands, especially in a crisis situation, are (today still) more valued. 

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John Shook August 12, 2013
3 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks for the insightful thoughts, Ralf.  I think you are getting into a next (and critical) level of observation, which concerns the question of what constitutes good consulting.  Many consultants have the very intent of actually performing the improvement work, essentially providing the company with an extra set of hands.  In that case, the consultant is essentially working as high-priced, out-sourced labor (and walking away with the learning in addition to a good paycheck).

Other consultants take on much more of a, well, consultative (sorry) role – making observations, posing questions, offering advice, and challenging the thinking of the customer/host/learner.  The more skillful of these consultants might use techniques such as you describe, Edgar Schein’s excellent “humble inquiry” process.  For readers who aren’t familiar, check out either of these books by Schein’s books, “Helping – how to offer, give and receive help” or “Humble Inquiry – the gentle art of asking instead of telling”.

There is a place for telling – providing directive instruction – and there is a place for more consultative advisory support.  Either way, users of consultants (or coaches or “sensei”) are wise to remain cognizant that they need to own their own learning.

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Steven Leuschel September 15, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Great point.  I've seen many consultants come to organizations and focus on the next step of the improvement project - versus the next step of capability development for leaders.  If the organization is generally stable, the focus of any external coach or consultant needs to be developing the capability of leaders one step at a time, building a new management / leadership system. 

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Keith August 09, 2013
Love the photo. Hope you enjoyed Denpasar.

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John Shook August 12, 2013
Denpasar is fantastic. Can't wait to go back!

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John DiNicolantonio August 12, 2013
John it is a great picture and so often the picture tells a story or enhances the story, brining it to life.  Your last comment is also a great one for the truely good consultant has an oportunity to learn more for they interact with all levels of an organization from top leadership, to middle management, to front line and most importantly the people who add value, the operators.  So often I hear people say the consultant did not tell us anything that we did not already know, then I say why have we not solved that problem?  The fresh eye and the access to ears at all levels is sometimes the needed push to start change.  The success of change is what keeps it continuing.  It seems to be most difficult to change the culture of the company to make it a new habit.  This only seems to occurr with much practice and perseverance.  Which as you have experienced, is required when you move to a different country.  Keep coaching, sharing and learning, our lives are better because of it.

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John Shook August 12, 2013

Thanks for noticing the photo, John, which tells a remarkable story, actually. Beside me is Mark Donovan, co-owner and operations manager of Wooden Ships, the knitwear fashion design and manufacturing firm based in Denpasar. Surrounding us is Wooden Ships’ workforce, a diverse collection of people on an incredibly diverse island. Beside Mark is Tom Harada, my friend, Art Smalley’s boss (and sensei) at Toyota, and Taiichi Ohno’s maintenance guy. The best equipment maintenance and overall “stability” guy I have ever met. Walking through an operation with Tom is unlike a gemba walk with anyone else. Tom lives on a small island off the coast of Bali, not far from Denpasar.

FYI, here are some of our (Tom’s and mine) raw notes from that June 2010 visit:

Tom: “I have lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and didn’t believe it was possible to manage a workforce in Indonesia as effectively as Wooden Ships has managed. The mix of religions and religious holidays alone present challenges that defeat most companies. Wooden Ships has overcome those challenges through standard lean management practices of focusing on the gemba and on the employees.”

John: “The positive attitude of the workforce was immediately evident. Everyone was hard at work, but with pleasant expressions and body language. And the flow of work was pretty easy to see, as Mark has instituted one-piece or small batch flow cells. This was clearly a huge break with previous practices of building in batches.  It was easy to imagine what it must have been like before the transformation with process villages and piles of work-in-process, constantly searching for right material to work on next.  Equally impressive to that change in work flow, was the change from piece-work pay system to salary with team-based production goals.

“My impression is that the plant has completed phase one of its lean transformation. The next challenges will include additional technical advances, such as timely accurate production instructions (M&I Flow) and building in quality, but will also need to focus on development of people, organization, and management.  If it can successfully meet those challenges, Wooden Ships could serve as a great model for all of Bali and Indonesia.”

Back to the point of the Post, Mark as leader is owning his own learning, seeking insights, and trying experiments to instill new practices and habits to bring about desired operational and cultural change.

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Mark Donovan August 14, 2013

As we gathered to take this picture I noticed John tense up a bit as he looked around at all the people piling in.  He then casually said something like "do you think we can fit everyone?" In classic sensei style he delivered a "safety first" lesson that I have not forgoten.  

Being based in Bali makes it somewhat more difficult to get on-sight lean support.  I have done most of my learning by utilizing the amazing resources provided by LEI (books, conferences, web resources and networking) and testing what I have learned at the gemba.  I have learned a tremendous amount through my friendship with Tom Harada.  We have had a couple of short kaizan type engagements with PQM out of Jakarta whom I highly recommend if you are seeking support in Indonesia.  I have also started working with an amazing coach, Jeff Smith, via Skype over the last eight months.  

In retrospect, I believe I would have benefited from a bit more outside help in the early years.  Deciding when to seek this type of help and how much is as challenging as trying to balance the social vs technical in lean.  I am still running my experiments. 

As a side note, John called me up about twelve hours before this photo was taken.  "Mark, it's John Shook.  I'm in Bali and coming to your factory in the morning with Tom Harada."  Was this some kind of just-in-time lesson??  Thanks John! 

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Dan Williams October 03, 2013
John, I do totally agree with you on the value of a fresh set of eyes.  I am currnetly putting together a plan to accomplish higher quality in our engineering department,  Checking engineering is not value added but is necessary.  Fresh eyes catch mistakes.

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Morgan Fransson October 07, 2013
Derar John
I like what I read and I agree about an "outside advisor" with a "fresh eye" is always a benefit...If the consultant have experience of Lean Production at World Class Level. There is a lot of consultant companies who have "lean" in the offer list but only theory and talking, no experince. I have worked a lot with people from Nissan Japan and Toyota and it is a big different compare to ordinarie lean consultants
Right people is a benefit.

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