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.
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.
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.