The five ways of a sensei

Published on
May 21, 2024
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo
Roberto Priolo is editor at the Lean Global Network and Planet Lean
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FEATURE - Variety in the approach of sensei can cause much confusion. The author sheds light on this issue by describing the five ways a sensei interacts with individuals and teams.

Words: Dan Prock

A sensei is not a trainer, coach or consultant. A sensei is an interventionist, a teacher who evokes greater awareness about a business process from both managers and employees. As a teacher, there is great variation in each individual sensei's approach. This short article describes the five behavioral ways a lean sensei uses to engage people and convey knowledge about process improvement. These ways may fit different situations or phases of continuous improvement and may explain some of the variability that causes confusion among observers.


In our culture, most of us at work often live in our heads. A sensei's consistent approach is to move out of academic mode and distant discussions in conference rooms and into learning by doing at the gemba - the "real place." This usually begins with focusing on the data and mapping out the technical work processes.


The first mode of the sensei is a parental mode, that is, keeping associates from doing something dangerous or seriously dysfunctional by noticing and naming it. This is a "power move" that can prompt the recipients to immediate change. A rule-based example of the sensei's "stop protocol" is the "stop the production line" mandate. It can be a response to something physically dangerous, such as violating a safety rule, or a defect in quality or process standardization, such as skipping steps to speed things up or doing design work or financial calculations outside a company's secure systems. A powerful time to act on this mandate is right at the start of a contract or event. For example, an early story at Wiremold was told by Art Byrne. During an initial tour of the plant, the Japanese consultant stopped a few steps in, sent everyone back to the conference room and wrote on a white board, "Everything is bad here." Then he asked, "Are you ready to change it?" Stop mode can sometimes be applied to a manager's behavior. For example, I once confronted a business owner (during a break) who had just scolded his staff for their inability to get results. I said, "If you want them to get better, show respect and ask good questions." The owner changed his behavior, at least during that event. (Note that a variation of "stop" can also be "pause," which is slowing down in a hurry to get to a solution or action).


The second mode of the sensei is to be sensitive and see things that the staff does not notice or take for granted, without immediately trying to change them (some of these observations may come into play later). Employees often work in a company for so long that they no longer see the waste, notice deviations or even ask questions. This is an all-purpose mode, one suitable for any stage during a continuous improvement engagement. A rule-based method for implementing this mode is sensei Taiichi Ohno's famous "stand in the circle" exercise. By standing still for minutes or hours and just observing, the mind slows down, perceives more, merges the logic of steps and, over time, sees and asks questions that can identify a problem or clarify a waste in the process. This means taking a mindful stance at the gemba and leading with questions. The goal is to develop in others a kaizen mind, that is, mindfulness coupled with creativity. Author Masaaki Imai used to say, "Kaizen is like the measles; you get it through personal contact." Once kaizen mind is demonstrated by informal leaders, others will join in and continue to use it themselves. For example, after a kaizen event, an employee from a neighboring line built a metal shelf next to his line on his own, so that his quality control tools were a visual reminder and ready for use.


The third mode of sensei is to consciously challenge the status quo and working models with questions, data or knowledge from the workers' direct experience in their own work process. Challenge may result in improved technical methods, innovations in product design, synchronization of production work or project work through updates and confronting "gaps" in deliverables, schedule or information. In this mode, staff can be instructed to use analytical tools such as branch time cycle time analysis, kanban systems, social tools such as obeya meetings and value stream mapping events, or the coaching kata, and regularly reflect on progress and obstacles, all with the goal of evoking the kaizen spirit.


The fourth mode of the sensei is to stimulate creativity and challenge the working models and habits of the staff. This includes visioning, questioning assumptions about what is possible and challenging the staff's working models and habits. The goal is to create a shock, especially in managers, to get them to think "outside the box." For example, during process improvement events, I often challenge managers and teams to come up with both a "better" and a "radical" process redesign. Then I have them combine the best parts of both, implement quick wins and seek permission from higher-ups to set up experiments for major changes.


The fifth mode of sensei is the most challenging and the most fun, at least for me. It is taking on a little understood problem with many unknowns to open up an event to the risk of failure and rely on the discovery of synchronicity. To do this, I have learned to stay present and find flow with people even when problems and conflicts arise. A teacher sets an example by leading in this new way, that is, trusting that collective consciousness will prevail, as it usually does. But, as they say in acting classes, you have to commit! Role models can encourage others to do the same, and the result can be a synchronicity of thought that ends with a surprising solution or a series of new steps - things no one could have anticipated before. The discovery experience evokes kaizen thinking among those involved.

"What is the value of discerning the five ways of sensei? When we learn them, we don't become sensei ourselves, but change leaders."


Dan Prock is author of The Sensei Way at Work

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