Sensei Way


The Sensei Way

Men one and all value the part of knowledge which is known. They do not know how to avail themselves of the unknown in order to reach knowledge. Is this not misguided?[1]

Chuang Tzu 

What’s the way to put together the wholeness that personal willfulness takes apart? In the simplest terms this is done by entering into the dichotomy and becoming the empty stillness at the center of the paradox.[2]

Author Ray Grigg

There is almost a mythology about the early Japanese manufacturing sensei who flew to North America and Europe to lead kaizen events in automotive factories. The fascination came from the feeling that they knew something that we didn’t know. At one level, they aimed to replace our old mass production model with their JIT methodology in short order. But there was something deeper they knew that we couldn’t grasp and they couldn’t or wouldn’t share. They would ask us to tear down factory production lines on a Tuesday of a week-long event without any prepared design to work overnight if necessary to reassemble and test them. What was the basis of their confidence in the face of the unknown? They seemed impervious to the risk of failure. How?

We didn’t know then and most people still don’t.

Of course, various early sensei emphasized different aspects of the Toyota system. Some were technical and aimed to re-engineer the jobs to synchronize the timing of a production lines or cell ales, others focused on changing-over equipment faster or implementing a pull system between work centers into a just-in-time cadence to customer sales. Yet they all used the Asian learning model, that is, they began by mandating change and threw us into solving problems with little or no help. We were tense and fearful of failure and struggled to figure out how solve problems and improve a work process. Why did they do that?                                                                                   

The Sensei is a Disruptor

In 21st century business and politics we’ve come to know and use the term “disruptor”, but perhaps not to love it. Disruptive technology offers start-up companies the opportunity to compete with established ones. Aggressive business strategies blow-up targeted markets with low prices (Sam’s Club), product innovation (Apple), better delivery and service (Amazon). Even in politics disruption has become a strategy to shift the historic voting patterns of the voting segments of a population.

Collectively over three decades it has been estimated that some 70% of large companies have at least tried a lean pilot program and many have their own “branded” lean production system. Yet sustaining the many initial successes has proven problematic. It’s commonly estimated by experts to be less than 10% last beyond a few weeks or months. Why?  The mechanistic paradigm of management encourages using conflict and fear to push through short-term results. But in the long term, if the Toyota system is a superman, the old paradigm is the kryptonite.

What is the Purpose of the Sensei Way?

In a typical business or site leadership team there is often only superficial agreement about how to lead and manage a factory, transactional office or service. Most Western managers still adhere to the mechanistic paradigm of controlling processes and motivating employees with rewards the surest way to short-term results. This fact was illustrated in a survey done by the Lean Frontiers organization.

In a survey by Lean Frontiers In 80% of managers believe that lean production, “Is a program and there is an expectation of short-term financial benefits.” Despite three decades of the evidence of the alternate paradigm of lean thinking, including successful kaizen events and lean coaching, many or most enterprise managers cling to the old paradigm of pushing for short-term results. This is the traditional Western management thinking that creates conflict between levels and among leadership team members. How does a Sensei engage leaders to counter the stubborn 20th century paradigm held stubbornly by the majority of Western business leaders?

How does a Sensei’s engage a corporate executive has been conditioned by his or her past mentors to drive people to work harder for short-term results? Not through any theory, talk or traditional training that smooth out the rough edges of mechanistic management and make conflict politically correct. The Sensei is a disruptive force that aims to break paradigm of short-term results in Western enterprises.

The Sensei’s goal mandate that leaders engage in improving a work process and utilize the Zen experience of not knowing” an answer as a way to develop a leader’s capacity to stay present, see waste and make improvement and breaks down an aspiring leader’s materialistic aim, the one prominent in Western business. How? They practice the Sensei Way.

The Four Stages of the Sensei Way

The sensei’s approach has four aspects of engagement and mentoring an aspiring leader.[3] The teacher may mandate trying a practice such as problem solving or process improvement coaching, or expect the leader to experiment with a new work design or practice or mandate a complete immersion in a real problem, one beyond his or her current ability to easily resolve. The teacher expects the aspiring leader to open to new insights, try solutions, work hard, and reflect on his or her progress or lack of it in a dialogue as they both explore continuing questions.

Practice, Experiment, Immersion 

A sensei mandates that an aspiring leader engage in a work improvement practice, experiment or immersion in solving an operational problem on a shop floor, hospital ward or service process. The goal of the sensei’s approach is two-fold: first is to teach problem solving and second to diminish a leader’s faith in the traditional mechanistic problem solving.

The teacher’s ultimate aim to develop a leader’s capacity to stay present in flow despite stress s/he learns that by staying present new, arising insights will locate new ideas to make progress in an operation. As the vehicle for teaching the teacher makes aspiring leaders engage in improving processes and solving problems. The way uses an Asian learning approach to first gain direct experience with a problem or the work being done. Later he may mandate the trying of work improvement experiments to change or actually being immersed in tasks involved. Next the teacher uses aggressive responses to bring a shock to a leader’s thinking.

The Sensei aims to use a practice, experiment with a work improvement or direct immersion in the work itself as the vehicle to develop a leader's capacity to stay mindful and aware despite the anxiety and stress. When an individual can stay present long enough s/he stops objectifying people and arguing with ever-changing reality and instead moves with the flow of energy to make progress on goals. When people at work can stay present for an extended time in a problem situation, interesting things happen:

-       Intuitive insights arise about the cause of a work problem

-       Innovative thoughts occur on how to improve the work process or product quality

Reflection and Dialogue

In reflection and dialogue with a leader a Sensei might ask questions such as:

  • How is it going?
  • What was you purpose or next target in the situation?
  • What are the constraints?
  • What is the perception of the process elements, people and team?
  • Are things progressing as you hoped?
  • Were you able to stay present in the moment?
  • When can we go and see the work situation in real time?

A leader’s initial attempt to solve a work problem is often to try past solutions and because they rarely fit a new situation, they struggle to find a solution. Sometimes a teacher notices that an individual or team is overwhelmed by a problem or has developed a negative mood. S/he might decide to offer support, aiming to prime the pump for their improvement effort. Even tough-minded Toyota sensei Taiichi Ohno sometimes offered support, once saying, "At times motivated people can get discouraged, so even if you say something strict, you also want to find an opportunity to extend a helping hand."[5]

So a teacher might choose to give tangible support to an individual, work team or design group, especially in the early stages of a change, aiming to prime the pump, to increase peoples’ capacities for coaching change or making kaizen. Here are a few examples of supportive actions by a Sensei

  •        Offer benchmarking of other successful change projects
  •       Call relevant executives to gain more support for the leader
  •        Collect information or setup kaizen experiments for a leade
  •        Provide a coaching format like the A3, Customer-Back or Kata methods
  •        Supply skilled resources to the leader

In Dialogue the Sensei Uses Personal Responses to Shock a Leader

The sensei’s deeper aim is to shock an individual with a mechanistic paradigm into being mindful and “seeing” waste in the workplace. Rather than giving a leader answers that shut down his or her creativity, a sensei might issue a challenge, some examples might be:

  •       Waiting silently and creating psychological tension
  •      Asking Socratic questions about how change actually happens
  •      Drilling down with the “5-Why” questioning process
  •      Engaging in a dialogue and reframing a lean operation in terms of assumptions, principles, beliefs, values or systems
  •      Perplexing the leader with an ambiguous response like grunting, sighing or shrugging
Another possible response by the teacher is to strike the leader with the Zen stick. Many of us have ingrained habits and we stubbornly hold on to them and rationalize their failure to bring success. Seeing this a teacher may strike the leader with a verbal or behavioral Zen stick the way a Zen master might do in a temple. A sensei’s Zen stick is aimed to send a message to an aspiring leader or work team. It raises psychological tension to motivate more effort or to see a deeper insight into a problem. Here are typical examples:

  •        Allowing an awkward silence
  •        A peculiar look
  •        A negative facial expression
  •        A blunt, not-politically correct comment or question
  •        Negative body language
  •        Just walking away
  •        Not responding to a question at all

Lead Rapid Improvement Events and Coaching Others with a Practice

Once a change leader or team has a purpose and can stay present s/he will naturally see “gaps” in how operations are worked and identify kaizen ideas for a work center. These improvements can come through the vehicle of kaizen events (see chapter 3) or continuous improvement coaching (see chapter 4). 

Coach New Leaders in the Sensei Way

A leader who can sustain presence has the master key to leading continuous improvement and guides the development of new aspiring leaders. 

It’s a Wabi Sabi World

Wabi is a Japanese word for the inherent elegance of austere material things, the imperfect, irregular beauty of objects in a rustic natural state. Think of the large stones in a Zen garden rough and partially covered with moss. Sabi is a word for worn form of a beautiful object that evokes a lonely sense of life’s impermanence, a passage of time It’s something worn smooth by years and years human touch. Think of a stair rail in an old home or a well-used tool, worn smooth by generations of use. A sensei or change leader learns to appreciate that wabi-sabi in the current operation. An aging enterprise is full of old facilities, legacy products, old yet effective machinery, used systems, existing data bases, a customer base, existing work rules and job descriptions, many skilled employees, savvy supervisors and apt technical experts – the whole lot

Nothing is actually “wrong” in any workplace because the current state of an operation is the natural result of causes and conditions that accumulate over years. The change leader knows that many employees are stuck in the mechanistic paradigm that objectifies work and life and feels compassion and for them operational change will cause confusion and stress. 



[1] Cited in Zen, Alan Watts, pg. 17, from H. A. Giles, Chaong-Tzu, Kelly and Walsh, Shanghai

[2] The Tao of Zen, Ray Grigg, Alva Press, 1994

[3] This model is adapted from the Toyota Way to Lean Leadership, by Jeffrey K. Liker and Gary Convis…

[4] unknown

[5] The Birth of Lean, Lean Enterprise Institute, p. 60




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