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 is to develop a leader’s capacity to stay present and w9rk in flow despite stress. She learns that by staying present new, arising insights will locate new ideas, and that flow will enable change in an operation. As the vehicle for teaching. The teacher uses an Asian learning approach, to first gain direct experience with a problem or the work being done, actually being immersed in tasks involved. L

The ultimate aim is to use a practice, experiment with a work improvement as the vehicle to develop a leader's capacity to stay preset and in flow despite the anxiety and stress. When she 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

Immersion disrupts old paradigms about how operational change can be made and how it can be sustained.

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 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 leader
  •        Provide a coaching format like the A3, Customer-Back or Kata methods
  •        Supply skilled resources to the leader

The sensei’s initial aim is to shock an individual with a command and control paradigm into “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
Many Western operations managers have ingrained beliefs and habits which they stubbornly hold  to and rationalize  Seeing this, a teacher may strike the leader with a verbal or behavioral Zen stick. 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

In reflection and dialogue with a sensei, an aspiring change leader comes to "realize the way."

New Change Leader Leads Rapid Improvement Events

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. 

Over many kaizen events. lean process experiments or lean coaching engagements, an aspiring change leader learns to "live the way", that is, engage people with presence, flow and compassion.

New Change Leaders Coach in the Sensei Way

A leader who can sustain presence and frequently find flow in communications or work, guides the development of new aspiring leaders. After a significant time leading rapid improvements, a change leader has gained "transmission"  from his or her sensei and is authorized to "teach the way."

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).

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 management paradigm of command and control is the kryptonite. The sensei disrupts the old paradigm of business operations and the obsolete philosophy and practice of leadership for receptive, aspiring change leaders.

The Presence Kata

Over my years of coaching and leading change, I’ve developed a DIY model for the Sensei Way. It’s a template that’s derived from meditation, and it can help you raise your own consciousness or track another during a dialogue with another person.21 It’s shown in Figure 8.2. The steps of the presence kata are as follows: 

1. Establish a practice or ritual that brings rhythm and focus to the body and stability in the mind. This can be a physical movement, rhythmic breathing, repeating a mantra, doing a visualization, among others. 

2. Set aside your own agenda and become a witness, mindful of “what is,” in your self and you surroundings without bias, judgment, or obvious projection. 

3. In order to strengthen mindfulness, concentrate attention for one minute (30 in and out breaths) on each of the following. First notice the surroundings, sensing what it sounds like, smells like, looks like, or feels like. Don’t do anything with the information, just notice. Next Figure 8.2  notice bodily sensations of comfort or discomfort for a minute. Now, for another minute, attend to your thoughts and impressions, not judging them, just allowing them pass through and out of your mind. Move through this sequence daily to strengthen mindfulness.

4. Concentrate your attention back onto your own awareness for a minute. When concentration is lost, return attention to your awareness. As you do this, let go of all self-concern and you will enter into the state of presence for a time. 

5. Stay present and you will be naturally drawn to a motivating task or a meaningful communication, and as you begin; a flow state will arise. 6. When you stay present engage in find flow, you will see people stuck in conflict with others or experiencing suffering due to their own undisciplined minds. Then, compassion will arise naturally within you. Practice using the presence kata in quiet times, and it will serve you when people, events, or your own thoughts and emotions disrupt your mind. Eventually when you have made mindfulness your default state of mind, you will be able to jump quickly to step 4. 

However, even after becoming learning to stay present and find flow, there's something every aspiring change leaders need to understand.

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. 

After my years of experience in coaching executives and leading change in business operations, there is one big thing I always haave to remember to do.

Be the Change

Transforming a traditional business into a lean operation isn’t devilishly difficult, nor are the vast majority of employees inherently resistant to change. People respond in kind to a change leader’s state-of-being

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