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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

The Role of the Sensei in Learning

This kind of specification is not a case of perverse Taylorism or micromanagement, with smart people telling less-intelligent people what to do.  It is, in fact, an investment.” – Steven J. Spear

When kicking off a lean transformation, organizations often hire specialists or consultants to keep the initiative on-track.  Although this can greatly help with the transformation, it is critical that these people understand that their role is to be coaches rather than players in the process.

If the objective is to achieve sustained transformation, people throughout the organization must learn that lean is a very different way of looking at business.  They must understand how it applies to their jobs, as well as the company’s processes, systems, and culture.  This type of learning occurs when the individual actively participates in the changes by developing new ways to work, including the freedom to experiment with new ideas that may fail.

The role of a specialist, or sensei, is to guide people in the new way of thinking.  The more the experts do things – change systems, redesign processes, etc. – or tell people what they need to be doing, the more they interfere with learning and reduce the chances of sustaining the change.

Conversations, Dialogue, and Questioning to Drive Learning

One critical role of a specialist is to drive the adoption of a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) mindset throughout the organization.  This involves coaching people how to look at a situation, analyze what is going on, and develop ideas to improve performance in a simple and direct way.  When people identify countermeasures that do not appear to effectively address a problem, the specialist can either let them learn through a failed experiment or engage them in dialogue to help them see for themselves where their thinking went wrong and how to get back on track.

The process requires patience and a great deal of questioning: Why do you think that? Why did you approach the problem/change in that way?  What ideas or approaches did you discard along the way?  How do you know you what is happening in the process?

To be truly effective in the role, the specialist must possess a deep understanding of lean and be adept at Socratic or ORID (Objective-Reflective-Interpretive-Decisional) techniques.  These methods are proven to be effective at facilitating learning by helping people think through facts, feelings, and connections about a situation before making decisions.  Without these types of methods, the specialist will tend to tell people what to do and, although this may result in compliance and some level of improvement, it will not create the type of learning that will enable people to apply the information to other situations.

Slowing Down to Go Faster

Although coaching may appear to take longer than attempting to drive change by telling people what to do, it greatly increases the chances of sustaining the transformation.  The difficulty the organization’s leaders often have with this approach is related to the lack of patience that characterizes western business.  The difficulty faced by the sensei in coaching versus doing comes from the excitement that people tend to have when they learn about lean and what it can do for an organization. It’s not easy to hold back opinions when you know what should be done to move the process forward or address a problem.

The only chance of sustaining transformation – and I’m not completely convinced that sustained transformation is ever possible – will occur when people start thinking PDSA and acting lean when the sensei isn’t around, which is something that will never happen without effective coaching.

About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


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