Guest Post: Lean Leaders Conference, Part 1 – Do Senseis Need Trace Back to Ohno?


Mark's note: You may recognize the author of this guest post, Andrew Castle, as a previous contributor and frequent commenter on my blog. I was offered a press pass to a lean event in the UK, an invite I was able to pass along to Andrew. Here is his report, the first part of four posts that will run over the next few weeks.

IQPC staged their first “Lean Leaders” conference in London on July 5th and 6th and the flyers suggested that it would be something different. Not hour upon hour of power-point and a couple of days of your life that you can not get back, but a more discursive and facilitative event valuing contributions from those in attendance.

I should state at this point that many of the conferences I've been to over the past few years have been death by power-point and that when I started going the aspiration was to get one interesting point from each presenter on each day. This eventually evolved in to one point in the morning and one in the afternoon on each day until finally, last year, just one point at all would be considered a victory.

So in spite of my incredibly low expectations the conference was in fact very interesting – the PowerPoint had not been completely eliminated, but there was an enormous amount of discussion about a variety of topics related to Lean, Operational Excellence and Change Management and almost all of it was very interesting.

The discussion covered far too much ground to reproduce in this article so I thought that I would simply highlight some observations that were made during the course of two days that appeared to resonate with those present. I'll also discuss the audiences and my own views of them and where I think a forum like this has a place in the current economic climate.

The themes that I think it is worth re-examining (in this and future posts) from the conference are:

  1. Senseis
  2. To Centralise or De-centralise Service Improvement / Lean
  3. Measurement (including financial accountability)
  4. Culture – leadership, behaviour and senior management and executives recognizing that it is not free and that they need to invest in senior people


An observation that was made by the opening plenary speaker, Michael Balle', related to how organizations wishing to pursue “Lean” (other monikers are available) should identify and select a “Sensei”. His response was that one should be selected based on the ability to trace their “Lean pedigree / history” back to Ohno and his descendents.

There were a number of views on this and there are definitely pros and cons to each. The argument that you should be able to trace the lineage is sound in so far as you would want to ensure that the person that is acting in the “teacher / mentor” role has the experience and the knowledge to undertake supporting an organisation-wide transformation.

The second obvious advantage of this method of selecting a Sensei is that you are not going to end up with an individual whose understanding and experience of Lean was gained through an evening class at a local community college. That said, however, I'm not entirely convinced that the only alternative to an Ohno-trained Lean Sensei is one with virtually no experience.

I think that this method of selecting a Sensei presents several issues, including:

  • Is a sensei necessary to a successful Lean Transformation?
  • The pool of individuals that could satisfy these criteria is limited

The discussion that continued over the course of two days made it clear that there are as many approaches to undertaking a Lean Transformation as there are businesses doing so. Their were multinationals that had undertaken the programme with little or no external influence with success and others that had pursued external support and found that it did not work due to issues of differences in attitude, culture and behaviours.

I think that any organisation undertaking, or considering undertaking a transformation programme can make an informed decision upon the use of Senseis, where they might find them and what sort of experience they should have through attending forums and conferences such as this. A forum where their peers are able to provide feedback on what works / what doesn't, and how or why they might do things differently if they were starting again is definitely worth the price of admission.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Thanks for sharing your observations from the conference, Andrew.

    Not having been there for the discussion it’s hard to pick up the true timbre, but I must admit that the notion of a sensei needing a pedigree back to Ohno comes off as more than a little elitist/arrogant to me. What was meant by that? That a sensei has studied Ohno’s teachings or that the person has done the “pilgrimage to Japan” thing? Yes, I agree that a sensei needs the experience necessary to support an organization-wide lean transformation, but some of the best Lean thinkers I’ve intereacted with have gained their knowledge and experience through many, many sources, never met Ohno or even his protoges, but are excellent senseis nevertheless. The Lean philosophy itself was developed through learning from many sources… Hmmm…

    That must have been a very good discussion. Looking forward to more of your guest posts and insights, Andrew.

  2. While I think it would be ideal to be able to say my teacher’s teacher learned from Taichi Ohno, there are plenty of organizations without access to someone whose “teacher’s teacher’s teacher” was Ohno or that lack the resources to pay people in this class to provide intensive or ongoing support as sensei. Someone with a certificate in “lean” from the local community college isn’t the only other option though.

    We have had many teachers here: in books, in classes, in webinars, in Mark Graban’s awesome podcast archive, in videos (thank you GBMP!), at conferences where the veterans come to teach and interact, in networking (very important!) with others struggling with the same problems. As a small organization without a lot of cash to throw around, we’ve had to “bootstrap” our lean transformation and leverage learning opportunities with great teachers where we find them.

    And of course this is just the foundation, the orientation. The really learning takes place in practicing and teaching PDCA on the shop floor, in the warehouse and office.

    Taking a two-day public workshop with John Shook or Pascal Dennis or others who have been close to Shingo or Ohno or their students, is as close as I’m going to get, so when I can, I do it. And I’m all ears, listening for the stories and the insights that illuminate the teachings. Then bring them home and make them part of our culture, our “lean meme”, if you will.

    Would things have gone faster and better with a great sensei actually in gemba with us? Almost certainly, given the readiness we had. But I think it is the readiness that was the key. No teacher is sufficient without it, and the organization that is ready to learn can find a way.

  3. I’ve met some of the people who worked directly with Ohno and Shingo and they’re often no joy to work with. I think the “you must have learned from Ohno” to qualify argument is often self-serving.

    There aren’t enough of those people to go around, so if that’s the only way to get Lean, then the Lean movement is doomed.

  4. During the last 15+ years I’ve recruited probably a few hundred “senseis” for my clients in North America, Europe and Asia. I observe that, based on both successful and less-than-successful Lean implementations which subsequently took place, having an Ohno or Shingo connection makes virtually NO difference in outcomes. But I’ve compiled a very long list of the factors which do. “Simple Excellence: Organizing and Aligning the Management Team in a Lean Transformation” available in Novemeber, will address many of these. Adam Zak, the Lean Recruiter

  5. An interesting theory… My experience suggests that learning from a direct “descendant” of Ohno will give you great text book knowledge of the Toyota Production System. Having worked with senior Toyota “Senseis” I have experienced both good and bad methods for deployment of Lean transformations. Their knowledge and experience is vast however their experience of accelerating an organisation through change where a non Lean culture exists can be limited.

    Often the best come from an environment where change at the micro level is a daily occurance and built on solid foundations. Directing an organisation through transition where a change culture doesn’t exist at any level becomes a different proposition; the pull to become native is very strong. Some can steer their way through but I have seen more leave when the size of the task confronts them.

    The toyota environment is a carefully controlled experiment built on standards where everywhere else starts out as chaos and that chaos is more accute when leaving Toyota.

    A wise investment could be people who have since cut their teeth away from the influence of TPS and understand the size of the problem that is culture change.

  6. Kopstar – you’re absolutely right… knowing how to be Lean isn’t the same as knowing how to help transform an organization. It might have been corporate urban legend, but one of my past manufacturing employers hired a guy from Toyota, who promptly melted down and quit during the first week because he couldn’t handle the waste. Helping someone transform is a different skill set than knowing how to walk in and help manage a Toyota factory.

  7. Today’s society has changed greatly since the years of Ohno. In addition, the fact that our Western culture is significantly different than the Eastern culture seems to escape many. I see the most successful sensei’s being those who know how to truly work in transforming an entire oganizational culture in the pursuit of excellence. This requires a great deal of humility, interpersonal skills, patience, and the ability to communicate cross-functionally throughout every level of an organization. Knowing how to pull it all together for the characteristics of an organization goes way beyond being Ohno, Deming or anyone else trained if one truly wants to change a culture to one of continuous improvement. If one is just consulting for a pay check then another perspective, obviously becomes evident.

  8. We had some ex-Toyota consultants working with us. Not a success. Sure, they knew the tools and thinking, but they really couldn’t understand just how hard change management is outside that environment. They were also not sensitised to listening to clues about poor quality – reflecting lack of exposure to Six Sigma and the reality that not everyone tracks defects to the Toyota level.

    If ex-Toyota consultants want opportunities in the real world, they will need to understand that common ideas that are their daily bread are either unknown, or lip-service paid to them, elsewhere.

  9. I apologise for being a bit late to the party but I was in Bordeaux carrying out an extensive evaluation of the application of Lean in the production of premier cru wines :)

    (This is a subject worthy of an entire post, the lead time is astonishing as is the aging process, but I digress)

    I think the responses above have summarised the views of those present. The range of experiences that were reported of having worked with direct descendants of Ohno varied and the view of that being a requirement were also varied. There were those that found them impossible to work with and unable to adapt to completely different commercial and cultural environments, and those that had successful programs of work.

    There were those that saw it as self serving, that sometimes it was successful and what a particular business needed at that point in time, and those that found those that had learned the principles in that environment ill suited to transfer them to a different sector.

    The only thing that I would be willing to say is that if the requirement to do lean was that one had to employ someone that had “first hand” knowledge, then as “Anon Sensei” has pointed out, Lean is doomed.

    The interesting thing to note here is that this standard would be far higher than the acceptable standard for learning, for example, how to do a hip replacement, heart transplant or pretty much any other medical procedure. I’m not saying it would not be better to learn about heart transplants from the first person to perform them but there are several thousand completed each year globally, and the first was done in the 60’s, and there is that old medical maxim of “see one, do one, teach one”.

    I think there are a range of ways of approaching a Lean implementation and in my opinion Executive support and board engagement may be the single most important factor in success or failure, not the genealogy of the lean consultant.

  10. Andrew, you have touched on the one critical success criteria for a successful Lean transformation regardless of the pedigree of the sensei; top down unwaivering commitment to Lean with clear leadership.

    Until the most senior executives in any organisation understand the core principles of humility and respect for the individual they will never unlock the potential that surrounds them.

    Without this they will be forever dabbling with tools..

  11. I have to be absolutely honest at this point and say that whilst the experience and knowledge of “lean” is desirable, information about it is widely available and there are stacks of publications on it. If you want to know about a Kanban, Visual Management, 5S, etc, you can pick up books by Bicheno, Liker or any of probably a hundred authors, you can do masters in it, doctorates in it, undergraduate degrees in it, but none of that buy’s an individual the ability to inspire and lead an organisation through a change programme.

    A change cultural change programme is infinitely harder than being implement a solid material management solution to a supply chain problem.

    If I had to choose between someone demonstrably able to lead and deliver change with a cursory knowledge of the tools versus a “lean expert” lacking the “people skills”, I’d almost always take the former. The latter can be taught, bought or otherwise obtained but solid leadership is worth its weight in gold.

  12. I recently was in touch with a couple of people that were hiring “Lean Architects” and “Lean Navigators”. Interestingly (and disturbingly) they were not interested in any Lean background AT ALL. The basic requirements were 1) Experience as a management consultant and 2) the willingness to learn and execute “the method” – in this particular case, a 12-week “transformation” approach devised by McKinsey. They made it very clear that they were not looking for Senseis of any kind (nor did they have any), you just needed to fully adhere to “the method”. Must be some kind of method, especially if it can achieve a “transformation” in 12 weeks!

  13. […] by Mark Graban on August 12, 2010 · 0 comments tweetcount_url='';tweetcount_title='Guest Post: Lean Leaders Conference, Part 2 – To Centralise or De-centralise?';tweetcount_cnt=0;tweetcount_src='RT @LeanBlog';tweetcount_via=false;tweetcount_background='cc6600';tweetcount_border='DAE2F0';tweetcount_text='DAE2F0';tweetcount_api_key='d8f2363c00a05734d2ba0ea87b17c416c523acd1af22ead7f9ed47018ff2bfb7';Mark’s note: You may recognize the author of this guest post, Andrew Castle, as a previous contributor and frequent commenter on my blog. I was offered a press pass to a lean event in the UK, an invite I was able to pass along to Andrew. Here is his report, the second part of four posts that are running here in August. Read Part 1 here. […]


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