Six Sigma has its “belts.” Lean Sigma has the same. Lean doesn't have a tradition of “belts.” Toyota doesn't have belts or color coding of people in their factories… just learning, improvement, and development.
Over a decade ago, when I worked at my last manufacturing company, Honeywell, my formal job title was “Lean Expert.”
I hated that job title.
I didn't feel like an “expert” then, and I don't usually feel like one now. I'm just trying to help people improve… and learn how to improve… and get better at it. We're all just “Practicing Lean,” I say.
At Honeywell, I went through a formal four-week Black Belt-style education and certification program for Lean (not Six Sigma and not Lean Sigma).
In their eyes, I'm a formally certified “Lean Expert.” Yet, when people ask if I'm certified or have “a belt,” my first thought is to say “no” until I remember otherwise, sometimes prompted by seeing the shiny plaque hanging on the wall in my office.
Note, the plaque is dated January 2006, and I left the company in August 2005. I was certified earlier in 2005. To their credit, they still mailed me the plaque after I moved, but that wasn't exactly world-class cycle time being demonstrated there.
The next level up, at Honeywell, was called “Lean Master,” a title that's even worse.
Lean leadership starts with humility, and I try to practice that (although I sometimes fail in this pursuit). We're all human.
Lean practitioners, in any industry, have all sorts of job titles, including:
- Process improvement facilitator
- Lean coordinator
- Continuous improvement lead
- Continuous process improvement analyst
- Continuous improvement specialist
- Internal Lean consultant
- Lean process engineer
- Lean coach
I like the phrase “Lean coach.” It's used a lot in the Lean Startup movement. When I was at Honeywell, I begged them to put “Lean Coach” on my business card, but HR said “no” to that. Ah, bureaucracy.
The title that makes me cringe is some variation of:
- Lean Sensei
- Certified Lean Sensei
They don't use terms like that at Toyota. Nor do they use the term “samurai.” Yes, I've seen a “Samurai Master Black Belt” and a “Lean Six Sigma Samurai.” Yes, that's a thing… but “Lean Six Sigma Samurai” is trademarked… so at least that discourages others from adopting the term.
Using Japanese terms might invite this reaction from people we're working with:
Especially if that one “samurai” says incorrect things like this.
I'm not sure who is certifying people as “sensei,” but the idea seems to fly in the face of what the term is supposed to represent.
When I had a chance to work with Pascal Dennis, I learned a lot. One thing I learned from Pascal and his team is about the word “sensei.”
They defined the term as “one who has gone before you.” Notice that doesn't mean “expert.” It means, basically, somebody with a little more experience than you.
Wikipedia says the word translates literally as “person born before another” but means “teacher” in a practical sense. It's “a word used to refer to others.”
How does one get certified as having more experience than everybody else? I guess a birth certificate shows if you were born before me… but you're not older than everybody… but it's not just about age.
I've also been taught that “sensei” is a term that shows honor and respect. It's a term given by a student to their teacher. It's not a label you give to yourself. One uses the term to show respect to others. You choose to call somebody else a “sensei.”
As an aside, I saw one cringe-worthy video online where a Lean guy calls himself a “certified Lean sensei” and then repeatedly pronounces “sensei” incorrectly… instead of “sen-say” he said “sen-sigh,” which makes it seem even sillier. Oh, he was a “LEAN sensei,” even though the word is not an acronym.Here is a short adudio clip from one of those videos, with the name removed to protect the guy (he means well, so why embarrass him?). He probably means well. But to say a “sensei” is “a wise master” who is an “expert,” and to then put that label on yourself, doesn't make me think of humility. It's marketing.
I readily and sincerely call Pascal a “sensei.” I did then, and I would today. He is more experienced than me. I respect his knowledge and ability to teach others, so I choose to call him sensei.
Pascal does not call himself a “sensei” as a general term or title. There are people out there that Pascal would call “sensei.” The term is situational. It's not a general label for a person. Pascal especially would not tell me to call him “sensei.”
If I see somebody labeled as “sensei” and I don't know them, the term seems strange. They aren't teaching me… so they aren't my sensei. I'm not choosing to call them sensei. That term can't apply as a blanket statement, especially if they've given the title to themselves.
When somebody calls me sensei (it happens sometimes, and I'd never demand it), I blush a bit, but that's the person's right to choose to call me that. I am not Pascal's sensei. And that's fine.
Here is a blog post from the martial arts realm:
It makes many of these same points.
“In the west, we tend to call anybody who has a martial arts dojo, sensei. They are those guys with black belts wearing a gi who teach a class. They tell you that while you're in the dojo you need to call them sensei. Some of them don't even tell you what sensei means, so you just assume it's a title. Of course, it doesn't have to be sensei, it can be sifu or some other name. But, they all mean the same thing: the person who's teaching you.”
The author points out that “sensei” is a term of respect, not a title:
“You honor your teacher by calling him sensei, and you honor the best pupil by calling him senpai. This comes from the fact that in Japan and China, respect is very important, much more important than it is in the west. However, as you know, respect needs to be earned.”
So if somebody claims to be a “certified sensei,” that respect, from a Lean perspective, would still need to be earned. So why call yourself that? If we're going to fetishize terms from karate and the martial arts, let's at least use them properly.
“So, how do you earn respect? By getting your black belt? Not really. There are children who are 9 or 10 years old and who have a black belt. Nobody calls them sensei. And if they do, they really shouldn't. Does this mean that being called sensei comes with age? Not necessarily. You find much older adults who have black belts but are never called sensei.”
The blog post continues:
“It's a bit confusing, isn't it? Yes it is. You see, the point is that even if the guy teaching karate at the local gym demands that you call him sensei, he might not be a sensei at all. There's a difference between teaching how to kick and punch, being an instructor or coach and between a sensei. A huge difference!”
The same might be said about Lean if someone “demands that you call him sensei.”
Again from the post:
“So, who can you call a sensei? A person who doesn't only teach you the techniques, a person who also teaches you the philosophy behind the martial art that you're studying, a person who's wise and sage, and a person who teaches by example.”
If you've been forced to use a job title like “Lean Sensei,” I don't blame you. You're like I was with the “Lean Expert” job title. It happens.
What I have more discomfort with is somebody who gives themselves the title.
I doubt that somebody who labels themselves as “sensei” on LinkedIn is going to change their ways because of this blog post. Oh well. Putting that “samurai” label on yourself might be the equivalent of committing professional seppuku? Or maybe it helps them. “It's just marketing,” someone might say.
But maybe this will keep the next generation of Lean practitioners from focusing on giving themselves honorary titles like sensei or samurai.
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