Why You Shouldn’t Call Yourself “Sensei” Or Make Others Call You That


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.

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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:

  • Sensei
  • 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:

The Meaning of Sensei pt 1

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.”

Read the entire blog post here

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.

Does this matter? Maybe this doesn't matter. What do you think?

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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. As it happens, I was recently leafing through “Striking Thoughts,” a long forgotten book on, of all things, the philosophy of Kung Fu & film legend, Bruce Lee.

    You’d think a young flamboyant international martial arts film star would be full of himself.

    Quite the contrary, Bruce was thoughtful & reflective, aware of his prowess, fame & wealth, but humble nonetheless, citing the cycles & journey of life.

  2. I don’t feel like I’m an “Expert” or “Sensei”. I’m simply a coach helping people learn, grow, and solve problems. Thanks for the post Mark! How should I view someone that has put sensei in their title? He has written a great book on lean that has added value to me and others. Thoughts???

    • I can’t tell you how to view them :-)

      That’s great that they have added value to you and others.

      I’ve said what I have to say about calling oneself “a sensei.” That applies regardless of anybody’s contribution, I’d say.

  3. I offer, and sometimes prefer ‘coach’ if people aren’t comfortable with being on a first name basis. Most everyone has been in a coached situation at some point, and it does set the situational aspects pretty accurately. I hadn’t seen much of the ‘samurai’ marketing, but I’ve noticed everyone is looking for ‘Rapid’ continuous improvement. I suppose they don’t want this lifetime learning experience to take too long.

  4. Excellent post!

    I am in general agreement with you about the use of the word Sensei. That’s why I call myself the “Changeover Wizard”. I may not be an expert but I do make things happen.

    There is another reason not to use the word sensei. At the risk of sounding parochial, we speak English and should use English words. I am a fan of the Toyota system and the Ford System that preceded it but I think adapting Japanese language jargon dilutes clarity.

    How many people can remember that the 5 Ss are seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke, for example? I’ve been working with it for years and I had to look it up just now. Even if someone can remember the words, they will have trouble remembering what each one means.

    Far easier to use the English Sort, Set In Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. More importantly, far clearer since even someone who has never heard of 5S will at least have some idea of what each of those steps means.

    Re the Expert, I am the first to admit that I am no expert. A lot of what I do is just asking people what should be done. The amount of knowledge out there on the plant floor is simply amazing. The amount of knowledge that is out there and never used is shameful. Much of the time it is not used because nobody ever bothered to ask.

    For 20 years not I’ve been closing my workshops with a quote from John Y Shook (From the book “The Machine that Changed the World”?):

    “There are no experts, only people with more experience. The longer we wait to begin, the more experience our competitors will have when we start.”

    John Henry

  5. I agree with your post Mark. I would never call myself a sensei…one of the things I love about lean is “I’m still learning.” It truly is a life time journey and fortunately the best people with experience are almost always helpful in offering further guidance. I certainly try to do that when I have something to offer and I know you do the same.

  6. Hi Mark – If you don’t consider yourself an expert, why do you say you are “an internationally-recognized expert” and also say “At Honeywell, Mark was certified as a ‘Lean Expert'” here https://www.markgraban.com/about-mark-graban and here http://brightsightgroup.com/speakers/mark-graban/ and here https://www.linkedin.com/in/mgraban/and here https://www.markgraban.com/about-mark-graban/credentials-and-experience/. You might want to fix those web pages. It is not necessary for you to post this comment.

    • Thanks for pulling the andon cord.

      I should change and update the wording in my bio. The marketing speak is something I shouldn’t let creep into my bio. That’s what happens when somebody else writes your bio, but I should own that and I can change that.

      Stating that I was certified “Lean Expert” by Honeywell is a statement of fact.

      • Mark,

        You always give great insights. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that there are those (at least 2 of them, lately) that attack everything lean. They add nothing, but lots of noise. I’ve begun referring to them as ‘lean coconuts’.

        Following the theme, you never know when you’re a lean coconut. But others do, due to the clanging & banging, adding no actual value. Fortunately, there are few of these in our profession.

        Our profession does need to evolve, if we are to remain relevant. The first step here is to move beyond the ‘tools-forward’ approach pushed by many practitioners. You and I are in agreement on that too!

        Keep fighting the good fight, you are one of the few I can count on to challenge the contemporary view, and come to valuable conclusions!

    • Examples of humility from Bob’s book descriptions that he wrote:

      “Professor Emiliani reveals the truth about Lean.”

      “This rigorous and insightful critique…”

      “At long last, the deep secrets of Lean management are revealed! This provocative and insightful book…”

      “…will find this book extremely helpful if not life-changing.”

      ” Readers will find this book to be amazingly insightful …”

      “There is no other book like this one.” — that’s a factual statement about any book, I guess.

      Bob is a self-appointed “visionary.” But not an expert. Calling yourself an expert is bad, but all sorts of other ego-driven puffery are OK. Take that, Mark!

  7. Mark,

    “My Life and Work” is definitely in the public domain. I found that out for sure when I brought it back to life about 15 years ago.

    Ford’s second book “Today and Tomorrow” I suspect is not, since it is republished by Productivity Press. “Moving Forward” may be in public domain.

    I once looked into it and it was unclear if copyright had been maintained.

    I did find a copy and scanned it and am happy to share. It is out of print and if it is not a crime for a copyright holder to let a book like this go out of print, it should be.

    John Henry

    • From Wikipedia: Copyright Law in the US: “Copyright protection generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was a “work for hire”, then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. For works created before 1978, the copyright duration rules are complicated. However, works created before 1923 have made their way into the public domain.”

      The fact that Productivity Press published an edition of something does not take it out of public domain. Now, I can’t photocopy the Productivity Press edition and sell it for money, but if I typeset and publish my own edition, I am able to sell that. Productivity Press doesn’t actually own the rights, they are just publishing a public domain work–(they might own their forward, or something like that).

      This is why you see fancy gold bound copies of Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities, etc at your local Barnes & Noble under various publishers. There’s a small cottage industry of folks taking public domain works and self-publishing them as ebooks on Amazon for $.99. It’s costs next to nothing to do that. I can’t imagine its very profitable.

      • Andrew,

        We are getting a bit off topic with copyright but I have looked into Today and Tomorrow and Moving Forward.

        My life and work is definitely public domain being published before 1923. Any book before that date is PD. The other two are less clear, having been published in 1928 and 1931 respectively. I did look into it a few years ago since I had the idea to publish all three in a single volume with a forward why Ford still matters.

        Short answer is: Its complicated and it would require hiring a specialist to make sure and even then it is not 100% sure. So I give away copies and if anyone shows up claiming ownership, I’ll just say “Sorry, I’ll stop. But as long as you are here, can we make a deal so I can sell it?”

        Re e-books, there is money in them. Not necessarily much in each book but there are folks that publish a lot of them. That 99 cent book generates 70 cents royalty to whoever put it up. Since there is no cost to publish, other than a bit of time to scan, format and upload, someone who publishes, say 100 books, each of which sells 2-3 a month, gets a nice payday for doing not much.

        I’ve published with Productivity Press and with Amazon (Create Space and Kindle) PP was very good with me and did everything a traditional publisher should.

        Amazon has been much better in a lot of ways PP could never be. All my future books will be with Amazon.

        If you or anyone want details, contact me off list.

  8. I mentioned how fanatical Henry Ford was about lean. Mark mentioned that quality is a big part of lean and Ford was fanatical about quality as well. Quality defined as absence of variation.

    One of the things he did was buy Carl Johanssen’s company and bring him from Sweden. He was the “master of measurement” and had developed a system of gauge blocks that could measure down to a millionth of an inch. Machinists still use “Jo blocks” today for precise measurement and calibration.

    A story I read somewhere said that Johanssen had an office adjoining Henry Ford’s and was one of 2 people, son Edsel being the other, who had the privilege of entering Ford’s office without knocking.

    Johannsen co-wrote a chapter for Moving Forward called “A Millionth of an Inch” I like it enough that it is on my site at www.http://changeover.com/henryfordonquality.html

  9. Mark the thing to call myself is a lean guy. At work I prefer lean coach, but my favorite title was Bob the Helper because my boss said ‘Bob just goes and helps people get things done.”

  10. Well I think it is actually a commercial thing. As we are selling Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma levels in Belts, through which you can sell more training and more consultancy we do have an attractive proposition and i think it should stay that way. Within Lean we of course read about Shigeo Shingo (Other names, Shingō dai-sensei) who was thus seen as a ‘ SenSei’. Well now we have another Judo level we can commercially sell. Hence in Six Sigma we can now grow to Master BlackBelt, but we have a Lean variety as well: Sensei. A nice piece was written by Michael Balle: http://planet-lean.com/what-is-the-role-of-a-sensei-in-a-lean-organization.
    Anyway many people who are BB’s and MBB’s when specializing in Lean and not so much in Six Sigma like to use the equavalent of MBB which is Sensei, any why not?

    • I don’t think “Sensei” is the same as a “master black belt.” Lean doesn’t have this belt formality. Why not use the term as something to sell? I’ve tried to make the case in the post.

      • Hi Mark. Just as an FYI, lean does has some certifications that some organizations have begun, including some consulting companies, but they’re not referred to as “belts.” I guess they’re considered “levels.” They normally go, from lowest to highest: bronze, silver, gold. One option to earn these certifications is through a joint effort by ASQ, AME, the Shingo Institute, and SME. Here is the link: http://www.sme.org/lean-review/.

        I’m squarely in your camp, however, with the perspective on certifications. It’s more about how a person can coach people to become great problem-solvers as a team.

        • Hi Mark – Thanks for your comment.

          You’re right.

          I guess it goes to show the variation that has crept into Lean practice.

          Toyota doesn’t do belts or levels or certifications.

          The Lean Enterprise Institute (home of the term “Lean”) has, to their credit, refused to get involved with the Lean certification business (and they gave up a potential source of revenue because they thought it was a matter of principle).

          I’m not saying the other organizations are unprincipled. They are responding to demand from their members and the market.

          But it creates so much confusion. I guy a know from a hospital sent me a message saying his executives weren’t doing more to learn more about Lean because they are “certified Lean leaders” whatever the heck that is.

  11. Just the other day someone reminded me that I had my master blackbelt certification because I literally forgot. In fact I was looking into getting the master level belt. Now before you think I am senile, I am not. I just agree with Mark. I don’t see myself or feel like an expert. I am constantly evolving and learning and would never put on airs that I am an expert. I just strive to keep learning and sharing what I am learning. Great article!

  12. On the other side… I disagree with Michael Balle’s argument that we should aim to call ourselves “sensei” instead of “consultant.” My argument is that not all consultants would be called sensei by somebody… no consultant should call themselves that.

    Michael’s piece


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