What is a Lean Sensei ?

Lean Sensei

What is a Lean Sensei ?

‘Sensei’ is a is a Japanese word that is literally translated as “person born before another”. Most of the time, it is attached to professionals in fields of study that require several years. In general usage, it is used, after a person’s name, and means “teacher”. In Lean management, the term still holds true since mentorship and learning from the experience of others is still one of the most important ways for imparting knowledge and developing the next generation of business leaders. The closest equivalent in our industry is the concept of “Lean Sensei,” which encourages organizations and teams to seek outside, third-party experts, who can provide unbiased advice and coaching (see Womack et al., Lean Thinking, 1998). The role of Lean Sensei within your organization is to develop the lean thinking philosophy and best practices. Experienced Sensei, for example, often bring up mentoring and knowledge transfer concepts, because they know that a lean thinking culture can only happen when more experienced people continuously coach and guide the less experienced.

This is why finding great leaders and teachers in and outside your company is important—not only for your business, processes and products—but also for your staff knowledge and corporate culture.

But how do you know if you’ve found a great lean sensei? Do you even have one already within your ranks? Or do you have to hire a consultant to create the great teachers and mentors in your office?

Whatever your choices are, great mentors and teachers have common traits. To help you identify a sensei in your company (or outside), here are some things that you need to look for:

  • A person with an intellectually-stimulated personal life. A good sensei has a wide vocabulary and mastery of his language. You can’t teach or impart knowledge when you are limited by your own language, after all. She/He should be well-read and be versed in current events and history enough to provide anecdotal and historical evidence for the things that he teaches. This can only come through development of his personal life with friends who share the same interests that fall under the intellectually-stimulating category.
  • A person who is curious and asks relevant, thought-provoking questions. Curiosity is a great attitude to have—but when coupled with genuine thirst for knowledge and an open mind, you have a sensei that is continuously improving. A person like this tests his knowledge, assumptions and intellectual boundaries all the time, eager to learn and even hoping to find flaws and mistakes in his thinking to improve himself.
  • A person to whom data and evidence matter the most. When you’re looking for someone who can be a sensei in your company, it should be someone who’s always asking for data to back up claims, observations and to help analysis work. This kind of person knows that anecdotal evidence is well and good—but hardly reliable and enough to create a workable solution. It’s important; therefore that the person you’re looking at can back his or her teachings with solid evidence—quantitative and qualitative in nature.
  • A person who believes that intelligence is a state of mind. Intelligence is not inborn—it is achievable. True teachers and mentors know that most of so-called intelligence is just an ability to retain facts, mimic the observation of others and a lot of hard work. Cleverness is cool, but not helpful most of the time. A true sensei is there to uplift his student to his same level or even higher—which means it’s only the amount of work you put into learning and a state of mind.

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