Drop the “Sensei” nonsense!

In the US, many use the Japanese word “Sensei” for the people who help companies implement Lean; in Japan, they use the English word “Consultant.” On both sides, words borrowed from the other’s language have snob appeal, and give the jobs a mystique it doesn’t need or deserve.

See What to Expect from Lean Manufacturing Consultants for  a Japanese perspective on this profession. As I also pointed out earlier, “sensei” (先生) is the Japanese word for school teacher. As a title, it is used through High School but not in Universities. You might use it to say that a person teaches at a university, but there is another word for “Professor” (Kyoju).

In Karate, there are six levels of instructors, from Deshi to Soke, and Sensei is the second lowest. The word is also attached to people’s names as a form of address, instead of “San,” either to make them feel respected for their expertise or sarcastically. It is nothing special.

In Lean, there is nothing a “Sensei” does that is different from what a good consultant would do. There is no need for new vocabulary. Consulting involves a business relationship that is different from employment, but the same kind of agreement also covers contractors as well as consultants.

What is the difference?  Most people don’t see any, and many contractors call themselves “consultants.” The key distinction is that a contractor works like a temporary employee, while consultants advise, train, and coach employees. The contractor’s output is more tangible, but the ability to produce it walks out with the contractor, whereas the consultant transfers know-how that remains after the end of the engagement.

You hire a contractor to write control software for your production equipment, because you don’t have engineers who can do it, and you don’t think you have a need for this skill on an on-going basis. If, however, you think it should be available in your organization, you may bring in a consultant to help your managers set strategies and policies on equipment control programs, select tools, and learn how to use them.

There are as many ways to work as a consultant as there are fields in which they are needed. Often, the know-how they transfer is procedural. They tell companies how to comply with regulations, pass audits, get ISO certified, or win the Shingo Prize.

Less often, it is about thinking through business strategy and finding the right moves in management and technology to be competitive. It is much more challenging, and there is no 12-step methodology for it. Lean consulting is in the latter category, because Lean implementation cannot be reduced to a procedure to be rolled out without thinking in every organization, whether it makes sausages or airplanes.

It is challenging, but it is what high-level consultants have been doing ever since Frederick Taylor invented the profession 125 years ago. It does not need a new name.

15 comments on “Drop the “Sensei” nonsense!

  1. In my mind, Sensei is one of those terms that add to the accusation of Lean being a cult or cult-like. It is like waste becomes wore wasteful if you start to call it muda, and as if kaizen is a holy practice in contrast to the more mundane continuous improvement.

    For reference it is good to use those terms once or twice, but it is much more practical to use the native language of participants in a dicussion. Everything else adds a layer of complexity. To say it with “Lean words” it is over-processing…

  2. Thanks Michel – using everyday language, and making clear what one does, lets you engage with the people who have asked for your help (from the shopfloor to the C-level).

    Making lean an expert cult kills most of its value – which is unfortunately seen all too often around me.

  3. Both terms, sensei and consultant have no place in a lean culture. To get the trust of most of the folks I work with the words lean, sensei, contractor or consultant are never spoken by me. Instead we use team, system wide process waste reduction to be more inclusionary and stress servant leadership as the folks actually doing the work are in fact more important to the success of the business over the long haul.

  4. II have the word ‘helper’ on my card. As helpers we must teach our clients how to consult, engage and understand their markets, customers and people. We must also show them how to make it an enjoyable process for everyone involved. The customers enjoyment must come from being supplied with the best; Product, Service and Experiences available in their industry. Future success will come from improving these values faster than any existing or future competitor. If we can achieve this we will have been very ‘helpful’.

  5. KonsarutantoWith Japanese friends, I once wondered over beer what “Konsarutanto” (Consultant) could be as a proper Japanese word, written in Kanji, and came up with “person in charge of the mixing monkeys” (混猿担当).

  6. Comment on LinkedIn:

    Michel, it is a good point to raise! But to be consistent, would we not need to also use the English (or French, German, etc) equivalent for all other Japanese terms (Heijunka, Kanban, etc) in the TPS/Lean repertoire? Personally, I acknowledge the wisdom of the use of the Japanese terms from the perspective that they convey best the original intent of TPS: sometimes we lose a lot in translation! But, with the very broad knowledge we now have of Lean/TPS, the English translations, although not always ‘perfect’, convey the feelings accurately as we have the full context. And yes, the snob factor is a problem!!!

    • My policy is as follows:

      1. To use local, well-known words like “consultant” whenever they exist and fit.
      2. To find reasonable translations when possible like “mistake-proofing” for “Poka-yoke,” or “single-piece presentation” for “atamadashi.”
      3. To use the Japanese word as a last resort, like “Kanban.”

      For 5S, the translations were botched. Trying to translate five Japanese words into five English words that start with “S” is a fool’s errand. The meanings just don’t match and it has serious consequences. In this case, I think it is better to use the originals.

    • A good guideline would also be: Does the termin convey an intranslatable or very original concept? If so, it may be good to use the original. This is why I think Kanban is perfectly acceptable, while “muda” need not be for waste, to give two examples.

      But maybe my perspective is a little distorted. Being and speeking native German, I read most about Lean in English…

      Anyhow, regarding the “Sensei” discussion: It reminds me of Karate Kid, or in more recent media of “Sensei Wu” from Lego Ninjago CDs (which my six year old son hears). Have a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWxt2688aIM

      Now that may make sense, a lot of Lean games are based on Lego, why not a Lean Lego Sensei, too. Just kidding.

  7. Michel: You got this 100% right. I have a slightly different angle on this. Back in the 1980’s I was a student of Japanese sensei’s. I know that I have not yet – after 30 years of lean endeavor – come up to their level. I am and I want to be a constant learner. Almost every working day I am the teacher, but I believe my true role is as a learner. Brian

  8. Pingback: Is there a difference between a sensei and a consultant? | Michel Baudin's Blog

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