Telling Good Lean Consultants From Bad Ones | Michael Ballé


“There are no good lean consultants. I’m not saying there are no good consultants. Of course there are; same bell curve as in every profession…”

See it in Gemba Coach

Michel Baudin‘s comments: 3 years ago, in What to Expect from Lean Manufacturing Consultants, I wrote an article on this subject from a different perspective. This article’s opening boggles the mind, starting with the easily debunked assumption that performance is distributed along “a bell curve in every profession.”

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Is there a difference between a sensei and a consultant?

Two years ago, I advocated dropping the “Sensei” nonsense but it soldiers on. Blog readers keep asking questions about it. Consultants who do not speak Japanese keep answering that there is a fundamental difference between a sensei and a consultant, and seeing a deep meaning in the word “Sensei” that just isn’t there. There is indeed a difference, but it is basic: “Sensei” is a polite term for schoolteachers and other instructors, while a consultant is someone who gets paid for an engagement, as opposed to an employee. One word refers to a role; the other one, to a business relationship.

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.

Learning from a consultant versus getting certified

In the Lean Six Sigma Worldwide discussion group on LinkedIn, Fong Lee Ho asked the following question:

Does learning Lean directly from the Sensei make a big difference versus taking those professional certifications?

To which I answered as follows:

I don’t know why the word “sensei,” which is Japanese for school teacher, is being endowed here with such an aura. To get started, you should use a consultant who can help you select the right projects to undertake first on your shop floor, organize the team to execute on these projects, and coach them to success.

Certification will do none of that. You should only pursue certification if you are looking for a job and need it as a resume enhancer.

More more details on the value of certification, see Certification Shmertification!

For a review of the Lean body of knowledge and five leading certification programs, see The Lean Body of Knowledge.