How to Scold Like a Kaizen Sensei

By Jon Miller Updated on May 22nd, 2017

There must be people at Toyota waking up in a cold sweat these days from dreams in which they are being scolded by Taiichi Ohno, furious at the massive vehicle recalls caused ostensibly by the pursuit of scale and volume production at the expense of quality. At least I sincerely hope this is the case, for the sake of Toyota’s future. My fear is that there are not enough people left at the company who have felt the heat of being scolded up close by kaizen sensei like Taiichi Ohno and Kikuo Suzumura. There is nothing like having your confident ignorance and misconceptions burned away by the heat of good sensei scolding.

If you strip away the high expectations and pressures of an intensive sensei-driven kaizen event, the sheer showmanship and theater of the experience, and the effects of having to listen to the Japaense sensei through a delayed, filtered and sometimes inscrutable interpretation, the best of the Japanese kaizen events are 60 hours of non-stop scoldings. To scold is to reprove or criticize openly, but to scold like a kaizen sensei one must make a few important choices.

When to scold? Early. Some kaizen sensei would begin scolding the moment they were picked up at the hotel (late), as they stepped into the customer’s car (disorganized), criticizing one or another shortcoming of the week’s program throughout the of course of each day. They applied their high standards to every moment of the experience until they were dropped off by the customer at the airport on the last day, usually with a huge sigh of relief. The golden rule is to let no opportunity to scold or teach go wasted.

Who to scold? When in doubt, scold the person with the most power and / or responsibility. The best kaizen sensei would march into an office, demand that a leader follow them to the floor, and ask questions which would expose the gaps in understanding of that leader. This was often uncomfortable for all involved, but this was the role of the sensei: to speak truth to power in ways that a member of the organization could not. Conversely, the kaizen sensei almost never scolds the front line worker but rather thanks them, asks them what we can do to help, and paves the way for their ideas to become reality, often by dragging a leader to the process an scolding them.

How much to scold? Often. Kaizen sensei make the same points repeatedly. Even the smallest things, if not corrected, would be the source of repeat scoldings and eventually a source of good-humored banter between teacher and student. The kaizen sensei never gives up on the student and keeps scolding as long as the student shows the will to learn. The best kaizen sensei would sometimes turn to their interpreter to ask, “Did I say too much?” wanting to know the effect of his scolding and valuing the perspective of the observer. But this was always out of respect for the individual being scolded, not that the message was repeated too often or that scoldings focused on too many things.

When not to scold? Never in anger. This may be the least understood and hardest part of scolding like a kaizen sensei. The scolding may appear to be an angry reaction to displeasure. Indeed many Eastern sensei do raise their voices and scold fiercely. This may be to intentionally break the harmony and shock the student into realizing that their place is to listen and learn. But it is never out of a sense injured pride, one-upmanship or personal conflict. The kaizen sensei must be above all of this.

What to say when scolding? Scold from the heart. Attack the process or problem, not the person. Be Socratic. Ask rather than tell. Make them realize why you are scolding without telling them. In some cases the kaizen sensei would simply refuse to say why they were scolding the person, much like Taiichi Ohno leaving errant managers to stand in the dreaded chalk circle for hours until they finally opened their eyes to the terribly designed process the workers were struggling under. Say only what is necessary, no more.

Where to scold? In most cases scoldings were in the open, both for the benefit of the person being scolded and for others in the organization to hear the teaching taking place. Kaizen is not done off in closed offices but out in the gemba with the team, and this is where scoldings most often take place. In some cases there were scoldings in the form of private discussions but these are almost more severe in that the sensei feels what they are about to tell the student must be first heard by the student only. Use good judgment.

What is the key to scolding like a kaizen sensei? Some of us who learned from Japanese consultants no doubt have adopted some parts of their teaching style. Scolding like a kaizen sensei is not a style to be adopted lightly. One must be better at managing this style than the Japanese sensei because of several disadvantages we have. First, there is no interpreter to filter and smooth the message. Second, their years of hands-on experience in TPS and their depth of knowledge is far superior to most of ours. Most of us don’t have the same level of credibility. Third, the Eastern teacher-student relationship that holds a fierce but loving scolding as an implicit method of tutelage does not exist in many of our cultures. Therefore, the one critical ingredient having the integrity to scold only from love and having the gravitas and presence to be convincing, is humility.

These are ideals and certainly not all of the kaizen sensei I learned from scolded this way all of the time. They got drunk, were tired from jet lag, lost their temper, picked fights with people who were clearly just testing how smart the sensei really were. And some sensei gradually lost their humility after years of being called “master” wherever they went. Although I never met Taiichi Ohno it was my privilege to work for thousands of hours on the gemba alongside his students who came from various suppliers of the Toyota Autonomous Study Group. My style is not to scold like one of the original Japanese kaizen sensei, but whenever a teachable moment presents itself I hear a scolding in my head, and I smile.

This post was purely inspired by stumbling across a great stock photo. I simply couldn’t let it go to waste…

  1. Mike

    March 29, 2010 - 4:56 am

    I worked for Japanese leaders for many years and I always remember one sensei from our parent company who ignored all of our improvements and accomplishments, but scolded us for a tool being out of its “shadow” and a gum wrapper on the floor. Frustrated, we asked why he was “nit-picking” us to death with these small things. He replied, “If I can not trust you to do the small things, how can I trust you with the big things?” It took me a couple of years to see he was right, but in the end I did.

  2. Tim McMahon

    March 29, 2010 - 4:59 am

    Jon, great photo, nice post, good advice. I have been fortunate to experience this sort of scolding from my Toyota sensei. No one is free from criticism. A good sensei will teach everyone. The thing is this process forces you to learn what is important. As much as you try you learn there is always more to learn and therefore the scolding never stops. I also think what many western workers and managers miss that are not used to this it that this is a sign of respect.
    Tim McMahon
    A Lean Journey

  3. Brian Buck

    March 29, 2010 - 7:40 am

    Thanks for this post Jon. I first read about scoldings in THE BIRTH OF LEAN and was wondering what that was all about. It made me wonder how the respect for people worked with it, and you illustrated that perfectly. Your blog is one of the best lean resources out there!

  4. John Santomer

    March 29, 2010 - 9:09 am

    Dear Jon, Well, aside from shocking students to their senses and dotting on the the learning experience…this picture did serve its purpose and has not gone to waste! Aside from being shocking, it is also coming as comedic and heart warming…I just hope the lessons have been driven all the way home…

  5. Thomas Castillo

    April 1, 2010 - 6:02 am

    Very good article. The simple fact is that the culture in American business leaders is to be arrogant in their leadership approach. Being humbled and letting the operators solve problems is a very new concept to thme. I have been dressed down by a Shingijutsu consultant for trying to answer a question for an operator. This was not done in public but this is a lesson I will never forget.

  6. sharma

    April 6, 2010 - 3:11 am

    Dear Jon,
    Great article! This reminds me of SPENCER JOHNSON’S “THE ONE MINUTE MANAGER” which says : 1)Appreciate in public, 2)Scold in private(but should not last more than a minute), 3)Use well defined tasks/standard work.
    Incidentally he also wrote “WHO MOVED MY CHEESE” which went on to become a best seller too!

  7. Jaco Vosloo

    October 29, 2010 - 9:18 am

    Jon, thanks for the interesting article. Sometimes I wish I could have learned from this kind of sensei instead of only having the mistakes of my managers to learn from. Having started a company called Kaizen-Sensei I now realise that I got myself some very big shoes to fill…

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