Review of The Lean Sensei by Balle, Chartier et al.

By Jon Miller Updated on June 17th, 2019

The Lean Sensei by Michael Ballé, Nicolas Chartier, Pascale Coignet, Sandrine Olivencia, Daryl Powell and Eivind Reke collects the co-authors’ wisdom to answer, “what is a lean sensei and what do they do?” The authors’ work in lean and agile is primarily in France, Norway and some other European countries, so the book may feel odd in parts to readers with a North American perspective on the lean sensei. The book is a good, concise, experience-based primer on the topic.

Sensei is not a made-up word

The Lean Sensei gets a lot of things right. But it starts off planting one wheel in the ditch by claiming that “Sensei is a made-up word” and that it is a “Western invention.” This is false. Nor did the term first come from martial arts, although many people first encounter that word in their dojo.

Part of what any master teacher must know is everything about their area of expertise. A lean sensei should be a master of the tools, methods and systems, of working with people, and context-specific communication, and also the history and development of lean. Ideally, a lean sensei will contribute not only to the learning and growth of her clients, but also to the development of the field itself. Knowing what “sensei” means and where it came from may seem like trivia, but it is no less important than getting the story right for any other lean concept.

Readers familiar with the correct story of the “sensei” term or uninterested in it can skip three paragraphs to the heading “What do sensei actually do?”

Where did the term “sensei” come from?

James Womack studied the work of Shingijutsu consultants in the US when he wrote Lean Thinking. These consultants required that clients use the honorific sensei. Womack’s book made it part of the early lean gospel that lean transformations must be guided by a sensei. American companies began asking lean consultancies, “How many of your consultants are sensei?” As a result, over the next decade American consultants began calling themselves sensei. A few firms differentiated themselves by having nothing but sensei on their staff. The reception to this term, as well as the quality of sensei, has been mixed.

Why did the Shingijutsu consultants want to be called sensei?

In Japan students in school call their teachers sensei. Doctors, lawyers, accomplished creators such as songwriters or cartoonists, auteurs, political power-brokers, university professors, kaizen consultants are also addressed as sensei. It is a term of respect based on recognized accomplishment and experience. When an expert is elevated to a sensei by the learner or customer, it is an act of submission, of humility, of a willingness to listen and do what the respected teacher asks. Shingijutsu’s teaching style required the learner’s submission. They had no time within their favored five-day kaizen event format, and perhaps not the skill, to debate, to teach in detail, to answer situational questions, face challenges to their authority, all through a Japanese-English interpreter in real-time. To be effective, they needed their customers to say, “Yes, sir” and practice as instructed. They needed to be seen as sensei.

Does the modern lean sensei require submission?

What happens when non-Japanese lean sensei working in their own language and culture mimic this Japanese sensei behavior? In Western culture it is not normal to demand unquestioning respect from each other. In the West we often place less respect and value on the teaching profession. We understand each other without an interpreter-filter. We don’t have Japanese sensei mystique to excuses surprising behavior. While the book doesn’t properly explain the meaning and origin of the term sensei, it does describe the behaviors of a successful modern lean sensei.

What do sensei actually do?

The authors explain in chapter two that the main contribution of a sensei is to keep the spirit of discovery strong within an organization in the face of pressures to buckle down, optimize and deliver. The authors say that sensei do this by thoughtfully studying the current way of doing things, opening minds to different ways of viewing and thinking about the situation, and by pushing people to find inventive answers to problems through relentless questioning. The authors also say that these things are “at complete odds” with what consultants and coaches do. Many in those professions will beg to differ.

Should sensei know the answers?

The authors claim that unlike consultants, trainers or coaches, the sensei “doesn’t have to know the answers” but must have a good idea of how to arrive at the answers. This involves going to the gemba, discussing challenges, identifying exercises with the aim of learning while practicing Lean tools toward attaining a business goal, teaching PDCA, and pushing the learner on to the next step. The sensei’s role is not to give the solution, but to guide the learner in working it out.

Process and results

To paraphrase the authors, teachers deliver theory about the process. Consultants deliver results but not necessarily through a teachable process. Coaches may guide process but are not accountable for results. Sensei guide their learners by sensei-ing them through the process to an as-yet-unknown result.

I would caution against thinking that a master teacher can be effective with only the skill to guide the exercises and learning process, but without the wealth of experience to see many steps ahead, if not all the way to the answer. This is the difference between being a teacher competent in a foreign language and able to guide the class in its lessons, and a teacher who hears and instantly recognizes a pronunciation or grammar error, knows the anatomical and linguistics theory of pronunciation, and has a lifelong experience as a native speaker. Given the choice and all other things being equal, I can’t imagine why anyone would choose a sensei had who had never faced and solved their specific problems before.

What do sensei know?

In chapter three, the authors explain that sensei need to know four things. These boil down to craft and people. For a sensei of lean management, their craft at a minimum includes practice-based knowledge of business, the specific industry in which they work, its products and services, the history and context of production systems and operating systems, and various lean tools and methods. On the people side, lean sensei need to have a keen experience-based understanding of what makes people tick.

Where do lean sensei focus their work?

The Japanese lean sensei did not, and lean sensei across North America today do not, work exclusively at the C-level. In fact, they spend a minority of their time there. The authors seem to be positioning the modern Western lean sensei as a C-level worker.

Sensei work at CEO or COO level and their aim is not to solve one problem and improve one process, but to show how to create the conditions for systematic problem solving and kaizen in order to orient the company towards greater competitiveness.

We must assume that such a lean sensei served in CEO or COO roles and possess practical experience with the issues of business at that level. At a minimum they must know what motivates CEOs and COOs, what are the sources of information and influence for them, how they look at business, what unique language the C-suite uses, and how C-level incentives support or hinder their lean behaviors. If not sensei, what do we call the lean practitioners who meet all other criteria described in this book but do not focus their work at the C-level?

What is TPS actually for?

Chapter four frames TPS a.k.a. the lean management as a learning system. Leaders are teachers. Such a system sets up visible standards or target conditions, exposes gaps or problems and creates opportunities on the gemba for teaching and learning. This theme is revisited in chapter seven. For anyone unsure of whether engaging a lean sensei as described in this book is the right decision, reading chapters four and seven first is a good place to start. Unless the leadership can commit to this vision, engaging a lean sensei as described in this book is unlikely to succeed.

Lean sensei and gemba walks

The authors state

Sensei work mainly through “gemba walks”—taking senior leaders to the workplace and discussing the link between corporate strategy and detailed operations in situ.

Chapter five explains what happens in a successful gemba walk, and the role of a lean sensei during it. What differentiates a sensei’s role in a gemba walk is their ability to zoom in on the detail and also zoom out to the big picture and the strategic implications of the observed details. This again positions the lean sensei as an executive-level teacher, or at a minimum as being very comfortable functioning at that level. The broader point that remains unstated is that lean sensei work mainly through gemba walks because lean management itself only works through gemba. It is an essential feature, regardless of who is leading or teaching lean. Gemba walks can be led by any capable coach, teacher, consultant, Kaizen Promotion Officer or leader. Lean sensei need gemba walks; gemba walks don’t require lean sensei.

Five key questions for the sensei to remain a learner

Chapter six outlines five areas for the sensei to continue their own learning and development in order to remain effective. These are

1-Recognizing systemic problems. Seeing the signs, recognizing the symptoms, diagnosing the syndromes.

2-Speaking the CEO language. As previously mentioned.

3-Lean as an education system. This core theme is described in chapters four and seven.

4-Create safe spaces for discussion and reflection. This is indeed a skill for lean sensei, but it is far more important for the organization and its leaders to develop this capability. The sensei can’t always be there to create safe spaces.

5-Develop visual management. No disagreement. However, this comes wrapped in what feels like an arbitrary constraint

Sensei don’t coach. They don’t teach (other than visual management techniques). And they don’t recommend.

Sensei do provide answers in finding ways to visualize work processes. No doubt this conviction is based on the authors’ collective experience. But making such sweeping claims about the role of a lean sensei based a limited sample size of half a dozen co-authors seems risky. Many of my sensei-level acquaintances would argue from their experience that the one thing a lean sensei should teach is problem solving. Should a sensei not teach whatever the customer needs to take the next step in their development?

In fact, the authors contradict themselves. One of the things sensei “actually do” in chapter two is “Teach PDCA”. We must assume that this an editorial oversight. Either sensei can only teach visual management, or they can teach  visual management and PDCA. It cannot be both.

Chapter two also explains

The sensei is there to make sure the PDCA cycle is carried out in full so that people actually think and not stay satisfied with their quick responses.

How does a sensei “make sure the PDCA cycle is carried out in full” if they are not allowed to coach or to recommend?


Despite a few points needing improvement, The Lean Sensei provides valuable learning for people wishing to advance their management system by engaging a lean sensei. Lean is a learning system. Leaders in lean organizations are teachers. Teaching happens on the gemba. Some teachers like to be called sensei. By whatever name, they play an important role in an organization’s progress on the lean journey, and this book is a valuable contribution to understanding this.

  1. Bob Emiliani

    June 17, 2019 - 10:58 am

    Jon, this sentence says it all: “I would caution against thinking that a master teacher can be effective with only the skill to guide the exercises and learning process, but without the wealth of experience to see many steps ahead, if not all the way to the answer.”

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