Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Role of the Sensei in Learning

This kind of specification is not a case of perverse Taylorism or micromanagement, with smart people telling less-intelligent people what to do.  It is, in fact, an investment.” - Steven J. Spear

When kicking off a lean transformation, organizations often hire specialists or consultants to keep the initiative on-track.  Although this can greatly help with the transformation, it is critical that these people understand that their role is to be coaches rather than players in the process.

If the objective is to achieve sustained transformation, people throughout the organization must learn that lean is a very different way of looking at business.  They must understand how it applies to their jobs, as well as the company’s processes, systems, and culture.  This type of learning occurs when the individual actively participates in the changes by developing new ways to work, including the freedom to experiment with new ideas that may fail.

The role of a specialist, or sensei, is to guide people in the new way of thinking.  The more the experts do things – change systems, redesign processes, etc. – or tell people what they need to be doing, the more they interfere with learning and reduce the chances of sustaining the change.

Conversations, Dialogue, and Questioning to Drive Learning

One critical role of a specialist is to drive the adoption of a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) mindset throughout the organization.  This involves coaching people how to look at a situation, analyze what is going on, and develop ideas to improve performance in a simple and direct way.  When people identify countermeasures that do not appear to effectively address a problem, the specialist can either let them learn through a failed experiment or engage them in dialogue to help them see for themselves where their thinking went wrong and how to get back on track.

The process requires patience and a great deal of questioning: Why do you think that? Why did you approach the problem/change in that way?  What ideas or approaches did you discard along the way?  How do you know you what is happening in the process?

To be truly effective in the role, the specialist must possess a deep understanding of lean and be adept at Socratic or ORID (Objective-Reflective-Interpretive-Decisional) techniques.  These methods are proven to be effective at facilitating learning by helping people think through facts, feelings, and connections about a situation before making decisions.  Without these types of methods, the specialist will tend to tell people what to do and, although this may result in compliance and some level of improvement, it will not create the type of learning that will enable people to apply the information to other situations.

Slowing Down to Go Faster

Although coaching may appear to take longer than attempting to drive change by telling people what to do, it greatly increases the chances of sustaining the transformation.  The difficulty the organization's leaders often have with this approach is related to the lack of patience that characterizes western business.  The difficulty faced by the sensei in coaching versus doing comes from the excitement that people tend to have when they learn about lean and what it can do for an organization. It's not easy to hold back opinions when you know what should be done to move the process forward or address a problem.

The only chance of sustaining transformation - and I'm not completely convinced that sustained transformation is ever possible - will occur when people start thinking PDSA and acting lean when the sensei isn't around, which is something that will never happen without effective coaching.


curiouscat said...

I agree the key is getting people to think, decide and act themselves. I think that sometimes the lean talk de-emphasizing education. At the beginning people don't have answers. I find the coaching ends up being integrated with education at first, helping them see how concepts related to the specific instances.

The balance of when to pull back is tricky.

I also think the best socratic methods (assuming a great sensi) are fragile to how great the sensi is. So a more robust solution is one that is a bit less hands off. But maybe I am just biased by my personal views.

Gregg Stocker said...

John - I agree. The only "absolute" in coaching (if there is such a thing) is the importance of adjusting based on the person and organization's culture. People are unique and I probably should have added the value of psychology and sociology to the sensei's skillset. In this sense, the sensei's ability to learn (through PDSA) is absolutely necessary.

Thanks for the comment.

Robert Drescher said...

Hi Gregg

I agree a great consultant/sensei/coach should be focussed on get those he works with to solve their own problems. If they ever hope to sustain any improvement they have to actually have the ability to perform int themselves, otherwise when the expert leaves they are back where they started and can in fact be worse off.

The best coaches are rarely experts in any field, rather they work at helping people find the answers and then test them to ensure success. Even if someone comes uo with a right answer instantly they will not learn much if they do not learn to analyze it through questioning it. Good coaches bring out the best in the players and help them develop the plays that work with their skill sets.