Guest Post – Minarai: apprentice, beginner; learn by observing

Guest post by Larry Loucka about minarai: apprentice, learner on Mark Hamel’s blog Gemba Tales:

As I ready myself for a new mentoring relationship in a few weeks, I’ve been pondering roles and approaches. What will I do the same, what will I change as I help facilitate a new lean transformation?

My job, as teacher and coach, is to assist the organization make change. Their chosen strategy is to implement lean and six sigma. The knowledge transfer approach I prefer is see one, do one, teach one.

At first the apprentice just watches me do my thing – plan the calendar, roles, objectives; do the training, explain the principles, and run the events; check the metrics and take everyone’s pulse; act on what I see. Usually I don’t explain what I’m doing; I just run the kaizen event; form subs teams, hand out assignments, train-and-do.

After a time, the student is called upon to perform some of the routine activities, give some of the lessons,  and apply some of the tougher tools. Then comes the day when the roles start to reverse; the student tries to run a kaizen and the teacher observes, intervening off-line, giving feedback quietly, and asking questions, checking comprehension. As confidence and experience grow the student becomes the teacher.

Asked the other day, “What’s the difference in your approach and Shingijutsu?”  I was reminded of something James Womack once wrote. It’s a lengthy, but insightful quote,

“We’re now trying to write down all of the techniques you need to actually become lean. The Toyota teaching method is what we would call sensei-deshi, with the sensei being the great teacher and the deshi, the student. Basically, here’s how it works at Toyota: The kids get out of the university and join the company. Then they’re told, ‘Okay, you know how to do math, and you know how to read. Forget all the rest of the crap. We hope you had a lot of party time because now you’re going to be working long hours for the next 40 years, and we will teach you what you need to know. We’ll start by having you stay right here and look around for waste—muda in Japanese— and we’ll be back in a few hours.’ When the teacher comes back, he’ll ask the employee to tell him all about the waste he sees. It’s an empirical teaching method in which the sensei simply asks questions: ‘What do you think about this operation?’ ‘Why aren’t you looking over here?’ ‘Over there?’ ‘Why is something happening this way?’ They start with applications, and let you figure out the principles. Generally, the way we teach in the West is to start with principles, and then let the pupil to work out applications.”

Which way is better?

Comment by Zane Ferry added great insight.  Zane wrote …

Congratulations, Larry, on your new “relationship.” Good word. I appreciate the humility it conveys together with a sense of anticipation and even mild anxiety. It’s refreshing for a consultant to reveal his internal dialogue – as I sense you might be doing here – in this particular context without a lot of posturing and coded language (consultant, client, contract, deliverables, performance, etc.). Uttered reflexively, that language sort of language, nonetheless, undermines the potential of the fresh student/teacher encounter before it’s even begun. Kudos, Larry, for not succumbing to that impulse if you did happen to feel it coming on.

I mention this because I think that this impulse is a defensive one that cuts two ways, both damaging. First, it works to impersonalize a relationship that we know, in our heart of hearts, is likely to expose our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses in a context with considerable professional risk. Yeow. If something happens to go sideways once we’re deeply involved, well, the impersonal characterization of the relationship has already numbed our ego slightly to the sting of potential embarrassment. Alright, that’s just human nature; however, a really unfortunate and counterproductive consequence of the same posture can be a sense of blamelessness on our part for “the break up.” Introspection that should occur naturally upon the loss of an important relationship is blunted; the law of cause-and-effect is denied; root cause analysis (our cherished tool) is never applied. The lesson is lost on the teacher, so to speak, and our potential for becoming genuine “mentors” is stunted.

The second cut is, in fact, the cruelest – a deception right on the threshold of the fledging relationship. The language and posture we’ve drawn as a defensive foil, perhaps even unconsciously, now functions aggressively by establishing an imbalance of power in the student/teacher relationship. The very pointed message it delivers is: You (student) are the one “subject to change” in this exchange; I (teacher) am the “agent of change” here. In essence, we say to our earnest disciples: ‘I am not really in this with you equally. Sure, you’ll have to make huge investments on many levels. You’ll need to change in all kinds of ways to mature. But me, I’m there already just trying to help you catch up.’

Other obstacles to growth accompany this type of flawed commitment, but the point is that arrogance, insecurity, callousness, and pride will undercut even the most knowledgeable mentor if s/he is afraid to lay it all on the line alongside their student’s good faith offering.

But back to your real question, Larry – whether to lead with principles or applications. Over the course of many years spent with Shingijutsu consultants, I think I’ve consistently seen a PDCA approach on their part to mentoring us. In the best examples, the sensei always seems, first of all, to be very conscious of the idiosyncrasies inherent in his path to understanding, application, and then what you might call mature knowledge or “wisdom.” Yes, idiosyncrasies. The best mentors are definitely aware of them – their own and, incredibly, ours too. By this I mean, they’ve been students of American cultural and intellectual biases for decades now. (A number of them have actual memories of their hometown’s bombardment by Boeing-made B-52s and their country’s surrender to the US in WW2.) They see the strengths/weaknesses of the biases in our daily environment and then in the unique behavior of their individual students. They listen far more than they speak so that when they see a meaningful “learning-opportunity” arise for, say, me (not the same thing as a “teaching opportunity”) they’ve already discerned my innate predilections – what appears to make Zane tick – and are at the ready with what they believe is the right words, actions, request, blunt objection or abject lesson in first principles that will work…then and there for me. I’m convinced this preternatural sensitivity is the result of many years spent in the explicitly humanistic systems deriving from the Toyota Production System itself.

Just a few days ago, in fact, I was commenting to one such consultant about the noticeably positive change in a particular team member’s involvement. That member, a respected engineer, had been noncommittal, even combative at times to the simple team objectives as part of a new product design modification and review process; specifically, the need to involve a sub-assembly vendor in the equipment design phase. In spite of that obvious “bad attitude,” the consultant had appeared blithely unaware of the fellow over a period of 2 months no less. Then, out of nowhere, the consultant posed a seemingly mundane (obvious) question to him: “Do you think the vendor would want to produce this whole sub-assembly for us if we designed the right fixture?” It worked! A new change-agent was ushered out of the darkness and cooperative design efforts ensued just like that.

“Why did your comment have such an impact on him after all this time?” I asked. “Oh, that? It wasn’t what I said,” sensei chirped. “It’s what he heard. He’d quietly realized the primary aim of HIS design idea wasn’t going to work after all. To him, my comment represented a way out and he seized it.”

Win-win. Of course, I thought to myself. The consultant had seen that member’s principle-based learning bias, placed it squarely within that company’s organizational culture, accurately foreseen that member’s final dilemma, and then patiently waited to inconspicuously and sympathetically present a lifeline. Here, it was a lesson in “application” based on “principles” of human behavior that resonated when it mattered.

May the Force be with you, Larry.