You don't need Eastern mysticism to be world class


I don’t know much about Canadian politics – I have a few very, very good Canadian clients but nights in Canadian hotel rooms are more apt to be spent catching up on my reading or watching reruns of Duck Dynasty than taking in the news. The exception, of course, is any time the mayor of Toronto is in the public eye. The boys from Duck Dynasty can’t hold a candle to him for sheer hoot value.

So when I read that the opposition is blasting the government health system’s lean initiative in Saskatchewan I figure it is little more than the same sort of noise American politicians make – not much thought or ideology behind their words, mostly just opposition to anything and everything the other guy is for; and vice versa.

What caught my eye in the article was this: “The Saskatchewan government is being criticized for spending millions on health care consultants for its "lean" program — including $3,500 a day for ‘Japanese sensei.’ “ I’ve never worked with or heard much about the consultants who are taking the Canucks for $40 million for the job – an outfit called John Black & Associates – they strike me as a pretty run of the mill lean tools gang but no reason to think they aren’t pretty good at lean tools. But the word ‘sensei’ sticks in my craw.

There is absolutely no reason for a consultant, or anyone else, to describe what they are doing in Japanese when a perfectly good word exists in the local language. When someone wants you to refer to them as a sensei, and then goes on to insist that you must eliminate ‘muda’, and then makes it a prerequisite for improvement that you memorize the Japanese terms for the different sorts of muda, and follows up with the Japanese terms for each of the 5S’s (never mind that there is no such thing as an ‘S’ in the Japanese alphabet), we have a problem.

There are some original concepts in the Toyota Production System for which no comparable English term exists … jidoka comes to mind. And there are others that have been in the parlance for so long that they are practically English words by now … kaizen and kanban strike me as those sorts. But ‘sensei’? When I hear someone describe themselves as a ‘sensei’ the old saying, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle ‘em with bulls**t” creeps into my thinking. Why the need to shroud this stuff in a mystic Eastern aura? Seems to me if you can’t explain it in English you sure aren’t going to teach the Canucks much in Japanese.

The only explanation I can come up with is the need to justify the rate - $3,500 a day plus expenses. I can’t think of more than two or three hundred guys in the USA who can teach lean tools for about half of that, so maybe they needed to differentiate themselves …. ‘Yeah, you can get an American or a Canadian expert for less but we aren’t sending in just any teacher – we are sending in a genuine, bona fide Japanese sensei’. Who can argue with that? Especially when they have no idea what a sensei is?

Perhaps it is nitpicking but I also found it curious that the guys charging our northern friends such a princely sum have enunciated their “Ten Lessons for World Class”. Their lesson #8 is pretty blunt (sounds like something I would write, in fact): “Hiring consultants to come to your company, collect data, and feed it back to you with a strategy that requires you to spend money, add people and buy expensive machines and equipment means one are really stupid.” I certainly agree with that, but have a hard time reconciling it with their “Lesson 6: The goal of a world-class production system can only be achieved with a JIT Promotion Office to help promote the process”. How, I wonder, do you create such a thing as a “JIT Promotion Office” and staff it without adding people, which would, according to Lesson #8, make you “really stupid”? And what is paying the consultants $40 million if not “a strategy that requires you to spend money”; again making you “really stupid”? A bit of a conundrum if you ask me.

The lean effort in Saskatchewan is a very good idea and, in spite of their hoodoo senseis and “really stupid” JIT Promotion Office, well worth whatever they are paying for mastery of lean tools. They will sort out the rest and kick all the Japanese nonsense to the curb in due time, and the JIT Promotion Office will die a slow death as the Saskatooners come to realize the only way to succeed is for every employee to become a one-person JIT Promotion Officer.

But it would be a whole lot smoother for everyone involved if they would quit serving up sensei nonsense on a platter to the political opponents; and they really ought to think about engaging any one of a number of very capable Canadians to teach at least some of the tools, saving everyone a lot of money and stifling the ignorant naysayers.

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