The Pocket Sensei - How to Teach Yourself to Train Your Mind

There's a revolution happening. It’s called learning while doing.

Great projects are Lean — yet the majority of Lean initiatives fail. Lean is generally misunderstood to be about the tools we use rather than the people at the place where they work. Many Lean initiatives fail not because of the accessibility to Lean tools, but because leadership is unavailable when it is needed most. The leadership required to bring about and maintain such a tectonic shift seems scarce and difficult to develop.

There is never time for your important work. How do you develop your Lean leadership when you find yourself sitting in another training session? How do you lead improvements in your team while urgent fires of the day consume your project and your attention?

But, what if you didn’t need to do anything else? What if, to become a Lean leader, you simply needed to do your job?

The Pocket Sensei [1] — Mastering Lean Leadership with 40 Katas by Hal Macomber and Calayde Davey delivers a repository of practices that teach you how to bring Lean leadership behaviors directly to your workplace — while you do your work. The routines demonstrate how to engage and build Lean leadership across all project and organizational levels by exercising specific fundamental practices — or katas — derived from the Lean masters Ohno’s and Shingo’s sayings.

Traditionally, a kata is a series of martial art actions that the student sets out to perform perfectly. Students earn belts by demonstrating katas perfectly. But katas are not practiced alone. While each student sets out to perfect their kata, it is more important that they're doing it with others. Students practice openly. In the martial arts studio — or dojo — many students practice the same things together simultaneously. Here they develop not only their own competencies, but also provide coaching to each other by mimicking or learning techniques from other students, or direct observations from their sensei (teacher). Similarly, people working together on Lean katas start to provide guidance to each other. When Lean students deliberately practice in the open together, they become mindful learning leaders at the place of their work.

The very first kata, for example, is called “Give New Ideas a Chance — Counter-FUD Kata.” The routine focuses on how becoming highly aware of new ideas, to test and experiment with them first before premature dismissal. People often complain that their superior or peer doesn’t listen to their ideas. However, the focus of this kata is not about others hearing you out. Instead, the focus is on building the habit to try out all new ideas, including your own new ideas. We tend to quickly dismiss our own ideas before we’ve given them a chance to grow, without even discussing the idea with others at all. Whenever a new idea comes about — however audacious or insignificant it may seem at first — the kata practices your ability to pick up on that new idea, become open-minded about it, be brave enough to test it without dismissing it, and give that new idea a fair chance.

Although there are many practices that develop individual discipline and learning, the majority of the katas encourage group learning and building routines towards group Lean Leadership. “My Hypothesis Kata” and “Our Hypothesis Kata” for example, describe how to build up a simple individual routine around the scientific method. Starting with your own work, the kata teaches you to consciously build the habit of expectation of a preconceived result, and then follow that expectation with immediate critical thinking. This is not limited to complex problems, but is applicable for even the very simplest of expectations and their expected outcomes. Then, you’re asked to practice the next kata, taking this same routine to your communal workplace — at gemba. “Our Hypothesis Kata” teaches you to work with the scientific method in an outward mindset with others. This practice is so simple, yet a habit seldom seen in our workplaces. Repeating this kata in the open teaches you and your team how to build an intuitive, quick always-available critical thinking process, and how to develop your leadership skills in small groups.

Part One — “Be a Beginner” — and Part Five — “Embrace Contradictions” — are completely opposite approaches of engagement with the practices. However, one way to engage with the material is to start with any random set of katas — but still be in the mood of a beginner. You could also start with where the mess in your project or work is showing up: “Yes, we've got all this rework to do, we've got all this inventory piled up, and all this whatever, and we’re not taking care of our client — there are katas that speak to those kinds of situations,” says Hal.

All the lessons start with a sensei saying, followed by a kata and a hansei (reflection). Throughout the material you’ll find accompanying illustractions (as Hal and Calayde call them) that bring a fun light-heartedness to a very serious endeavor. Many of the katas focus on developing a mood for learning and how to bring yourself and your team into the enthusiastic mood of a beginner. This is predominantly achieved in the hansei component of each practice, accompanied by supporting resources on Moods in the Appendix. The hanseis focus on paying attention to your own and other people's moods, and encourages you to notice what's happening for other people while you're practicing katas together.

“Know-how” alone isn’t enough! You need to “know-why!”
— Shigeo Shingo
Know-Why Kata

This collection of routines is a starting point to develop individual and team Lean Leadership in a very practical way. Now, you can always have the masters with you — “The Pocket Sensei” opens the way.

This post is based on a recent interview conducted by Rebecca Snelling, National Lean Director at JE Dunn Construction, with Hal Macomber and Calayde Davey, authors of “The Pocket Sensei — Mastering Lean Leadership with 40 Katas.”


1. The Pocket Sensei — Mastering Lean Leadership with 40 Katas. — by Hal Macomber & Calayde Davey, Pemi River Media, 2017.

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