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Jon Miller

Six Sigma

How to Scold Like a Kaizen Sensei

A fierce and humble style of teaching

Published: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 - 08:20

These days, there must be people at Toyota waking up in a cold sweat from dreams in which they are being scolded by Taiichi Ohno, furious at the massive vehicle recalls caused ostensibly by the pursuit of scale and volume production at the expense of quality. At least I sincerely hope this is the case, for the sake of Toyota’s future. My fear is that there are not enough people left at the company who have felt the heat of being scolded up close by kaizen sensei like Taiichi Ohno and Kikuo Suzumura. There is nothing like having your confident ignorance and misconceptions burned away by the heat of good sensei scolding.

If you strip away the high expectations and pressures of an intensive sensei-driven kaizen event, the sheer showmanship and theater of the experience, and the effects of having to listen to the Japanese sensei through a delayed, filtered, and sometimes inscrutable interpretation, the best of the Japanese kaizen events are 60 hours of nonstop scoldings. To scold is to reprove or criticize openly, but to scold like a kaizen sensei one must make a few important choices.

When to scold?

Scold early. Some kaizen sensei would begin scolding the moment they were picked up at the hotel (late), as they stepped into the customer’s car (disorganized), criticizing one or another shortcoming of the week’s program throughout the of course of each day. They applied their high standards to every moment of the experience until they were dropped off by the customer at the airport on the last day, usually with a huge sigh of relief. The golden rule is to let no opportunity to scold or teach go wasted.

Who to scold?

When in doubt, scold the person with the most power or responsibility. The best kaizen sensei would march into an office, demand that a leader follow them to the floor, and ask questions which would expose the gaps in understanding of that leader. This was often uncomfortable for all involved, but this was the role of the sensei: to speak truth to power in ways that a member of the organization could not. Conversely, the kaizen sensei almost never scolds the front line workers but rather thanks them, asks them what can be done to help, and paves the way for the line worker’s ideas to become reality, often by dragging a leader to the process and scolding them.

How much to scold?

Scold often. Kaizen sensei make the same points repeatedly. Even the smallest things, if not corrected, would be the source of repeat scoldings and eventually a source of good-humored banter between teacher and student. The kaizen sensei never gives up on the student and keeps scolding as long as the student shows the will to learn. The best kaizen sensei would sometimes turn to their interpreter to ask, “Did I say too much?” wanting to know the effect of his scolding and valuing the perspective of the observer. But this was always out of respect for the individual being scolded, not that the message was repeated too often or that scoldings focused on too many things.

When not to scold?

Never scold in anger. This may be the least understood and hardest part of scolding like a kaizen sensei. The scolding may appear to be an angry reaction to displeasure. Indeed, many Eastern sensei do raise their voices and scold fiercely. This may be to intentionally break the harmony and shock the student into realizing that their place is to listen and learn. But it is never out of a sense injured pride, one-upmanship, or personal conflict. The kaizen sensei must be above all of this.

What to say when scolding?

Scold from the heart. Attack the process or problem, not the person. Be Socratic. Ask rather than tell. Make them realize why you are scolding without telling them. In some cases, the kaizen sensei would simply refuse to say why they were scolding the person, much like Taiichi Ohno leaving errant managers to stand in the dreaded chalk circle for hours until they finally opened their eyes to the terribly designed process the workers were struggling under. Say only what is necessary, no more.

Where to scold?

In most cases, scoldings were in the open, both for the benefit of the person being scolded and for others in the organization to hear the teaching taking place. Kaizen is not done off in closed offices but out in the gemba with the team, and this is where scoldings most often take place. In some cases there were scoldings in the form of private discussions but these are almost more severe in that the sensei feels what they are about to tell the student must be first heard by the student only. Use good judgment.

What is the key to scolding like a kaizen sensei?

Some of us who learned from Japanese consultants no doubt have adopted some parts of their teaching style. Scolding like a kaizen sensei is not a style to be adopted lightly. One must be better at managing this style than the Japanese sensei because of several disadvantages Westerns have. First, there is no interpreter to filter and smooth the message. Second, their years of hands-on experience in the Toyota Production System and their depth of knowledge is far superior to most of ours. Most of us don’t have the same level of credibility. Third, the Eastern teacher-student relationship that holds a fierce, but loving scolding as an implicit method of tutelage doesn’t exist in many of Western cultures. Therefore, the one critical ingredient having the integrity to scold only from love and having the gravitas and presence to be convincing, is humility.

These are ideals and certainly not all of the kaizen sensei I learned from scolded this way all the time. They got drunk, were tired from jet lag, lost their temper, picked fights with people who were clearly just testing how smart the sensei really were. And some sensei gradually lost their humility after years of being called “master” wherever they went. Although I never met Taiichi Ohno, it was my privilege to work for thousands of hours on the gemba alongside his students who came from various suppliers of the Toyota Autonomous Study Group. My style is not to scold like one of the original Japanese kaizen sensei, but whenever a teachable moment presents itself, I hear a scolding in my head and I smile.


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.