Posted on July 3, 2016 · Posted in Leadership, Lean, Lean Thoughts, Lean Training


Opinions: Sensei vs. Certified?

There is a question that has been buzzing around my head for months.  It’s been like the proverbial bee in my bonnet. It’s this: Is a Lean certification really the equivalent of training received under a Sensei?

Here are my thoughts.


  • VETTING:  Are a great help in allowing Human Resource professionals to “vet” a candidate right from their resume. Using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, HR professionals can quickly winnow down the field of candidates to only those with certifications.
  • STANDARD WORK:  Create a form of “Standard Work,” ensuring a semi-uniform[1] amount of knowledge across a body of people.  It should be noted, however, that there are many sources of certifications and no standard which they need to meet, no accrediting body that oversees each certifier’s curriculum and tests, few if any formal feedback mechanism between employers and certifiers.
  • ASSURANCE:  Give individuals and employers a sense of assurance that the individual has passed the rigors of learning Lean.  Some even require the student to submit a portfolio demonstrating the student’s application of what they have learned.
  • PHILOSOPHIES AND PRINCIPLES:  May test the student’s understanding of the philosophies and principles behind the tools they’ve learned.  It cannot, however, test how ardently the student believes those things, nor how deeply the student has thought about them and allowed them to inform the student’s subsequent application.
  • SPEED OF CERTIFICATION:  Are relatively quick to get, achieved within a few weeks to a few years.  For this reason, they are not gained as a natural consequence of doing one’s job, unless one’s job is to get a certification; hence, certifications are rarely gained while doing one’s job, but as an extracurricular activity.  It is left to the student to make any associations between what they have learned and how it applies.



  • CULLING:  In order for Human Resource professionals to understand how advanced an applicant’s knowledge is, they would need to know the Sensei and the Sensei’s standards.  This would take time and time is the enemy of all in our world of fast-paced business decisions.  As a result, Sensei-trained individuals get culled from the candidate pool by the OCR process.
  • NO STANDARD:  There is no Standard Sensei, so uniformity of training is hard to measure without a standard test.  Since Sensei-taught students are expected to stay in the company where they are taught, this is not a problem.  Their Sensei has prepared them for the jobs they will perform.  As the student matriculates, it is still within the organization where they have worked and served under their Sensei
  • HIGH STANDARDS:  A Sensei not only teaches skills, but observes their application, making corrections until the skills are performed flawlessly.  Sometimes, Senseis are relentless taskmasters, holding their students to a very high standard, not just a minimum required to pass.  When the Sensei accepts the student’s work, that work carries the Sensei’s seal and their reputation.
  • MORE ROUNDED:  As the student becomes more learned, the Sensei imparts the reason why one does something, as well as the knowledge of how to do it.  In this way, they infuse the philosophy behind a skill, giving the student a far more rounded experience.
  • IMMEDIATE ASSOCIATIONS:  In business, a Sensei works with a student as the student performs their job, much like the old master-apprentice relationship.  So, the student learns at work and can make immediate associations between what they are being taught and how it applies to their work.


Here is what I know.

  • My knowledge of Lean has matured over time in two observable ways.
    • Continuous Application of my knowledge has led me to discover new meaning behind some of the seemingly simple facets of Lean; e.g. I originally thought that Gemba only existed in manufacturing. In fact, it is the real place anywhere the activity-under-study takes place, whether that’s an office, a lab, a surgical theater, an accounting bay or a welding booth.
    • Deep introspection (Hansei) has led me to discover new truths hidden within what I thought I knew; e.g. after contemplating the deeper implications of Toyota Principle #1, it became evident why financial decisions should no longer be based on ROI alone. [2]
  • Too many see Lean as a way to drive out waste. In fact, it’s a business system. Waste can be driven out anywhere in the organization, but only senior leaders can alter the business system; hence, Lean requires full buy-in from the top.
  • Lean requires a cultural shift in most organizations. Again, one can create a more enlightened department, but when another department is feeding you bad information or WIP, and they are unwilling to change, who arbitrates? Ultimately, if not the most senior leader, then no one.
  • Lean cannot flourish in an organization that is fragmented or dominated by silo leaders. It requires alignmentfrom top to bottom on doing what is right for the company as a whole, as it serves its customers.
  • Gains made using the tools cannot be sustained unless the entire management team supports them.

Here is what I deduce.

The things that I know came from years of living Lean. How do you certify that? How can you clinically say that a student has the ability to steer an organization’s leaders to embrace a Lean business system? Sure, they can have the knowledge, but can they persuade the leaders? Can they transfer their knowledge to others? Can they lead by doing?

If you ask me to write or speak my responses to the questions above, I can do it without ever having to test my response. I can say whatever gets me the certification. In my opinion, the proof of one’s ability comes from observed application by an authoritative source, not from portfolios submitted in support of one’s attested knowledge.

That leads me to assert that Sensei-trained students are far better candidates than “certified” students.

Those are my thoughts on the matter and I’m sure my bias is evident. Having said that, Lean is about change and I need to be open to understanding if one can be successful in ways to which I have not been exposed. I welcome your thoughts.


[1] There is no one certifying body, and not all certifying organizations evaluate the same way, leaving one to wonder if all certifications are really as valid as all others.

[2] Return On Investment (ROI) typically examines how quickly one can recover their investment. The implication is that one invests only for selfish reasons: financial gain.   Lean would have us wisely do what’s right for the customer’s, our employee’s, our supplier’s and our community’s welfare.