In conversation with Hal Macomber, Calayde Davey & Rebecca Snelling


Rebecca: We are here spending a few minutes on “The Pocket Sensei — Mastering Lean leadership with 40 Katas.”  Hal, could tell us what the book is about, and who it is for?

Hal: The book's’ purpose is to bring the fundamental practices of the Lean masters, Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, to today’s Lean practitioners. “The Pocket Sensei” is something very practical and important — putting wisdom back into the hands of modern Lean leaders allowing them to practice these strong techniques while they’re at their workplace.  We're reaching out across enterprises, industries, and roles — be it construction, manufacturing, software, or healthcare, CEOs or fieldmen — anywhere Lean is being pursued, you will have the sensei’s Shingo and Ohno in your pocket.

Rebecca: What made you decide to write this work, and how did Calayde get involved?

Hal: Starting about five  years ago, I wanted to help people make sense of Shingo and and Ohno’s knowledge. My colleagues and clients encouraged me to do more than write another Lean book. But my consulting work preoccupied me, and I neglected the book for many years. Calayde got involved because she was headed back to South Africa and before she went, she wanted to shadow me in my work. But, that really didn't work out practically, so I suggested we work on the book together instead.

Calayde: While we were writing and illustrating the work, the project expanded into something much more important to us as authors because we realized that this could have a significant impact on our community. “The Pocket Sensei” is a highly practical and impactful device.  We know so because it changed our working style while we were writing it. Shingo and Ohno’s lessons that we were writing about were giving us guidance while we were doing our work — an experience that was incredibly helpful. The project isn't actually a book at all — it isn't a book that is meant to be read,  but it is meant to be used. We’re sharing this new kind of working style — a very intentional and mindful approach to the work we are doing in the moment of doing the work. We want to share that experience and show how it can be brought about to benefit others.

Rebecca: The intention of the book is for it to be used. One thing that jumped out to me was the starting instructions describing how you recommend using this book.

Hal: The book serves someone in a Lean leader role or in a position where they can bring leadership to Lean initiatives, or when someone sees an opportunity to advance Lean objectives. It takes leadership to do this. Very few people know how to provide that leadership. Many Lean initiatives fail not because of the accessibility to Lean tools, but because leadership is wanting when it is needed most. When people looked at the initial drafts, there was some confusion about it. We needed to provide much more help and so we provided the “how to” section and an index map to support your learning.  We’re proposing that people practice katas together, and practice continuously. Some people have already told me that they've been practicing a particular kata for several weeks, which I think is fantastic.

A kata is a series of martial art actions that the student sets out to perform perfectly. You earn belts by demonstrating particular katas perfectly. But katas are not practiced alone. While each student sets out to perfect their kata, more importantly they're doing it with others. They practice openly. In the martial arts studio — or Dojo — there are many students who are practicing the same things together simultaneously, developing their own competencies, and providing coaching to each other (mimicking or learning how unique techniques work for unique students). Students also mimic behaviors observed from their sensei, (teacher). Similarly, people working together in Lean leadership katas start to provide guidance to each other. When they deliberately practice openly, they become mindful learning leaders at the place of their work.

Rebecca: How do these katas work with clients or project teams? What feedback have you received?

Hal: I've been practicing katas for a long time, using many katas in my consulting and coaching career. Recently over a couple dozen people and organizations have begun working their way through katas. They either start from beginning or finding something topical to whatever is going on in their project. Or, they simply start somewhere else out of curiosity about a lesson. One my clients, a vice president of an electrical engineering firm, has been practicing a kata for three weeks. And he had very positive things to say about how it's changing the way he looks at his organization and work that he does.

Rebecca: How do they get deliberate with katas, and what has been their experience mastering certain behaviors?

Hal:  Think of New Year's resolutions — which mostly don’t last a week, or we burn out by month's’ end. This certainly holds in our projects too. Ohno asked factory managers to stand in a circle drawn on the floor  and write down every waste they see (Ohno’s Circle). After three hours he would come back expecting a notebook filled with observations. As many times as I give this kata to people, doing everything less draw circles on jobsite floors, people don't do it, nor do they repeat the exercise. We've got to provide a better structure for people to do what's good, particularly if they aspire to leadership or are responsible to instigate change. We call this support Dojo. Dojo is Japanese for a studio where you practice together. But Dojo does not have to be a physical location only — your Dojo could be an intentional ritual that brings people together to practice and perfect kata. We three could be practicing Ohno Circle together to reinforce each other's committed learning to that practice, even if we are on different projects, organizations, or levels of the company — even from different industries altogether.

Rebecca: This book describes forty different katas. What recommendations do you have for folks who are just starting out?

Calayde:  Mostly, you are not restricted to reading the book in a particular order — you don't have to practice kata thirty-one before you practice kata thirty-two. Still, the book structure makes it easy for inexperienced leaders on a traditional reading path (start to finish) as katas become more complex as you move along. Some people conveyed to us that a particular kata really stood out or felt compelled to practice a simple powerful idea.

We hope that people will attach themselves to unique sets of helpful practices. Every kata is accompanied by journal pages and hanseis (reflections). The index provides a “roadmap” of the entire book structure, which also helps you to track your repetitions. More familiar readers will jump around — eventually finding sensible patterns for themselves.

Rebecca: Practicing and learning Lean behaviors while reflecting on what you've learned is really what seems to be the goal here?

Hal: Yes. There are some places that a natural kata progression takes place, but these are exceptions. What's more useful is starting off with a beginner's mind. There are five parts to the book. Part One starts with a beginner’s mind, paying attention to the exercises and moods. Do you have a good mood for learning? How are other people's moods?  What do you notice is happening for other people while you're doing this kata together? We're encouraging people to laugh at difficulties or things that go wrong. A beginner's mood opens your own mind for learning and to learning with others. In Part Five we ask people to embrace contradictions found in Lean — particularly with the Toyota Production System. Part One and Part Five are completely opposite approaches of engagement. Yet,  a wonderful way to could be to engage with any random set of katas and still be working in the mood of a beginner. Another starting point to start with a  mess going on someplace in your project: “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. Also, you’ll see many illustractions (as we call them) in the book — bringing a fun  light-heartedness to a very serious endeavor. Each of the five parts tell a little graphic story, designed by Calayde expressing katas. The lessons start with  a sensei saying, followed by a kata, and a hansei (reflection).

Rebecca: There are definitely some very cool illustractions in there too!

Rebecca: How have these different katas played a part in each of your personal Lean journeys, with yourself practicing some of them?

Hal: I’ll share a funny one. We’re working and Calayde is illustrating the book. Midnight, her time in South Africa, I post an idea, “let's do Bitmoji” for some of Calayde’s characters. As soon as I posted that thought, I looked at it and said to myself “that's a stupid idea,” and I immediately archived it, throwing it away. But Trello (app) immediately notified to our little world. Calayde wakes up and says “Oh! Look at this cool idea! What happened, why is it archived? Bring it back!” I didn't even give that idea a chance. People always complain that their superior didn't give their new idea a chance. No, that’s not it — we don't give our own new ideas a chance! I encounter that repeatedly myself. I have been discounting my ideas for years!

Rebecca: What’s yours Calayde?

Calayde: Many favorite katas have been working out well for me, but my experience was different. I’ve been immersed from multiple angles — reading and coming to grips with Hal’s forty years of consulting knowledge while augmenting, contributing, and illustrating lessons for visual meaning too. Beyond katas, the hanseis and moods have been striking to me. How I can change my own mind by working on my and others’ moods  — in open practice? On a on a deep level, this mood setting as an underlying framework for practicing katas is something that I've never engaged with directly, but it has changed my behaviour for the better.

Rebecca: Wow, it’s really wonderful to have a resource that helps you see this bigger picture  — many more subtleties and distinction on daily occurrences. What are your plans going forward?

Hal: The Lean Construction Institute is buying almost 2000 Special Edition Copies for attendees at LCI Congress, Calilfornia, in October. We're speaking there and then we’re visiting a number of US companies to do Pop-Up Dojos with them. The companies inviting us will learn how to use their books and start their own Dojo’s.

Rebecca: Well, then I’m inviting you to visit with us at JE Dunn! The electronic version is great, but when I work with our JE Dunn group and Lean champions, I'd like to hand them a hard copy  so that they can use the journal aspect and create some good learning together throughout .

Hal: They’re available on Amazon and eventually Kindle too. You can always have “The Pocket Sensei” with you, even if you don't have your physical copy. But, I agree with you Rebecca — we expect that the physical copies are going to be more popular than electronic ones. We would like people to write all over their books. Put your name in it — it belongs to you.

Calayde: When you are a Lean practitioner, it's something more than being a project engineer. It’s a way of working, of looking at your situation and listening to your surroundings — a way of being in the world. The next step for us is, of course, we're helping people get there. We’re building a website for more comprehensive resources. We want to create a support system for you to maintain your Dojo’s across organizations, skill, levels, titles, or industries. We don’t want to burden anyone with training away from their work.  We want to provide the resources you need to practice where your work is needed most. We want to help you build leadership in small groups — to build your own Dojos where you can learn openly together. A mindful way in which you’re putting yourself out there together, where you can call on each other while you’re trying something new: “Come with me, see how this experiment goes! Help me understand what I can’t see for myself.” The Dojo’s work is focused on making things better — in the real world.

"The Pocket Sensei”  is Volume One. What we would like to see is that people come back to us with their own successful and unique katas. This is tremendously valuable information — we want ot  give that back to the community. If some of us discover more practices, or things that are working quicker, more effectively or better over time, we can share that knowledge regardless of industry or organization. How do we help everyone become Lean leaders at all organization levels, across all industries? What is valuable and rewarding about Dojo that can help our community succeed in the same we felt that we succeeded when we were in Dojo with our sensei’s? Other people should know about that. These are the kinds of things we want the Dojo to share. That's what we're setting out to do.

Hal: Rebecca, in your role as JE Dunn's designated Lean leader, you’ve been developing nine Lean specialists who in turn develop Lean Leadership on projects. How is that going? What help could you use?

Rebecca:  Good question! We’ve been developing those people for about four years. We are learning a lot of good things along the way – particularly the necessary behaviors and emotional intelligence it takes to be effective. I’m very excited about using this book to help my team grow with structured consistency! With as many projects as we have,  we are looking for effective support to grow our teams with the right people.

Hal: The principal tool in Lean construction is the Last Planner System and the principal tool in Lean software development is the Kanban Method. We can learn from each others’ industries a great deal. We should be seeing, in Denver, the Kanban software world interacting with construction people — all practicing the same Lean katas in very different settings. We've gone from wherever I am in the world, in New Hampshire, to South Africa. Our intention is to have it be nothing less than a global practice.

Rebecca: Thank you both — I'm looking forward getting my hard copy and seeing you at LCI Congress in October!