Monday, November 28, 2016

Lean and the Martial Arts

By Pascal Dennis

Fall down seven times, get up eight times
Toyota proverb

I first stumbled onto the martial arts when I fifteen years old. I was shooting baskets at the YMCA with my pal, Pete Stathakos, when we a series of loud slams followed by raucous applause emanating from the large wrestling room.

We hurried over. What we encountered there has informed my life ever since. Bruce Stiles sensei, fresh from years of intense study with Kanai-sensei of Boston Aikikai was giving a demonstration with members of his newly launched Toronto Aikikai club.

Later I learned that Kanai-sensei was a ‘Shihan’ or senior sensei who had studied with the founder, Morehei Ueshiba.

Stiles-sensei was demonstrating core techniques against multiple attackers. Power, movement, discipline intense focus, and an obvious consideration and respect between the participants. Stiles-sensei drove his attackers into the mat so hard, I was amazed they were able to rise again.

In fact, they rolled out of throws and rose smoothly to attack again. Everybody on the mat seemed powerful, elegant, tireless and respectful. At the end, Bruce and his students knelt and bowed to one another, and then bowed to a picture of an old Japanese gent. The gallery burst into wild applause. Stiles-sensei thanked everyone for coming, answered audience questions, and the demonstration came to an end.

I joined the club of course and for the next fifteen years would attend 3 or 4 times a week. I learned the seven virtues of bushido: Yuki = courage; Jin = charity; Gi = justice; Rei = courtesy; Makoto = honesty; Chugi = fidelity; Meiyo = honor, which corresponded closely to the Cardinal

Virtues I learned at St. George’s Greek Orthodox Sunday School. Aikido helped me through Engineering school and Business school.

Then I heard that Toyota was opening a major factory in the Waterloo region about 90 minutes from my home. I was interviewed by the President, Mr. Watanabe. After a few perfunctory questions about my training and experience, he said, “Tell me about aikido.”

Mr. Watanabe closed his eyes as I described my senseis, training and dojo. He opened his eyes and smiled. “You are a serious student, Pascal-san – good! Toyota is also like a dojo…” Turns out he had studied both judo and aikido. I got the job and my apprenticeship began in earnest.

Mr. Watanabe was right. Toyota felt very much like a martial arts dojo. In fact, before stepping onto the shop floor, I felt like bowing, as a sign of respect to my team members, and to the art of management.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because it’s still the same. Lean is ‘do’, in other words, a ‘path’, very similar to aikido, judo, karate-do and other martial arts.

A set of techniques becomes a path when they connect to your deeper being and purpose. A path provides constancy of purpose. The great senseis, whether in the martial arts or in management tend to be extraordinarily long-lived.

Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Joe Juran, Eiji Toyoda were all active well into their 90’s!

All this matters because the single most important quality in Lean (and the martial arts) is tenacity, which the ancients called Fortitude. Great senseis, and great organizations have it in spades.

Fall down seven times, get up eight times.

Lean, aikido, judo, karate… it’s all the same.

Best regards,


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