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Hi, we're Russ & Steph,
Co-founders of Sempai

sempai co-founders

Russell has worked in lean for over 25 years,

He's held Operations, Materials and Lean positions within the Automotive, Aerospace and Construction Equipment sectors.


His Lean transformation work has taken him to shopfloors and boardrooms on 4 continents, upskilling 1000+ people to drive forward 100+ businesses in the UK, Europe, the US, China, India, Japan and South America.

He's designed and run multi-site lean programmes and, among other clients, has consulted for 15 years to a Toyota Group company, created the JCB Production System and established Lean Academies for two £bn global manufacturing businesses.

Russell was trained by, and still consults with, his Sensei Toshiyuki Muraoka, a Toyota Production System Master who worked under Taiichi Ohno in Japan.

As an industry expert he actively engages in speaking, publishing authorative content and serves as an esteemed judge for The Manufacturer Awards.

russell watkins

"In the last 17 years we've helped businesses from £1m to £6bn turnover, giving us the credibility of having managed the complexity of lean transformations in large and small clients alike."

Most likely to say:
"Where's the nearest craft beer bar?"

  • LinkedIn

Connect with Russell on LinkedIn

steph watkins

"Lean's about keeping it simple and giving it a go and if we can make someone's job easier by passing on our lean knowledge then job done."

Most likely to say:
"I'm off to the allotment!"

  • LinkedIn

Connect with Steph on LinkedIn

Steph has a family history steeped in manufacturing, 

and started her career in corporate finance for a global manufacturer. 

She's worked on large capital expenditure projects, along with cost benefit analysis for six sigma projects.  Steph is skilled in Financial Modelling, Capital Investment, Forecasting, and Business Analysis. 

Steph is an experienced co-founder whose focus at Sempai is Operations and Marketing and keeping Russell in check.



In 2007, our journey began with a pivotal moment in our lives. Russell was told by his employer that he would have to relocate to America.  Whilst this once would have been an opportunity we would have relished, we had two young children and a desire to provide them with stability.

Opting to stay rooted in our home country, we made a daring choice. We chose to navigate uncharted waters by starting our own company.


This decision required us to step away from the safety of a stable job and venture into the realm of entrepreneurship. It was a time of uncertainty, as we had recently taken on a mortgage and were confronted with the challenge of building something from the ground up.

Armed with only a three-month contract, we began our journey, fully aware of the risks involved. But, with determination and resilience, we embraced the challenge before us.

What started as a single contract has now blossomed into a thriving enterprise that has stood the test of time. Through unwavering commitment and the trust of our clients, we have forged enduring relationships.

Today, we take immense pride in our accomplishments. Our journey serves as a testament to the power of perseverance, the rewards of taking calculated risks, and the transformative impact of unwavering dedication.

Join us as we continue to embrace new challenges, explore uncharted territories, and build upon the foundation we laid more than a decade ago. Together, we will create a future defined by innovation, resilience, and success.


Engage us and we’ll "go-look-see" beyond the boardroom and offices and into the depths of the shopfloor. This is what you can expect from us as we transfer true lean capability:


It’s all in our name – Sempai (pronounced sem-pie)


Sempai refers to a Japanese working relationship between a sempai and a kohai.  The sempai is senior, not necessarily by age but by knowledge and wisdom.  The sempai’s role is to pass knowledge freely to the kohai at the right time without fear of being surpassed. The kohai’s role is to pin their ears back, commit to learning and aim to surpass their sempai.  Our business is built to pass on our knowledge, to our clients, in this way.


Lean is situational, the steps you take to improve a manufacturing company depend on a massive range of variables. For example, customer pain OR the financial position OR the capability of the people OR the capability, condition and complexity of the processes OR the product range, OR, OR, OR.

Our skill lies in helping the team to understand what to try to improve, in what order. In other words, to locate and lead the most useful activities to tackle the ‘pain’ (or capitalise on the ‘gain’) that the business faces.

There is no set road to becoming lean, the road is made by each company that walks it. Their personal road. Of course, there are broad building blocks – don’t hurt your people, having a product portfolio that makes money in aggregate, collect the voice of the customer, make your processes basically stable – but the road is unique. “Copy and paste” lean programmes won’t and don’t work, it’s like taking an aspirin for every ailment.

Our Approch
Our Values


The core things we stand for


We bring practical clarity to ambitious manufacturers through lean knowledge, experience & insight.


We help manufacturers make good people to make good things, by solving problems beside them, sleeves rolled up.


We like to engage with teams; listening, observing, and challenging to get to the right shared focus.


How we think and act


We support and encourage people to integrate lean into everyday aspects of business with a “give it a try” approach.


We ask the hard questions and put in the hard yards to create a results led culture of continuous improvement.


We look to stand apart by simplifying the path and guiding you to the best way forward.


Take the first step by reaching out to us today!. 

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