Keeping Lean Japanese

There is a trend towards removing the Japanese language or jargon from Lean transformations in the U.S.  I understand why organizations would want to make lean thinking and the  corresponding tools easier to digest, but I think we should seriously consider keeping it Japanese.

  • People get used to new words and phrases better than you might think – Until a few years ago nobody knew what an iPod was.  A cougar used to be a big cat and not a woman who likes younger men.  Jewelry is now commonly called bling.
  • There is no standard for Americanized Lean – Some call Gemba “three actuals (actual place, actual process, actual people)”, others brand it as “direct observation”, some refer to it as just “process walk”, and I am sure Gemba goes by other names.  The problem with this is members of your organization can not easily learn Lean from external sources.  Article and book authors tend to use the Japanese terms at least in reference but your staff may miss it if the original word is not shared with them. 
  • Lean transformation is a significant change and language should reflect that – A lot of Lean will seem counter-intuitive at first and there is a major shift in thinking that will take place on your journey.  A significant change in the language will help communicate to the culture that things will be different from here on out.  To paraphrase Deming, you are no longer using the language of the old world.

Choosing the language of Lean is a strategic choice for your organization.  It is easy to dismiss the notion of keeping the Japanese out and making easier translations.  Please consider the pro side of keeping the original language.

I am very interested in your comments.

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12 responses to “Keeping Lean Japanese

  1. I’m inclined to agree because I’m noticing that sometimes the translation reflects an incomplete understanding of the concept.

    I don’t want something easier to digest; I want the right thing easier to digest.

  2. Jason, I agree the translation is sometimes incomplete.

    Sometimes the translation is too long also! I love nemawashi but there is no quick way to describe what it translates to since it is more than just consensus.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Jason – I like your blog and added it to my RSS reader!

  4. Since I am apparently the reluctant champion of anti-jargon, I guess I should respond.

    Yes, people do get used to new words. Once they do, don’t change them. I don’t care if you’re already using the word “gemba.” However, new words can become a barrier to WANTING to get used to them. Just because the ipod succeed doesn’t make the rule false. Jargon can confuse people in advance of education, and if I don’t understand what you’re talking about, I am less likely to engage. People also don’t want to look stupid. What would make more sense to them? “My sensei told me to eliminate muda by building to takt time” or “my coach told me to eliminate waste by building to the customer demand rate.”

    Second, just because there isn’t a deep understanding once words are translated doesn’t make the opposite true. There is as much variation in truly understanding the meaning of “gemba” as there is any English word. Using the Japanese words does not improve how deep people’s understanding in. The problem isn’t translation; it’s experience.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts Jamie. Where I work, we have a “no Japanese rule” for the same reasons you mention.

    As I reflect deeper on this, maybe I am reacting to “either/or” thinking.

    Do you think the Japanese words can co-exist with the more engaging jargon-free Americanized version or should the foreign language be abolished?

    My current thinking is for co-existance.

  6. I don’t think there is a binary either / or answer. And once an organization has started to use it, don’t try to undo it. For example, I have a client who doesn’t use 5S, they use SCANDO instead. This wasn’t better than 5S, but once they started down that path, trying to undo it is a lot harder. Kaizen has been around for almost 3 decades. It’s woven into all kinds of circles, so I don’t fret about using it. Make good choices. My main concern is that when the words become a barrier, there are enough bigger barriers that we don’t need to be created additional ones.


  7. Tom

    Amen, Jamie. I blogged (ranted?) a couple of years ago about people getting hung up on the words and forgetting or ignoring the meaning behind the words. I don’t care what words people use….I just care that they “get it”.

  8. I like the Japanese words except for the ones I can’t pronounce. I still have trouble with some of the pillars. 😉

    I think over the years we have sorted out the majority of the words we are and are not got to use. Such as Hoshi Kanri, I doubt will catch on except for the true Lean Loyalist. Like anything it evolves and the easiest and simplest to understand will end up in print and be used. The only real problem is the ones that are coined by individual organizations. However, I think some of them would invent an acronym no matter what.

    Enjoyed your post, 1st time here!

  9. Joe Pentlicki

    Well should we use this language or that language? I can make an argument both ways. First, the roots of the language, as it relates to the Toyota Production System, are important from a historical perspective. It provides that tangible thing we can all go back to for translation and interpretation. It also begins to define the “common language” we need to be successful in supporting our common goal of creating a cultural operating system of Lean.

    That said, we also know literature would indicate that benchmarking focuses our attention away from the customer and towards building our organization based on the current best in the industry. That best in the industry still may not be providing the highest value for the customer. Is our fixation on Japanese terminology, to some degree, benchmarking a cultural operating system?

    Taking this one step further, the words, while important, are percieved as created and subsequently owned by Toyoya and founders of TPS. I know, the long debated obstacle about Lean, “but we are not Toyota; we do not make cars, we make x.”

    So, are the words important or the philosophies. I would argue it is clearly the philosophies. When those philosophies are adopted and integrated throughout all organizational levels, a transformation is more likely. I would add that the words used to define the philosophies, if owned by the organization through their own creation, will align organizational resources more quickly towards the common cause via common language.

    I would conclude the importance is ownership of the operating system, adoption of the philosophies, and creation of a common language for the organization. Whether you use Japanese terminology is secondary. If it works for your organization, great. If you are struggling with your transformation, avoid fixation on words and adopt a language for your organization that is built on the philosophies.

  10. Thank you everybody for your thoughts on this topic. Maybe the root cause of the language “problem” really is about lack of understanding or getting the philosphy as Joe and Tom discuss.

  11. Pingback: Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog » Management Improvement Carnival #82

  12. This confusion over jargon is not limited to just Japanese words.

    A week long improvement project may be called a kaizen, kaizen event, kaizen blitz, Rapid Improvement Workshop, RIW, Rapid Improvement Project, RIP, or Continuous Improvement project.

    Event the 5S’s are not the same across companies–sort, sweep, set in order, stabilize, sustain, scan, shine, standardize, straighten, scrub, and more all creep into the list of ‘S’ terms.

    I think the key is to make sure that the whole company is operating from the same playbook, whatever that book might be. It is far too easy to add waste to the improvement process itself by not having standard meanings in place.

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