Tuesday, January 05, 2010

English Speaking Lean

After reading Mark Graban’s post, 10 Things I Wish Lean Practitioners Wouldn’t Say in 2010 on his Lean Blog, I thought it was interesting that 4 of the 10 things were aimed against using Japanese terms. Mark clearly states he is not opposed to Japanese terms but asks if we might be “getting a bit carried away in embracing Japanese words.” He further suggests that we should avoid using Japanese words in an English-speaking environment, and just use simple, plain English.

But perhaps simple, plain English is not what we believe it to be. Although it is difficult be exact with our dynamic and expanding vocabulary, it is estimated that over 80% of our English vocabulary has come from other languages (source: Wikipedia.com). Most of our English words come from Latin, French, Italian, and Greek origin to name a few. Due to contact with other cultures over the centuries in conquests, commerce, travel and immigration, the English language has adopted or derived many words into our fold. As our world gets smaller and contact increases with the speed of the internet and television, I can easily speculate that our “English” language will add many more words in the future and at a much faster rate.

If we choose the path of halting the spread of Japanese words in our lean approach except for select few like kaizen or gemba, would we be promoting the status quo (oops, Latin)? Maybe we should form an ad hoc (Latin, again) committee to set a policy on the use of Japanese words in our company? If we can’t decide, we can leave it up to the head honcho (Japanese) to put the kibosh (Yiddish) on this glitch (Yiddish) in our improvement path.

Instead of sending our kids to Kindergarten (German) we should say we are sending them to Pre-First Grade. Or should we simply say we live on a quiet, dead-end street instead of a cul-de-sac (French)? Instead of going out for sushi (Japanese), let’s go out for some raw fish..yummy. States like California (Spanish) and Colorado (Spanish) would be shopping for new names. No more going out on Karaoke (Japanese) night , let’s just go out to the local bar to sing off key to taped music after drinking some liquid courage. We would also give up using words like café, chipotle, chocolate, ballet, protégé, entrepreneur, blasé, gaffe, whiskey, banana and mosquito.

My personal bias is to use the Japanese words in talking and teaching lean because I was taught by Japanese Sensei for the first 10 years of my lean journey. It has become second nature to me and I embrace the words as I embrace the lean thinking.

This does not mean that Japanese words need to be used by everyone, it is up to each person to decide on their own. The use of Japanese words is not to impress or exclude, it is just to seek greater understanding of the meaning. Hopefully we won’t get lost in translation.

Update added (1/7/2010)
There are certainly many great comments on this topic. Thanks to all!
Please check out these other posts on this topic by :
Mark Rosenthal's post on The lean Thinker
Brian Buck's post on Improve with Me
Ron Pereira's post on LSS Academy


Tim McMahon said...

Your last part about translation is an important one. Many times the words lose meaning in the translation. Maybe the important part is to understand the actual/real meaning to the concepts no matter what language they are in. It is bothersome to hear peoples use the terms wrong (in all languages). Seek to understand then be understood.

Tim McMahon

A Lean Journey

curiouscat said...

good post. Overall I think we should not avoid Japanese terms. People should be able to increase their vocabulary. As you say English is a dynamic language that subsumes words regularly. Now I also can see going to overboard and overwhelming people with the number of new words (Japanese or whatever). But overall I believe it is not sensible to put effort into avoiding using some Japanese terms.

Rob said...

I think it all boils down to semantics really. One thing which is critical to lean is participation and understanding. As long as the fundamental concepts behind each principle, philosophy or tool is deeply appreciated then what you call it is less important.

Shawne Van Deusen-Jeffries said...

More important than the terms used is conveying the meaning to the people that need to use Lean to improve their processes. Does is matter if we call it muda or waste as long as we identify and eliminate it?

billburris said...

It's contingent upon the audience. In my past I was challenged with utilizing a high percentage of contract employees. Referencing 5S; I was very much in favor of an experienced employee discussing actions to sustain the current state on the shop floor vs. providing definitions of Japanese terms to their peers.

Mark Welch said...

It all comes down the culture where we find outselves currently working. When I was in manufacturing they seemed to enjoy the Japanese terms. Where I am now, in a hospital, they don't seem to appreciate it. Maybe some other hospitals would. For me, I'll just use them based on how my "customers perceive their value." :-)

Ron Pereira said...

Brilliant post, Mike. I am with you 110%... so much so we named our company with the coolest and most powerful Japanese word of all!

Jon Miller said...

Well said Mike.

The comment about hospitals by Mark is interesting. There are many medical terms that are highly specialized in a hospital, often Greek or Latin-based. People in hospitals use these without hesitation, even though the patients may not have the foggiest. The same is true of almost any organization with their company-internal abbreviations or terminology.

There can be a subconscious message of "I'm smarter than you" for knowing these words. I also think it's a natural way people identify who is an outsider and who is not. Japanese or not, lean lingo shouldn't make people feel left out or not as smart. I would say that's an argument for using them more, not less, so that people become more familiar and comfortable with them.

Mark Graban said...

Brilliant post, Mike.

I think there's room for moderation in all things... words like "genchi genbutsu" just turn people off, from my experience.

Implementing lean is hard enough. To me, using more welcoming language is better than trying to teach a foreign language. If Japanese words turn people off, I don't need that extra hassle. I often introduce the word in training, so they've heard it and aren't caught off guard by reading or hearing a reference to, say, "heijunka." But then we typically agree to say "level loading."

If "kaizen" becomes as common in English-speaking countries as the other foreign phrases you cited, that will be a big win for us all!

Jamie Flinchbaugh said...

Very well written. And valid.

I think there is more than a subtle difference between scrapping all Japanese words and using them for the sake of using them.

I choose to think about it in terms of change management. When talking with someone new to the subject, what would be most effective? Will I be confusing them and turning them off, or will it help shed new light? There is no one pat answer.

Jim Baran, Owner Value Stream Leadership said...

My issue with Japanese terms for Lean application is they are widely misused and often overestimate actual savvy or experience depth.

I’m assuming if someone stated on their resume that they administer “flu shots”, they actually know how to poke someone in the arm.

What does “I led 47 Kaizen events this year” tell you? If someone claims they thoroughly understand
Hoshin Kanri, do you ask for examples in Japanese? Not real excited about “policy deployment” either. I’d rather be poked in the arm.


Jamie Flinchbaugh said...

The Lean Thinker blog also added their comments on another post: http://theleanthinker.com/2010/01/06/leanblog-org-10-lean-things-not-to-say/

John said...

Hi Mike,

Just found your blog, very nice.

I don't have an objection per se to the use of Japanese words and had not really thought much about it in the past.

I think there may be 2 problems:

Problem #1 is that using Japanese words for many of the lean concepts seems to imply that we are borrowing Japanese concepts. This is, for the most part, untrue. Most of the concepts we think of as lean manufacturing were borrowed from US (U.S.) back in the day. Pretty much everything in the Toyota Production System can be found in Henry Ford's 1923 book "My Life and Work".

Second, I think using foreign words for concepts weakens the concepts. Think of merde (French) or mierda (Spanish) as in "Be careful not to fall into the mierda."

That is fine for polite company and most people even know what the words mean. They lack the power of saying "Don't fall into the sh*t" (As does "sh*t", for that matter)

They are euphemisms and eupemisms are uses to weaking the impact of a word.

John Henry

PS-I have a changeover group on LinkedIn called Changeover/SMED I hope you will all check it out.