I’m a big fan of lean business. I believe lean provides organizations with the “burning platform” they need to strive to be their very best and minimize waste and risk. As a reliability engineer, I believe it provides the business platform in which to deploy reliability management systems, which help us to quantify and analyze profit-eroding losses to the organization. I get all that and am second to none in my admiration of the merits of lean. What I don’t get is why so many U.S. companies that implement a lean business system insist on using Japanese words in the process.
I spent more than a few years studying at various universities. Several of those years were dedicated to advanced graduate study in business administration. One thing that was very evident to me at the time (and nothing since has convinced me otherwise) is that clear communication is essential to business success. Just to be sure, I referred to the textbooks I used in school. There was plenty of attention paid to communication. We learned about the various elements of communication (encoder, decoder, etc.), the communication process, systems of communication, barriers to communication, communication enablers, etc. I grant you that my circa 1989 MBA is a little yellow around the edges, but I don’t recall any major breaking news announcing that effective communication is no longer thought to be important to success in business or any other aspect of life for that matter.
Figure 1. Examples of Lean Terms
I also learned in business school that people and organizations frequently resist change, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “psychological inertia”? They do so for a variety of reasons. They may not understand their role in the new system, which is frequently called role ambiguity. They are concerned about a loss of stature or quality of life. Sometimes they fear that they or those they’re close to will get squeezed out of the picture. No matter the reason, most people and organizations fear and resist change for psychological and social psychological reasons. Like the importance of communication, I don’t think people or society has suddenly and passionately embraced change to the point where it’s all of a sudden become a welcome stranger. I suspect that graduate business students are still taught how to carefully navigate the maze of challenges we face when changing an organization.
Working on the assumption that other business leaders (those responsible for deploying lean business systems) were trained using the same or similar textbooks from which I was taught business management, I must ask, “Why do we insist on using Japanese words when deploying lean systems of business in organizations where nobody speaks Japanese?” For most people, lean is scary business because it represents change. When we present it using unfamiliar Japanese terms, it is scary and confusing. Three parts of organizational change combined with two parts of poor communication is a recipe for disaster.
I’m not sure if it is arrogance or ignorance, but I am certain that it exhibits a lack of common sense to implement a major change initiative and knowingly sabotage communication by rolling it out in a foreign language. Lean should be reduced to its simplest elements. Let’s face it: There is little that can’t easily be translated into English, Spanish, French or whatever language is most common at the plant.
Sure, Japanese makes sense for Toyota, the company most responsible for the architecture of what we call lean business. They’re a Japanese company. But for American firms, it’s best to stick with the language of the plant, which for the most part is English, with notable exceptions where Spanish is required. I proudly hail from Oklahoma and am fiercely proud of my Western pioneering heritage. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to walk up and say “poka-yoke” to some good ol’ boys working in Oklahoma factories. Unless they’d been through Lean 101, I might find myself with a rearranged face!
Honestly, it’s tragic that I had to write on this topic. When it comes to lean business, common language is common sense. Keep it simple. The KISS method still works!