Three Ways to Think About Lean Vocabulary

When people are learning about Lean practices they very soon confront a set of new terms, many of them in Japanese. While the enthusiasm some people have for Lean processes leads them to embrace the new terms, others are challenge by ideas and vocabulary that are foreign to them. There three ways we can think about how we use words in Lean work.

  1. Strict adherence to the Lean lexicon. The argument for using words such as gemba, kaizen, muda, and hansei is that the English translations do not capture the deeper intent of the Japanese terms. English terms in common use in Lean work are batch-and-queue, pull planning, problem solving, root cause analysis, and A3 Reports.
  2. Ignore Lean vocabulary and do what works. Many people see the use of foreign terms confusing, and therefore choose to ignore them. Even the English terms are modified to reflect a perception of what people are doing. For example pull planning becomes backwards scheduling in many people’s vocabulary.

A challenge with the first approach is that these Lean words were chosen, or invented, to serve specific needs, in specific settings, in specific work cultures. It is important to understand the ambitions driving those word choices rather than parrot the terms if you are going to apply the ideas behind those words to your work. It is equally important to understand that your work culture may find certain terms a discouragement. I was surprised recently to hear from a client that the term problem solving had a negative connotation. They would much rather be building on their strengths rather than addressing weaknesses, the latter an action the word problem represented to them.

A challenge with the second approach is the relabeling of Lean terms can change the intent of those terms. Pull planning is not backwards scheduling, and describing it as such risks the loss of any benefit from this way of thinking about work. There is a history to the Lean vocabulary, and to ignore that history is to ignore several generations of learning and practice.

There is a third way to think about Lean vocabulary.

  1. Learn the existing vocabulary, including how it was used and why it was developed. Understand the fundamental principles informing the word choices. Recognize that the Lean vocabulary results from conversations between people facing specific challenges, and that new challenges – your challenges – will invite the need for additional vocabulary. With the existing Lean vocabulary as a foundation, along with an understanding of Lean principles, then invent the words you need to further your Lean transformation, based on your challenges and ambitions.

By the way, if you invent some new terms, you are in good company. In chapter 15 of his book, Workplace Management, Taiichi Ohno write about the invention by Kiichiro Toyoda of the phrase just-in-time.

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