Lean Jargon, Part I - Is it helpful?

Regarding Lean “jargon”…

People don’t like it. Experience tells me there are two things at play here regarding the Japanese terms.

1) When we talk lean in America and mix in the Japanese terms people see this as transparent. Reason: once people acquire the knowledge of the seven wastes, they do get it and they see why the Japanese are successful at this. People know that the "real trick" is for leaders to follow up with them so that they learn about how to eliminate the waste through the concept of learning by doing. This is a key concept behind the Japanese word, “kaizen”, is it not? Make small improvements, otherwise the knowledge is lost. When we don’t follow up, this is a key point, we are just telling people that muda is the seven wastes. We aren't showing them why, and we certainly aren't supporting them in making actual improvements. Our problem in the U.S. is that we do a good job of developing people’s ability to see waste, we just don’t do a good job of developing people’s ability to eliminate waste within their small sphere of influence. Jargon doesn’t develop anybody’s skill. People can easily see through this.

2) People say they that their workforce can’t handle the Japanese terms and management methods. This is an American culture, not a Japanese culture.

This is generally a true statement, especially the part about culture. It doesn’t mean that we can’t try to learn what the terms mean. In fact, this is really the key point in starting your lean journey. What these people are really telling us is that as managers, we can’t handle the lean terms because we don’t understand them. Why? Our thinking is not rooted in a lean context and we are comfortable with our current thinking: command and control the hands you have hired. Supplement that bias with the notion that the terms are of Japanese origin and you don’t stand a fighting chance. Is it possible that the Japanese terms were developed so that the Japanese could understand and communicate Western management methods exported to Japan in pre and post WWII eras? Is it possible that Ford, Juran, Deming, Mogensen, Gilbreths, and the four horsemen of Training Within Industry heavily influenced Japanese management thinking, long before the 80's JIT failures and the 90's Lean explosion? How many of those English terms directly translated to Japanese? I argue that 98% of the time, you will find the literal english translations of Japanese management terms rooted in American management jargon of the pre-WWII era. The Japanese just took this stuff seriously into the workplace...oops sorry, genba.

This problem of understanding the Japanese management methods is a real problem. The root cause is that we don’t have the patience to stick with problems. I for one have learned a great deal about the origins of Lean, which are solidly rooted in the Training Within Industry program, and other influential work simplification programs, simply because a few of us have stuck with the difficult task of trying to understand the terms and history of TPS. When delivered to Americans, many people understand the American management concepts taught during WWII of “how to instruct”, “how to improve methods”, and “how to lead” people. These skills lead us to standardize, improve and work together in harmony. Sound familiar? By the way, Toyota uses TWI’s Job Instruction, in more or less unaltered format, 60 years later. The problem is not the tools, the jargon or who invented Lean. The problem we are trying to get at here is “us” and the way we learn, think and act...not the way we talk.

The first part of learning lean is to understand the context at a very basic level: 1) elimination of waste, 2) problem solving, 3) standardization, 4) customer focus, etc., you get the idea. The jargon is used to communicate these ideas to others. The usefulness of jargon ends here. The problem with the jargon is that it does nothing to help us break down our old habits of thinking and start building up new habits around the lean context I just described.

Jargon doesn’t break down old habits. People do!
Jargon doesn’t build up new habits. People do!
Jargon doesn’t think systematically. People do!
Jargon doesn’t solve problems. People do!
Jargon doesn’t implement two million improvements per year. People do!

So, Mr. & Ms. Lean Leaders, where will you focus your efforts? On the jargon? If so, that is fine, but you better be prepared to follow up and learn together with your people, or suffer the flavor of the month.
Next post, more Japanese Lean jargon, their meanings and ties to early American management methods.

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