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Now What Do We Call the Karaoke Bar?

by Chet Marchwinski
October 4, 2013

Now What Do We Call the Karaoke Bar?

by Chet Marchwinski
October 4, 2013 | Comments (5)

Are Japanese terms losing favor among lean thinkers?

Many lean thinkers are saying "sayonara" to Japanese terms.

In a recent community sound off question, we asked people,"Do you use Japanese terms in your lean transformation or purposely avoid them? Why?" Although the number of respondents was relatively small, the differences were big.

Of the 46 responses received through our weekly newsletter and social media...

  • 48% avoided Japanese terms
  • 30% used them
  • 22% used both

Here are some selected quotes from each segment:

Avoid Japanese Terms:

"I'm sorry to say that I also try and avoid using the word lean as well."

"I want [people] to learn a new skill and way of thinking without having to learn a new language."


Use Japanese Terms:

"Japanese terms allow us to speak a common language of continuous improvement."

"We felt that since most of the books and training materials used them, it would be better in the long run to learn them and use them."


Use both:

"I fluctuate. If I'm with other lean thinkers, I'm more inclined [to use Japanese terms]."


"We are avoiding the Japanese terms for the most part, based on two reasons," wrote one respondent who summed up the main arguments for many on the "avoid" side. "We are concerned that some employees will be put off by 'insider' terms," he said. "You have to be part of 'the club' who understands expressions like muda, gemba, and nemawashi. We [also] want Lean to feel like it is just how we do business, and anything we can do to foster it as just 'our way,' minus all the foreign terms, should help in gaining adoption of lean concepts."

But several people believed the exact opposite: the use of foreign words actually helped the adoption and understanding of lean thinking.

"I want people to learn the [Japanese] terms in order to have a common language, and more importantly, to remind them that they are embarking on a new way of thinking. It takes a little more effort up front, for both me and those I'm helping … but I think the common language in the end will be worth it. The reinforcement of a new path is priceless."


Asking Why about 5S

Some Japanese words were more problematic than others. Even people who used both Japanese and native-languages for lean management ideas, scrap-binned 5S terms for workplace organization: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke.

"We use a mix of both. For example, we always use kanban for a visual signal in a pull system but the 5s's are the English version," wrote one respondent.

Others were more blunt.

"I have seen people spending more time learning the Japanese for 5S than actually concentrating on what they mean," one individual said. Another shared, "Trying to explain and fix to memory five seemingly abstract Japanese words for a cleaning and maintaining exercise adds no value."

Community members from service industries seemed more inclined to avoid Japanese. A healthcare professional at an organization using Japanese terms said they stopped after getting "a lot of pushback." Many referred to the Japanese terms as representative of "being part of the Lean cult." One hospital associate said, "We try to avoid using Japanese terms as much as possible, as it can sometimes stand as a barrier to learning and engagement."

A state government worker noted, "I've seen the positive results in our agency's transformation over the past several years. But in this English-speaking culture most people don't know what the Japanese words mean, much less do they want to use them. It's as simple as that."

Finally, a Dutch-speaking respondent said co-workers had problems using English lean terms, let alone Japanese. But they didn't mind the sound of a Japanese term for understanding a problem through personal observation: genchi genbutusu. "They think it's funny."

Some experienced lean leaders maintain that a lean transformation entails a change in thinking, a change in mindset. Choosing language that reflects new ways of working and thinking can be a powerful means of affecting change.

Would more employees "buy in" to Lean if western companies stopped using words like kaizen, kanban, heijunka, and hoshin? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Stephen Patterson October 04, 2013
It's acknowledged by Ohno that one of the 1st books he read on maanufacturing systems was Henry ford's "Today and Tomorrow".

Following WWII we American experts in quality to drive necessary improvements. The Japanese incorporated the teachings of Shewhart, Juran, Demming and others into their quality system.

So the seminal influences on TPS and Japanese Quality systems are from American Manufacturing and Innovation.

We should be using out terms, in the English language as we drive the resurgence of manufacturing quality products in the USA.   


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Leon Martens October 07, 2013

I mix them up but always explain the Japanese terms because it is easier to find supporting material on the internet when you search on the Japanese terms.

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chad werkmeister October 08, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
In our facility we have what I consider a stronger than typical buy in from the associates on Lean principles and the verbage used.

I am the Continuous Improvement Engineer here, and when I took over just over a year ago, the term "Kaizen" meant a lot of meetings, but little action. I have substituted Kaizen for "CI Event", hoping to build momentum and guide the culture toward the understanding that Lean doesn't have to be another bureaucratic tool. 

Could I get the same change if I had stuck with "Kaizen"? Probably, but tying myself to the old system would have meant a far more difficult battle in changing peoples minds. I don't think it would be any better using the Japanese terms, but if I were starting over fresh I would use them.

Great article. I appreciate the specific examples and feedback!      

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Ken Hunt October 14, 2013
I found it interesting while reading the comments that one individual atated that they avoid using Japanese terms because people equated them with "manpower reduction". In my experience this happens only when it has actually happened at that particular company. We need to do a good job of communicating that Lean is not about doing the same with less, it is about doing more with the same.

Also, in my opinion, if we totally shun the Japanese terms aren't we ignoring the very core of the concepts themselves?

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Michael Ballé October 30, 2013

What is it you're trying to say? Should we do without sushi? Manga? Zen or kimono? Languages are live and will adopt specific words with specific meanings different from what is already there effortlessly, so it has to be a middle way. 

There is no substitute for kaizen or kanban. Gemba, muda, muri, mura are core concepts which can be transalted by workplace, waste, overburden and unlevelness, but without quite the exact same meaning.

I suspect that chorobiki, chaku-chaku are a bit extreme. Noentheless, I feel that words are used as they are needed, and the non-use of specific words simploy reflects that underlying concept is not being absorbed by the community. 

A lean practictioner should be equally at ease with the core terminology and use it according to what the audience is and the problem being addressed. It's hard to see why we should have firm opionons about such matters - it all depends, and any language has its own wisdom.

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