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Why do lean practitioners use so many Japanese terms?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Why do we use so many Japanese terms? I guess experts really want employees and students to think about these concepts.  They make me think about Japan though. If the Japanese use their own language that means their employees don’t have to think that much about the concepts.

“Just-in-time” is written in English in Kiichiro Toyoda’s original manual. “takt time” is straight from German. And is there another way to express “ikigai” or “umami” than ikigai or umami? Language is arbitrary in any case, as words don’t relate analogically to the thing they describe – there is nothing that shows what a cat is in the word “cat.” Why not make the effort to learn the original?

I’m not sure it’s a question of language, more of a question of deployment: do we do things to people or do we do things with people?

In lean, I was told a long time ago that the responsibility for finding information lies with the person that needs the information, not the one who has it. This is pull, not push.

This doesn’t mean that the person who knows something shouldn’t do what they can to be understood, to facilitate the communication process, but here again, lean differs from our traditional notions of clarity. The best way to be better understood is to better understand the person who is asking. Making a greater effort to listen and figuring out where they’re coming from has a greater chance of creating a communication channel, regardless of language.

Passionate Engineers

Mr. Yoshino, who was in charge of developing the American team leaders for NUMMI, tells astounding stories of American workers learning kaizen from their Japanese counterparts on Toyota lines in Japan while sharing no common language at all.

We tend to see teaching as doing something to others. The simplest form of teaching is asking people for rote learning (else you fail the test). As you mention, a more evolved form of teaching is getting people to think about concepts. From cognitive science, we now know that the reaction of memory is not thinking – thinking means manipulating mental objects in one’s mind. But in order to do so, we need memory, and memory is the residue of thought: it’s a feedback loop.

If you want to teach a beginner, you ask them to cram the vocabulary first, where your question makes a lot of sense in terms of how many new words we want them to digest. Then you give them puzzles to solve to see if they understand the new concepts. Then you vary context to see if they truly get it and can manipulate the idea in different settings.

This sounds straightforward, but you immediately hit many problems. I’ve just had a go at this recently, introducing the term “kotozukuri” with Daryl Powell and Kodo Yokozawa. We were convinced this was a critical element of lean theory along with “monozukuri” (“making things”?) and “hitozukuri” (“making people”?). We defined kotozukuri as “making things happen.” Bringing the passion of the engineer to satisfy customers all the way into production. If we want to create a community of deep thinkers about lean, should we make it easy by having well defined times that can be taught widely, or should we create an attractive field with mysterious concepts?

But it’s not so simple – translation is fraught with difficulties and, in fact, our Japanese colleague Kodo assured us there was no clear way to understand kotozukuri in Japanese either. Some companies used it in the sense of shaping the commercial message to attract customers. Others as an engineering concept. And many other meanings. The general sense is easy to intuit, but vague as well.

Then I’ve had many discussions with the people interested in the concept to try and clarify it. Many of which ended in more questions than answers.

Should we have used an English term instead?

The Meaning of Kung Fu

I don’t believe so. There is another way of looking at training. The main issue with the rote learning approach, we know, is motivation. When the student is motivated, she takes in all the concepts and terms as a sponge takes in water. When she is not, all the rote learning in the world will not make her grasp the deeper meaning of the words – she’ll just spit them out in very narrow specific contexts without being quite sure of what she means.

The teaching we have in mind is mass schooling. But when you enter graduate studies, teaching methods change radically. The student must actively look for knowledge. It is the student’s job to define terms (I was taken to task for not having done this well enough during my own PhD examination, and still remember the trauma of it, all these years later). The assumption is that the student wants to enter the club of “doctors” and will acquire the skill to do it from effort.

If we want to create a community of deep thinkers about lean, should we make it easy by having well defined times that can be taught widely, or should we create an attractive field with mysterious concepts for the people who want to learn to be interested in discovery?

The answer, I believe, is a bit of both. And then let language do its work. Some terms will become part of common usage, such as “kaizen,” others will remain of interest only to specialists or people really interested in learning such as “kotozukuri.”

To answer your question specifically, I don’t think this is a question we need to resolve. The why of it is that each person uses the Japanese terms she thinks is appropriate – or indeed, will use different terms in different settings. When I write for large audiences, I will say “workplace,” for the lean crowd, I’ll use “gemba” and when actually working with committed CEOs I use the “genchi genbutsu” because of the active notion of going out there to seek problems and forge consensus isn’t implicit in gemba, a passive term.

In the end, I believe that the language discussion says more of the attitude to teaching and learning than linguistics. If the teacher is keen to get students to learn the basics with minimal effort, or if the student wants to learn all of this quickly and move on, then indeed, why use Japanese terms. On the other hand, if the teacher wants to point to sophisticated, culturally ambiguous concepts because that’s where there is something new to learn and if the student wants to really figure this out to make it work for real, to acquire the skill through effort (which, I’m told, is the original meaning of the term kung fu), then obviously, specific Japanese terms will make more sense. It is a question of which things you want to make happen – or, should I say, kotozukuri?


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