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Reflections on Hansei

by Dan Markovitz
May 11, 2016

Reflections on Hansei

by Dan Markovitz
May 11, 2016 | Comments (11)

Here’s how Escoffier teaches you to make hollandaise sauce:

  1. Set out your mise-en-place.
  2. Whisk yolks of three eggs with 22 milliliters of water in a bain-marie until thick (about 4 minutes).
  3. Add about 20 milliliters of lemon juice and stir.
  4. Melt 110 grams of butter and whisk in.
  5. Add fleur de sel to taste.

Oh, I’m sorry. Was this confusing because of the French? Or the metric measurements? Would it have been easier if it were in English and Imperial units? 

Isn’t this essentially what we’re doing to our employees when we introduce lean with talk about kanbans and gembas, about kaizen and hansei? Wouldn’t it be easier for learners to grasp the critical concepts of lean if we use our own language to communicate these ideas?

When we bring lean to an organization, we’re asking people to do nothing less than work differently, act differently, and even think differently. That’s a pretty heavy cognitive lift for anyone. And yet, rather than making it easier by using language, examples, and metaphors that people can relate to, we tend to use Japanese, the language of Toyota. Lean consultants and leaders will argue that it’s often necessary to use Japanese because (1) lean was developed by Toyota in Japanese, and (2) for some of the words, there’s no exact English (or Dutch, or Portuguese, or French) translation.

Of course, if we follow that argument, students should be learning calculus in German (Leibniz); geometry in Greek (Euclid); how to construct fireworks in Chinese; and how to make Hollandaise sauce in French (see above).

But of course, that’s absurd. When we teach difficult skills, we use the language of the learner. Acquiring the skill is hard enough. There’s no reason to compound the difficulty by adhering to the original language like it’s some holy scripture. 

Some people argue that certain nuances are lost when we translate the original words into another language—and that’s true. But that hasn’t stopped you from enjoying Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, or the Odyssey in translation. Remember, you’re not going for a Nobel Prize in literature here. You don’t need absolute fidelity to the original text.

That’s why companies that are successfully pursuing continuous improvement adapt the language so that it resonates with their employees. For example, Quality Bike Parts, a distributor of bike parts and accessories in Minnesota, doesn’t talk about kaizen and kaikaku. They talk about “little GRIPS” and “big GRIPS,” where GRIP stands for “great results from improved processes.” And of course, grips make sense in a place where everyone rides bikes.

Make the language work for you. As long as you honor the underlying principles, you won’t be struck down by the ghost of Taiichi Ohno by using your native language.

So let’s dispense with the hansei, and start being more “reflective” about the way we talk about and teach lean. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Stephen Dennis May 11, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

I agree.  Using thought-for-thought terminology put into the language and understanding of the recipient is known as "dynamic equivalence" is much better in the workplace versus exact word-for-word, wooden literalistic "formal equivalence."



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boris achramenko May 11, 2016
4 People AGREE with this comment

Thanks Dan for raising this important issue,

More often than not I see lean consultants bombard the already defensive employees with these Japanese terms, and if this isn't enough, they expect the employees to memorize thier meaning, supposadly to educate them to speak "the lean language". Beside the demoralization, it gets everyone out of focus which is critical in lean.



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Vitezslav Pilmaier May 11, 2016

Please allow me to try dispute the article. I am from a small country with only 10 milion of native speakers (Czech) and the language most of us use in our daily job in the global multi-national companies settled in our country is actually full of new words from modern English (especially management and modern technologies related), so why not add Japanese ? (Actually the modern English itself is full of French, Latin, Greek words that had to be new imports in some moment of the history).

Ussually we add a new word from a foreign language when:

a) we do not have a proper equivalent (and we lack a fantasy to create it based on our own language)

b) we want to stress that even there might be an equivalent, the message behind the word we use is different from the such an equivalent as commonly used

For instance for "Kanban" we could use expression "piece of paper" (althought this allready is 50% Egyptian), but then we might confuse it with another "piece of paper" we for instance call "form" (Latin word) or "sign"(Latin word).

So all really depends on the individual situation and the message we want to deliver.



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Ken Hunt May 11, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

In short, we have been very successful (for the most part) in our Lean journey, and use the Japanese terms quite often. It hasn't slowed us down, so I guess I have to take exception with this post a bit. Not to dismiss some of the other opinions expressed here........



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Daniel Markovitz May 11, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Vitezslav, Ken --

If Japanese works for you, that's great. My point is that there's nothing wrong with using your native language -- we don't have to slavishly use terms that make it more difficult for you and your teams to progress down the lean road. 



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kevin Kobett May 11, 2016
2 People AGREE with this reply

Dan,

How do you pronounce that?

I want employees to ask questions. Someone might not ask questions about things they cannot pronounce. You know everyone is going to laugh at your attempt. One more reason to keep your mouth shut.



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Daniel Markovitz May 11, 2016

Kevin, 

Actually, I didn't even think of that, but you're right. At one of my clients now, we have plenty of non-native English speakers (Cambodian, Lao, Spanish), and they're often reluctant to talk in a large group because they're embarrassed by their English. To your point, asking them to get muri/mura/muda straight is a tall order, and would likely lead them to keep silent. 



kevin Kobett May 11, 2016

Empathy is the key to lean success. This post and the trash barrel post are good examples of empathy.

I would like to recommend a subject for a future post. No one has adequately answered the following employee question:

"What's in it for me if I make improvements?"

One of my favorite answers to this question is, "If you learn how to improve our products/processes, you will have the skills to improve products/processes off the job. Patent these improvements/processes and start your own company or collect royalties from others."

I noticed you started your own company. Are the skills companies want their employes to learn the same skills entrepreneurs/inventors need?



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Daniel Markovitz May 11, 2016
2 People AGREE with this reply

Kevin, 

I think if you start from the point of "fix what bugs you," the benefits are self-apparent: the person's job becomes easier. Once that mindset is established, then the improvement habit is ingrained, and it's (relatively) easy to get people to work on the bigger problems that affect the company, even if it doesn't impact them directly. 



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Norm September 26, 2017

I was introduced to the concept of "Hansai" way before I was formally introduced to lean. At the end of a weekly staff meeting, we started a "reflection" process. It was intended to improve the meeting, and was quickly adopted for every meeting we held. It was that effective. People often ask why Japanese terms are used when introducing lean. I think it helps people connect with the concept. If we had said "reflection" at the end of each meeting, I'd get a blank stare - WTF? But when we said "hansai", people immediately knew what to do. For more on how this works: http://pctp.ca/l80/



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Daniel Markovitz September 26, 2017

Norm, 

That's great that it resonates and works for you!



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