Recently we asked our community “Do you use Japanese terms in your lean transformation or purposely avoid them? Why?” Below is a list of all the responses we received:
I always avoid them. I’m sorry to say that I also try and avoid using the word Lean as well. Working as a practitioner internally within the organisation I find it’s important not to become labelled. You often find that many staff experienced lots of fads over the years, if you come along with your own jargon then you”l be quickly shown the door. Kept it simple! –Howard Davies
We are avoiding the Japanese terms for the most part, based on two reasons:1) We are concerned that some employees will be put off by “insider” terms, i.e., you have to be part of “the club” who understands expressions like muda, gemba and nemawashi to use the concepts.2) Similarly, we want lean to feel like “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. – anonymous
This was one of the 1st decissions we had to make back in 2004 when we began our Lean Journey. We had lost a large percentage of our business to off-shoring over the previous 10 years so we were concerned that using Japanese terms would carry a stigma with them. We ultimately decided to stick with using the Japanese terms because we felt that since most of the books and training materials would use them that it would be better in the long run to learn them and use them. I think the Japanese terms also peak peoples interest when they hear them so they pay more attention to find out what they mean. – Howard Davies
I do use Japanese terms when I am coaching people in Lean, but in moderation and not simply for effect, ie. I use them when they make a concept easier to understand eg muda, muri, mura; or when they are a memorable hook on which to hand a concept eg kanban, poka yoke etc. There is sometimes an organisational resistance to using specialised Lean terms (or indeed using the word Lean at all), but that is usually by the people who are resistance to the idea of change itself. I find that a standard set of terms create a common understanding of the principles and tools, preventing some people from taking on board only the concepts that fit with their existing management philosophy. – Adele Law
We use Japanese terms in our automotive division1) We have two plants in Japan2) Our Japanese automotive customers use the same termsWe do not use Japanese terms in our Aerospace division1) About half the owrk is defense related, the Japanese terms alienate some of the population
Yes, because in this culture they sound hokey and out-of-context. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in continuous improvement and lean thinking and 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. Its as simple as that. – anonymous
We don’t use them as they are too confusing. The only one that we do use at times is “gemba” because it seems to be easy to remember.Want them to learn a new skill and way of thinking without having to learn a new language too. – Nancy Meyer
I purposely use Japanese terms in my lean transformation so those that I teach will learn and appreciate the Japanese terms. I do this so they then have the ability to learn more simply by doing a word search if they wanted to or, to recognize what they were taught as they continue to read, research and learn more.I was asked at one time to do the exact opposite – to not use Japanese terms but to only use “American terms” or to create new terms. I said this was over-processing and limiting one’s ability to learn more. I find it interesting to learn about the origins of terms as doing so provides a deeper understanding and appreciation for what is being discussed. – Timothy Griffin
We avoid using Lean word, as it was perceived synonymous to manpower reduction. – Rahul Medakkar
“Muda, Kaizen, KAnBAN, gemba, mizusumashi” and all the other Japanese words mean something specific: we are used to use them, but, contemporarily, we explain them translating in our mother language (Italian) their meaning. To be very clear, at the beginning when you say for the first times “poka Yoke” or “Hejunka” or “Jidoka Andon” everybody laugh and their faces show surprise. In a second moment they use these terms to tease you, but after, it is a matter of time, these words become their own vocabulary: at this moment you know to have succeeded that some knowledge has been trasferred, you have sown seeds able to grow. you can then focus on others to evangelize and you are happy. – Ciao. Filippo Salvadego
Always have avoided them when possible. Many new descriptions are like the new improved soap. Many students use to ask me what is differnet between two words that have the same effect. – anonymous
I use Japanese terms where they make sense to me or to the team. I avoid or omit where it doesn’t. I always give a translation or reasonable translation if/when used. – John T Bushling
Part of the challange of Lean is to get people to look at the world differently. If you use different words this makes it easier. – Mark Gilligan
We working in a village (Valkenswaard) and only talk Dutch, the operators have allready problems that we talk Englisch, so Japanese is even worse. But they like the word Gemba Gembuthsu, they think thats funny. – Riny van de Donk
I try to avoid using Japanese, German, or any other exotic language. I have recently become aware that one of the “people” problems in Lean Transformation is the use of terminology which tends to exclude anyone who doesn’t know the “buzz words” we use. It seems to me that the more we can simplify our vocabulary, not to mention the names of the “tools”, the friendlier it becomes for anyone. No need to add additional roadblocks to getting buy-in. – Bob Daffin
I only use a few of the Japanese terms such as pokayoke, Ohno circle, and gemba. I find that Americans simply make light of most of the Japanese terms–especially the Japanese terms associated with 5S. Personally, I feel that most of our American “translations” of the Japanese lean terms are inaccurate. This is common when translating from one language to another. Often, there is no direct match for words between languages because words convey ideas and concepts. We tend to pick words that are close in meaning and sometimes we take a narrower interpretation of a broader concept for convenience sake. I have found that people who have relied solely on American lean terminology are missing deeper meanings. For example, most American plants I’ve worked at use “sustain” as the 5th S in 5S. The Japanese term “shitsuke” conveys the ideas of commitment, self-discipline, and training. Many a supervisor or plant manager has come to me complaining that the plant cannot sustain it’s 5S effort. When I investigate the issue, I find that the leadership team has been negligent and sometimes oblivious to the idea of teaching people how to make and keep commitments and learn self-discipline. They missed the value held throughout Toyota that “we build people as much as we build cars.” – M Welch
For the most part, no, although some seem necessary (i.e., kaizen, gemba). Although as Lean leaders we’re familiar with many of the Japanese terms, it is our thinking that adding them into the mix simply adds a layer of unnecessary confusion for staff. –Chris Frankovich
We have only used a couple. Gemba and Kaizen. We have purposefuly not used more because staff have a lot of things to remember on a regular basis already that we do not want to add to this confusion.- anonymous
I tend to shy away from using Japanese terms when ever possible. I find that when you use these words it suddenly gives the impression that Lean is some mystical methodology or craft and only those who have honed and mastered their abilities can provide value. When the truth of it is we are simple, logical and common sense driven. There’s nothing mystical here only ask why and don’t stop till you get there.
That being said I use Muda, Muri and Mura simply because if you Google “waste” it tends to produce a different answer than expected. – Joe from Canada
Mention the Japanese term. Emphasize that, for the purpose of implementing a lean cluture in their company, remembering the Japanese term is a non-value added activity! They need to understand the concept of waste in a lean context, not worrying about spelling muda. Explain lean in Japanese to people who speak Japanese, in English to those who speak English.
It’s important that the people understand the concepts (lean tools) and culture (respect for people portion) of the Toyoda Production System. The culture is the critical part. Anybody can understand lean tools and swing them. Only those with respect for people, who have been trained to not make assumptions when solving problems can use lean tools to build a great place to work. – Roger Gehring
I tend to avoid them except for the terms that are so common that our lean learners will be exposed to them anyway (e.g. kaizen). That is primarily because we have two languages spoken in this organization already, so training and coaching is already difficult enough. – Jeff Mason
I avoid Japanese terms like the plague when I’m working for a client company – unless there is already a well-established Lean culture in place. If management is not really familiar with them they add nothing to a dialogue and can leave you sounding pretentious. Managers can recognise the concepts, when they are drip-fed and carefully explained, but they absolutely do not need to be bamboozled by the accompanying jargon. – Alan Jackson
This really depends on the audience and the complexity of the alternative i.e. teaching a management team (relatively small numbers) one word and it’s Japanese meaning is often easier that trying to come up with a comparable and succinct English equivalent e.g. Gemba. In this case using ‘Gemba’ adds value by clearly defining and providing a common language for a managers interactive process walk, used in this way we match our use of the word with its original purpose, the new word has it’s own meaning in English avoiding translation.
However trying to explain and fix to memory 5 seemingly abstract Japanese words for a cleaning and maintaining exercise (5S) adds no value. As the definition of the translated words in English are equally informative, even if the Japanese words are used it is likely we are just translating back to English. ‘Clean’ in this case gives us more information than ‘seiso’ and removes the need to translate in the mind.
In short if the Japanese term requires translating back to English, I don’t use it. If the Japanese term can stand alone as a concept, event or tool and does not have an adequate direct translation (i.e. if the term carries ‘freight’ or implied meaning) then I use it. – Lincoln Archer
I fluctuate. If I’m with other lean thinkers I’m more inclined (common language), than with non-Lean thinkers (don’t want to seem exclusive).I recall a manager who resoluetly avoided them, saying we had perfectly good English words. – anonymous
I limit my Japanese words to basically kaizen, kanban, and gemba. I use “waste” instead of “muda” etc. I’m not trying to impress anyone with terms like hoshin kanri, genchi genbutsu, kamishibai boards, etc. That creates barriers to learning when Lean people go overboard on the Japanese terms. – Mark Graban
We use a mix of both, for example we always use Kanban for a visual signal use in a pull system but the 5s’s are the English version. In some cases we will use both, for example Error proff or Poka-Yoke. We do assure the audience that we speak to understands the Japanese terms and we always define the meaning of the Japanese term to someone that is new to these lean terms. – Brian Logan
I try to avoid using the Japanese terms whenever possible. When introducing LEAN concepts, I want people to get the concept without the extra step of translating the vocabulary into their own language first. Isn’t LEAN about eliminating non-value added processes? I have found that even people who have been around LEAN long enough to “know better” still have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Japanese terms actually mean.
By way of illustration, I have put 175,000 miles on my Toyota without ever once learning Japanese for “steering wheel” and when I look at my speedometer, I pay attention to the MPH, not the KMPH.- anonymous
I do use the japanese terms. The main reason is that everybody else does and it is seen as a sign that ‘you know what you are talking about’. This has been important to me during my career in manufacturing as I have a financial background so you sometimes need to ‘prove yourself’.
However, I believe that we should use English terms. Most japanese terms describe concepts that already exist in English and the English language has the resources to create its own terms. I have seen people spending more time learning the japanese for ‘5S’ than actually concentrating on what they mean. Using ‘calques’, ie. translating it literaly into an English word, works too. To be honest, this problem is even worse in Spanish when there are Japanese and English words mixed.
I am extremely interested in this topic and I look forward to the result of this survey. I have spent 20 years mostly in manufacturing in senior finance positions. I am also a linguiest and I currently run my own translation business especialising in business and finance. It will be very enlightening to see what the people who will read these translations think. -Ana Ricca
I was taught the Japanese terms and have been using them in my trainings and teachings but our Organization has made an executive decision to not use Japanese terms. – anonymous
Our transformation is attempting to avoid them. Early on, we found that the Japanese terms added another layer of objection to address, when asking management to understand the change they would need to make in their own practices and behaviors. We chose to remove this barrior and focus on the more important change we needed.
The downside that decision created is a disconnect with the lean reading material freely available to expand and deepen knowledge. We’ve been using lists of the more common terms as a way to mitigate the disconnect. – Holly Threat
Yes…those Japanese terms allow us to speak a common language of continuous improvement. When I say “Hoshin kanri”…everyone knows what I mean. Same for Kaizen and gemba. By using a common language we make communication more efficient….and isn’t that what Lean is all about? –Steve Indelicato
I work in healthcare and we started out using a lot of the Japanese terms but got a lot of pushback when introducing lean. Many referred to the Japanese terms as being “part of the lean cult” and all of those negative associations with introducing something new. It also provided a barrier to educating as many people as possible and could be construed as ‘exclusionary’ if someone didn’t know what ‘muda’ was (why not just call it waste)? Six years in, we have kept a few Japanese terms that people have become comfortable with such as Kaizen and Gemba to represent a broader symbolic meaning. In our advanced education, we will teach more Japanese terms (Jidoka, Heijunka) to provide reference as these are widely used in the lean literature. However, at the gemba, we have found the change management to be a bit easier by using language everyone is familiar with (same lean principles though). – Ronnie Hamman
Yes, I use the Japanese terms, paired with an English counterpart, where possible, and a concept. I want people to learn the 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 and working with, but I think the common language in the end will be worth it, and the reinforcement of a new path is priceless. I know we will have to watch for “jingoism”, but I think that’s a danger in any system or practice (or lack of it), so … nothing new there. anonymous
A trick I’m using right now is to have a short explanation of the concept in a presentation, then have the Japanese terms fly in over them, to connect the ideas visually and verbally, in the hopes that I capture more people’s different thinking modes. I can send the slides if you like. – Irene Johansen
We used to use the Japanese term “Kaizen.” Just when everyone seemed to understand what it meant, we changed to the term “PIE (Process Improvement Event).” Don’t know why. Some still use Kaizen, because they like it better. – M Beckner
Very good topic! In my experience when you use the Japanese terms it carries more meaning. For example last night in a training class one of my students asked why I didn’t just say “The shop floor ” instead of “Gemba”. My answer was “Because the shop floor is where the work is done, but Gemba is where value is created!” I believe if we can explain the power of the Japanese words we can change the way we are thinking of the “Work”. If we can use the words to change the perception of what we are doing from “working” to “creating value” then we begin to move our thought process to that of Creation instead of Work. – Larry Reece
I use few words for the commonly used terms; such as: KanBan, Muda and Gemba. The words have been used for many years throughout the organization. Thus, most of the employees are familiar with these terms. They also serve as a platform to introduce other words/concept into the culture; such as: Poka-Yoke, Hansei, Mura, Muri, etc. All terms are defined in “layman’s terms” and posted on the internal lean web-page. Employees not familiar with the terms are encouraged to visit the page and browse though other lean resources. This method spreads lean thinking/awareness in a non-abrasive way, which seems to be working for the past 5 years. anonymous
I prefer to use the equivalent english terms in daily conversation. I occasionally define the japanese term using the nearest english equivalent in daily use, and frequently during more formal presentations. I explain that I include the Japanese term in case anyone want to do his/her own research on the internet, have a conversation about the concept outside of the company, or similar uses. I clarify that I prefer to use the english terms.
I believe this makes the concepts less foreign and less mystical. It’s important enough to fully communicate the lean concept in the recipient’s native language. We want to change behavior in order to change the culture. It’s just one more thing to communicate and learn if we’re calling the concept by a foreign, unfamiliar name.
This response is intended to apply at the working level. At the executive level, using Japanese terms may be more effective, it may get attention more easily. The executives may have already heard the Japanese phrases and want to know what they really mean. – Roger Goodwin
At our hospital we try to avoid using Japanese terms as much as possible, as it can sometimes stand as a barrier to learning and engagement. We’d like to keep our Lean transformation as transparent as possible for frontline employees, and with plenty of existing resistance to change to go around (and then some), we see no need to insist on using foreign terms that could potentially pose an obstacle to staff buy-in. The one term we do still use, however, is Gemba, for which we’ve yet to see an adequate English counterpart. – Amin Eddebbarh
We have made a united effort not to, we have a senior workforce who equate virtually any foreign product as inferrior, so we’ve tried to stay away from the Japanese terms. At the same time many of us in management have become knowledgable in terminology, as we try to transliterate them into English. – Ralph Jackson
We purposely avoid using Japanese terms. The lean transformation should be our improvement process. If we use Japanese it feels like something that is being done to us. – Dave Buck
At our company, a leader in road construction, I have purposely avoided using any Japanese terms while describing lean activities or events. This is because Lean is a new concept in itself in our industry, and during its introduction, I didn’t want to include terms that are inherently misunderstood (as they aren’t English). We have been practicing Lean for approx. 3 years and slowly Japanese terms may make their way into our vocabulary, as more evolved Lean strategies are adopted. – Gabrielle
Louise Slavin I will introduce the Japanese words during training because all the text books use them and our employees need to know them to engage with the world wide Lean Community. When working in the factory I use the local language and avoid Japanese words. anonymous
We use them because they are Terms of Art within Lean, established by past usage and literature. Precise terminology is important.Translations are often appropriate (China & Russia are on the horizon for us now) and this can be a challenge. Standardizing terms is important. Heck, the software kanban folks even got lead time and cycle time wrong. anonymous
I try to avoid them. I believe language is an important part of culture building and if the language we use to describe a continuous improvement culture is not foreign it becomes easier to identify with. This helps create the mindset that it is our process, our way of doing things versus this is what Toyota does therefore we have to do it too. Having said that, I do not shy away from sharing some of the Toyota history and believe we can continue to learn from it. – anonymous
Japanese terms present another barrier to people learning about lean and in most situations it is actually a turn-off.
In China a class actively rebelled against the use of Japanese terms (to be fair it was a time of relatively high tensions between the two countries).
In the US, its can be seen as a way of making yourself aloof -“I know Japanese and you don’t”. Very few terms have become so ubiquitous as to be ‘useful’; kaizen and gemba. Outside those, I’d say most Japanese terms just become a barrier to engagement and are wasteful.
Speaking plainly means using the language of the people in the area.
On the other hand if someone has decided to make lean a vocation, then by all means, learn the Japanese. Understand the terms, techniques and how they were developed. The path and approach taken to coach the next OpEx/lean professional is very different than the approach to coach the team trying to deliver the business’s product or service. – Eric