Is it time to find a new language?


Gemba. Nemawashi. A3 thinking. Kanban. Kaizen. 5S. Muda, muri, muda. Maybe it's time to get rid of the Toyota-spawned language of lean and create a native vocabulary.

The lean community has been breathing its own linguistic exhaust for a long time now, and I wonder if we've lost sight of how alienating, off-putting, and counter-productive the senmonyogo (専門用語 -- oh, sorry: jargon or specialized vocabulary) can be to the uninitiated. Any sort of change is challenging, and lean thinking is a huge change for most people. Why make it more difficult for people to embrace lean by using impenetrable or confusing language?

Some recent articles in the New York Times made me think that there are other, more approachable ways to describe basic concepts. For example, Karen Abramson, CEO of Walters Kluwer Tax & Accounting says,

"I call it “go to the floor.” At the beginning of any new assignment, I will always go right to the people who are on the front line, whether it’s our salespeople or a client or customer service people."

Let's not argue whether or not she is a "true" lean leader. Focus instead on the fact that when she says, "go to the floor," you immediately know where she's going. I'm guessing that most workers don't know where the gemba is at first -- but they do know where the floor is.

Or what about using evocative terminology from the omnipresent world of technology? Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Fans, tells the Times that

I sometimes describe myself as a “hyperlink.” I have an office, but most of the time I just walk around and try to determine if we’ve got any problems. It might be a minor thing, but I’ll take that and then try to track it back.

Again, I don't know whether or not he's a lean leader, but I do know that when he describes his role as acting as a hyperlink throughout a process, I have an immediate appreciation of what he's trying to accomplish, without resorting to gemba mumbo-jumbo. And when he "tracks it back," I get a much clearer picture of what he's doing than if he "walks the value stream."

A few months ago, Jon Miller of the Kaizen Institute pointed out that even the much-beloved term "A3 thinking" is an arbitrary choice:

Why don't we call it "One-page PDCA" or something more descriptively accurate? Marketing, mnemonics, first mover advantage, who knows.

Obviously, there are times when it makes far more sense to import a foreign word than to develop a new word or phrase in English. Sushi. Schadenfreude. Chutzpah. These words, and countless others, have found a happy home in the English vernacular -- and our language is the richer for it. But when you're trying to get people to adopt a new way of thinking and acting, I'm not sure that force-feeding (gavage) a bunch of abstruse words in English or a foreign tongue is necessarily redounding to our best advantage.

Fin.

 

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