Where's Martin Luther When You Need Him?


Latin was the language of the Catholic Church for over 1000 years. Conducting the mass and printing the bible in Latin, a language that the laity didn’t understand, required a priest to act as an intermediary between god and man. It took Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and Vatican II to bring the language of religion into the vernacular.

The lean community is in a similar position of the church prior to Luther. The literature is filled with Japanese terms (gemba, kanban, heijunka), English jargon that doesn’t mean what you think (water spider, shine, autonomation), and abbreviations and acronyms (A3, 5S, 3P) that are impenetrable to newcomers. If you’re a member of the Lean Six Sigma community, there are even official vestments in the form of colored belts. This makes little sense: If we’re asking people to think, act, and work differently from they way they’re currently doing, why make the task harder by erecting linguistic barriers? Why not express the core principles in people’s native language.

Some will argue that there are subtleties that are lost when we translate the original Japanese into another language. Others will argue that it doesn’t make sense to translate a single foreign word that perfectly captures an idea into a longer English phrase (think schadenfreude, déjà vu, or sushi). While that may be true in some cases, the vast majority of words used in the lean community aren’t so specialized and nuanced that they can’t be adequately translated.

Quality Bike Parts (QBP), a distributor of bike parts and accessories in Minnesota, has fully embraced the ethos of continuous improvement. However, not only do they avoid using Japanese words and jargon, they’ve translated the concepts into relevant English. The entire program, for example, is called the GRIP Program—“great results from improved processes”—which connects nicely to the products they sell. And rather than use the terms kaizen (small improvements) and kaikaku (large, revolutionary improvements), they simply have “big GRIPs” and “little GRIPs.” They don’t talk about muda (waste); they send new employees into the company dumpster to see what’s thrown out and to consider how they can reduce the amount of wasted material. Not surprisingly, employees at QBP readily accept the discipline of continuous improvement, without the typical resistance so many companies face: “We’re not Toyota. We don’t make cars. Lean won’t work here.”

Translating the Mass into the vernacular made Church teachings accessible to the masses. Blind obedience and total reliance on the priest was replaced by a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of religious teachings. And although it removed the priest from his position as intermediary between god and people, the change didn’t make the priest irrelevant. In fact, I would argue that it put the priest in a better position to help teach, guide, and support his congregants. Authority is most powerful when it comes from knowledge, skill, and a deep-seated commitment to serving others, not from ownership of a specialized vocabulary or a colored belt. And motivation to change is stronger when people can readily grasp the fundamental ideas without struggling over the words.

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