Reflections On Hansei


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 PunishmentMadame 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. 

[This article first appeared at the Lean Post]

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