What’s in a name?

In a recent session for Fisher’s Master of Business Operational Excellence class, we had the pleasure of hearing James Hereford, COO of the Palo Alto Medical foundation. While discussing lean deployment in the health-care sector, he touched on using Japanese terms for the tools and methodologies of the Toyota Production System. It’s Hereford’s preference to use the original terms. His succinct defense:

“When you go to a Japanese restaurant, do you order sushi or do you say something like, ‘Please get me raw fish rolled in a leaf and rice?’”

Photo by Mrinalini Gadkari

What is in a name, really? If we’re doing what the words mean, does it matter if they’re Japanese or English? For many words in lean there isn’t even an exact translation. The closest translation of a simple word like gemba, for example, would be “actual place where the value is created” (Google it for many others).

So is it necessary to expend energy inventing words that convey the meaning instead of using the original words, especially if the tools and methods will be used regardless? Many people tell me, however, that in process improvement they get better buy-in when not using Japanese terms. Whatever works!

Have you had to deal with a divide in using Japanese terms with lean?


2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. I’m not sure that’s a good argument. After all, the vast majority know what sushi is. But the vast majority of people that become the audience for a lean transformation do not know what sensei, or heijunka, or muda means. Is muda more or less clear than waste?

    In many environments, kaizen has become a commonplace term. In those instances, there is no need to change. We use the word kaizen, because it is well known. But consider the circumstances of your audience when choosing your language, and don’t put up artificial and unnecessary barriers to getting people engaged.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

    1. Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for your comment. I am up for not putting artificial and unnecessary barriers to getting people engaged. Whatever works as long as people understand the concept and are willing to learn and apply. While training in medical school, I was used to learning new words with most of their roots in Greek or Latin. It was actually fun to learn and memorize them. However, to my patients, I had to tell them that they had chest pain due to poor blood flow to the heart muscle and not angina pectoris!


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