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I have always taken issue with the needless use of Japanese words when simple English will suffice. (Okay, QED and suffice are not simple English, perhaps I’m a hypocrite.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the Japanese. In fact, my son-in-law is Japanese and we have vacationed with his family in Japan – what an awesome country and an awesome people! But using foreign names for concepts that are just fundamentally sound problem solving and common sense creates a barrier for many of the people we are trying to engage in the improvement process. So why do it?

One of my pet peeves – 5S:

5S – Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. Really? So to make it ‘fit in English’ we butcher the translations of these words and end up with an awkward set of terms that makes the process far more complicated than necessary.

How to “5S a workplace”: ask the people working in the area what Equipment, Tools, Materials, Supplies and Information they need to do the work. Ask where they would put all this stuff if they were not constrained. Help them create that workplace by giving them some basic concepts of workplace design, some simple tools like the spaghetti diagraming, and then the resources they need to implement what they come up with.

I heard a story long ago about how the term 5S came about – it went something like this:

A group of Americans were visiting a Japanese factory and were looking at a really well organized workplace, so they asked their hosts ‘How did you do this’?

The Japanese hosts look at each other and conversed in Japanese –

“WTF are they asking?”
“I don’t know…”
“What are they looking at?”
“Not sure … It’s just a workplace organized to get the job done. Are they asking us that?”
“Surely not – it’s just common sense!”
“Right. Let me have them clarify what they are asking…”

Switching to English –

“Could you be more specific in your question please?”

A few minutes later. Back to Japanese –

“Holy Sh!t, can you believe this?! They are asking about how we set up the workplace to get the work done efficiently!”
“What do we tell them? It’s just common sense!”
“I know! My grandma always told us to keep our house clean and organized by applying Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. What if we tell them that?”
“Perfect!”

And the world gets 5S!

Lean was born of Americans visiting Japanese factories and trying to reverse engineer what they thought they saw. This gave the resulting Lean programs a distinct ‘implementation orientation’ that missed the whole point. True continuous improvement is a process of ongoing problem solving. You ‘5S a workplace’ because it can be better arranged and organized to facilitate smooth flow, not because you have scheduled a ‘Kaizen’ event!

Kaizen – another blog topic!

If your continuous improvement efforts involve lessons in a foreign language … THAT is creating a barrier with your workforce. Contact us to learn about a better way.


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