Words, what are they good for?


At work, I’ve recently been given the task of redesigning all my training documentation and plans for Lean process improvement to something else. Apparently, despite successes, some of my leadership team doesn’t believe in Lean. However, they fully expect improvements such as reduced turn around times, quality improvements, and reduced non-value add activities to just happen. That it’s simply expected to occur without any top down pressure or support. Without clear direction or proper tools to measure improvement or even productivity, how can anyone expect to drive improvement in their organization?

Lean is a tool to do that, but since some leaders don’t believe that’s the proper way to drive improvement, we’re having to monkey with the idea of what it means to be an efficient organization. Therefore, I’m going to be rebranding everything to Process Innovation because Innovation. This does an interesting thing, it forces us to change the language we use for continuous improvement. We can’t use words like Gemba (the place where work is done), Kaizen (continuous change), Jidoka (automation with a human touch), Poka-Yoke (idiot proofing). or Muda/Muri/Mura (waste, overburden, unevenness). Using these words isn’t just to try to force people to learn some Japanese. It forces people to slow down and think differently.

Regardless of your thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell, he raises some really valid points about language in his book Blink, where he discusses the example of Korea Air and the usage of English as a language in the flightdeck because it changes the way the first officer and captain think about each other. Lean emulates this idea by forcing English speakers to use Japanese words. It forces people to stop and think about what they are doing. Yes, it’s a foreign word, but the meaning drives a change in behavior simply because it forces the people listening to slow down and think. According to Daniel Kahnman, system 2, deep and introspective thinking, is lazy and lets system 1, Blink thinking, do most of the work. A change of language and specific words triggers system 2 to actually pay attention and not just accept what is said as fact.

Now with Process innovation, I’m going to have to invent my own language and rules to try to force a similar behavior. I’ll have to lean heavily on Lean, Six Sigma, and other improvement methodologies rather than just Lean. However, this might confuse Lean folks.

It’s amazing the impact of a few phrases on changing the way people behave and it’s amazing how they can cause people to react in a negative way. Figuring out how to work around other people’s language hang ups is key for a successful work life, unfortunately.

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