I’ve been practising Lean in some form or another now for about 16 years since I’ve heard about it back in 2004. And throughout that time I’ve stirred really clear of using all the Japanese terminologies to the point at which some people have challenged me and well you don’t really know Lean.

There are lots of Japanese terms that you see banded around if you Google any of them or if you look on anything that’s talking about Lean, you’ll see where it’s like Poka-yoke, Hoshin Kanri or Genchi Genbutsu all of these sorts of things. And really struggle with why we use these terms because are we teaching people about Continuous Improvement and how to do things better or are we giving them Japanese lessons.

In Japan where there are a lot of roots of Lean, they use these words to describe things because they speak Japanese. They are not using a completely different language to describe what is going on. They are using their own language which makes perfect sense.

Some people will say the reason they use them is it gives the concept of Continuous Improvement a more memorable hook that the use of the Japanese term gives a deeper appreciation of the topic or it’s a sign that you know what you’re talking about. I don’t think that’s really the case.

I think you can do all these things using the appropriate word in your mother tongue that you’re trying to describe them in. But my biggest reason for not using any Japanese terms is this. As if you’re trying to create a culture of Continuous Improvement or culture of anything for that matter you want to have that culture to be inclusive, not exclusive. You want it to include as many people as possible.

So if you are in English speaking country, and suddenly people are talking about Heijunka or Kaizens or any Japanese terms that they’ve happened to pick up on a training course. That is going to create an exclusive environment like a little club where only the people who have been on that training will know those terms. Whereas what you want for Continuous Improvement is for it to be pervasive throughout the entire organisation. You want to feel like people can all contribute and a secret language that only a few people knows doesn’t do anything to help foster that. There’s nothing like a secret language to make people feel excluded.

So next time you’re thinking about Lean training or have been on Lean training or thinking of creating some Lean work in your organisation stay clear from the Japanese words and tick to the English version or whatever language you speak to make your point.