Avoiding the Use of Japanese Terms?


Blog reader Kevin wrote with this excellent question (used with his permission):

My question is about the idea I see many using in the lean blogosphere…and that being the continued and rampant use of Japanese terms when dealing with lean.

I have no inherent problem with these terms per se, I've been to Japan and love the culture, and the terms are 100% correct but as a lean implementer and leader of a lean group I don't allow those terms to be used. The simple reason being that using terms in their truest form like, “gemba”, “muri, mura, and muda”, “kaizen”, etc make the perception of the activity jaded in the eyes of your customer, that being the operator on the floor and other members of any implementation.

I mean no disrespect to those that use these terms, but to me it seems that to the operator, when you say “let's go to gemba” instead of “let's hit the shop floor” or something similar, that the perception from the operator and others may be “Who the hell is this guy and why is he using all these fancy words that I don't understand?”

Therefore, I don't use them or permit them to be used. I translate these terms into the simplest form possible for my intended audience, so it doesn't appear that I'm trying to be a “typical” manager in the eyes of my customer or perhaps using words that seem scary or out-of-place to those I'm wanting to help.

Like Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” and Ohno stating that “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we don't recognize”….since ultimately you are going to have to explain what these Japanese terms mean then you are in fact violating both men's prophetic words? What are others thoughts and experiences?

My response to his question was this:

I do my best to avoid all but the most common terms, like kanban, gemba, and kaizen. I introduce those terms in initial team and staff training, but just so people are aware if they see the terms in the literature – heijunka, poka yoke, jidoka…. I always emphasize that we shouldn't try to wow anyone with our use of Japanese terms…

I know there will be disagreement about this — what do you think? What do you practice?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Don’t use the lean expressions with your peers (not even with your boss, if you are not part of a special LEAN INHOUSE CONSULTING GROUP).

    But as you seeking a job in the LEAN AREA outside on the market, the only way (at the moment) of showing that you are a real lean guy, is by using the buzz words.

    Strange, that talking still counts more than action;-(



  2. This one will open a can of worms…My view of this is similar to Mark’s, where I use a few selected terms (kaizen, gemba, kanban) and no others. There are enough terminology issues in a hospital – I don’t want to introduce any more. Most terms have useful English equivalents, so I use them to avoid confusion.

  3. I have tried to use the Japanese words in the healthcare environment, and had some push back. In general I agree familiar words are the best.

    But my concern with using familiar words is that we miss the opportunity to say that this is a new way of doing things and requires a whole new approach to management.

  4. I don’t care if it’s in the hospital or in the manufacturing plant, I generally do not see the need for jargon. If after every sentence someone has to ask for clarification of terms, then that isn’t effective or efficient. And the more likely scenario is that they won’t ask, they’ll just check out.

    We put up many artificial barriers to engaging people in lean, and language is one of them. I don’t mind the word kaizen because it’s been around for so long, but I don’t even like using the word gemba. If it’s not necessary, don’t put up an artificial barrier. After all, there are enough real barriers to successful lean, we should add “secret decoder ring” to the list.

  5. Maybe the test should be: If there’s an English word or phrase which is substantially identical to the Japanese word for the concept you’re trying to communicate, then use that. If not, use the Japanese word.

    What would be the short Engish translation of “gemba?”

  6. As far as a short translation of “gemba”…it depends on the audience and what value you are trying to add?

    Gemba = “the floor” of “the ER” or “the toolroom” or “the back of the house”.

    Wherever your problem is, that also is where your definition of gemba is.

  7. We should avoid using language that alienates the listener. Technical terms, especially when we don’t explain them, can make people feel less smart or excluded.

    It is not a question of idiom (language of a nation or people) but rather a question of clarity and brevity, as well as standardization. Scientific terms are often foreign in origin, and standardized, for a reason.

    The English language adopts words freely from many languages to enrich communication and add expression into new technical areas. Having a policy for or against Japanese words in lean somewhat misses the point. Never is a long time and always is rarely so.

    “Actual Place Research LLC” just doesn’t have the same ring to it…

  8. I try to stay clear of any Japanese terms, especially when I am working on the floor. When implementing lean in a new environment there already is a lot hesitation about lean because of the misconceptions of getting rid of people. I find employees are more relaxed and can participate easier when they feel I am not an expert but just someone there to help them. The Japanese terms just add another barrier to relaxing employees.

  9. Yep, I’ve avoided all but the most common terms: Kaizen and Kanban over the years.

    Sometimes I talk with “Lean Gurus” and can’t even remember the untranslated words…don’t even ask me what the 5S’s are in Japanese! ; – )

    Keep it REAL and keep it Simple. If you want to impress people with your vocabulary play Scrabble ; – )

  10. Bad enough that we call it “lean” manufacturing, thereby scaring the bejeebers of everyone on the shop floor. We shouldn’t add the extra burden of using mysterious and foreign words for concepts and methods for which perfectly good native words exist. Gemba = shop floor. Kaizen = action workshop. Kan Ban = Pull system

  11. Anon — I’d suggest that “Kaizen” shouldn’t just be translated as “event.” Kaizen is really “continuous improvement” not just week-long workshops.

  12. Kanban does not equal pull system, and pull system does not equal kanban.

    Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. – Albert Einstein

    If it not a racist thing against the japanese language, then do you suggest avoiding lingo such as sigma (Greek), Pareto (Italian), and takt (German)? Sheesh. Pay due respect to where things come from people.


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