An Interesting Take on the Use of Japanese Terms in Lean


Today, I'm linking to a post from a new blog written by the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business (“Think Op-Ex“). The post “What's in a name?” features thoughts from James Hereford, formerly of Group Health (part of the group being interviewed in my old podcast).

From the post:

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?'”

My co-author Joe Swartz and I talked a lot about the use of the word kaizen  (Japanese for continuous improvement) as we were planning for and writing our upcoming book Healthcare Kaizen. We discussed how much to focus on the word kaizen  in the book and whether it should be part of the main title, the subtitle of the book, or neither.

Clearly, we decided not to run and hide from the word. Some of that comes back to Hereford's thoughts that the word is what it is. Kaizen is used so frequently in the Lean approach… it's not quite everyday English, but the word is out there. Kaizen signifies a different approach to improvement. There are styles of improvement and embedded mindsets that are specific to Kaizen. For example, Kaizen is not about senior leaders or middle managers making all of the decisions and it's not the usual suggestion box approach. We also wanted to honor the previous work of Masaaki Imai (who wrote our book's foreword) and Norman Bodek (who wrote an introduction), as they both have done a lot to spread the word Kaizen in the Western world.

We realize we are introducing the word to a new audience and that might be a bit of an uphill battle. But I've found that the hospitals that completely balk at Japanese words are very much in the minority. The English language has always absorbed words from different languages and our language is stronger for it.

As Hereford might say, do you call this approach ‘kaizen' or do you call it ‘a staff-driven approach to continuous improvement that focuses on a large number of small, low-risk, low-cost improvements that make your work easier and improve patient care, done in collaboration with supportive, coaching leaders”?

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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. From a FB friend:

    “I agree. Although when the waiter asks ‘what kind of sushi?’ that discussion is usually in English and/or the menu is written with both languages listed. So I like to keep the original words, but with the English translation/explanation. Good food for thought. (pun intended)”

  2. While you might get an initial backlash-it is common with anything unfamiliar-I think overall, the word has stuck because it is useful and valuable to the community it is a part of. If anyone shows any real resistance, just print off this blog post for reference!

  3. I think the translation matters.
    If a word is easy to translate like the 5S’s or Mura, Muri and Muda I would use the English translation. But for worlds with a deeper meaning like Pokayoke, Kaizen or Kanban I would stick with the Japanese word and explain the term.

  4. I almost totally disagree. For every organization that doesn’t use Japanese terms frequently enough there are many that use them too much. Try throwing out “genchi genbutsu” or a “jishu kanri” in a meeting with attendees that haven’t properly been “schooled” and you’ll have a bunch of disengaged team members. Overuse of Japanese terms can also set up an insider/outsider mentality that is anti-lean. The use can also promote false notions that if one understands the translation then they also understand the principle. Translating lean into healthcare in general and into specific areas in particular is hard enough without injecting unnecessary obstacles.

    • I limit my use of Japanese words. I think a few basic terms, like kaizen, Gemba, and Kanban have long translations and they are so common, it’s hard not using them. But I agree some people almost to out of their way to create new buzzwords like yokoten. I think balance is the key.

  5. I’m with the limited use of the Japanese words. The key ones Mark mentions are about the only ones I use. Otherwise, in my view, we’re creating a barrier to the understanding of the very people who are making the improvements – namely the front-line workers.

  6. I commonly use kaizen, kanban, andon, and sometimes gemba with team members. On rare occasions, I’ll throw out a ‘muda’ or two.

    I’ll use jidoka and heijunka with more experienced people.

    But for the most part, if there is an English word that doesn’t lose much in translation, I stick with that. (i.e. I say mentor, not sensei; strategy deployment, not hoshin planning, etc.)

  7. I used to try and practice according to Jeff Hajek’s rule of thumb above…but after awhile I realized that I don’t speak Japanese so why try and communicate in a language that isn’t the native language here?

    I’ve decided to just say what it is I mean to say. If I want people to come up with ideas that will make their lives better in the workplace, then I engage in a dialogue with them that is aimed at that objective – I don’t tell them to go do “kaizen”. It’s sort of like saying, go “sumo”.

    If I want people to scan the workplace for standards, look for abnormalities that violate that standard, understand the gaps that prevent us from meeting that standard – I talk to them that way – I don’t ask them to go “seiso(shine)” or go “5S” the workplace.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to sound cynical, but perhaps it is just that after 15 years or so of this stuff, I think what I’ve found is that the linguistics do not really matter when it comes to organizational excellence.

  8. I favor using the most descriptive term. That must be balanced with some people’s aversion to new words. So I normally adopt the most useful (in my opinion) “Japanese” terms (kaizen, gemba, kanban…) and accept substitutes for others to make people feel better (mainly).

    Expecting people to learn 50 different terms up front is likely to confuse people and turn them off. Expecting them to pick up a few isn’t asking too much, I don’t believe, and even helps a bit psychologically in breaking the old thought patterns with a couple new words (a minor impact but still something that can help sometimes).

    One of the great things about English is it just adopts terms from other languages all the time. Kaizen seems adopted to me already. Gemba is very close. Over time I fully expect many of these terms to be English.

    Neat video, The history of English in 10 minutes.

  9. Question for Mark:

    Do the doctors ‘own’ the hospital or do all the staff?

    When I went into clinical practice reform I had to swallow a Greek dictionary.

    Eg nosocomial infection. Nosokomos = hospital. Who frigging cares? Doctor uses Modern Greek term for perfectly acceptable English one.

    I fear it isn’t the lean practitioners who bring foreign words into hospitals. Doctors quite happy to make everyone else ‘outsiders to the business’.

  10. One of the benefits of using the Japanese terms is that they lack common negative connotations. For instance saying someone is creating Muda is much less intimidating than saying they are creating waste. The latter seems to imply a certain part of blame on the person performing the activity.
    Of course when using the Japanese terms one should make sure that they are properly introduced as mentioned in some of the other comments.


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