Lost in Translation …?

In a series of columns on quality we have to mention Japan. I’ve been there only once but I was overwhelmed by the country and the people. In 2005 I gave a lecture at the “International Conference on Quality” in Tokyo. As is often the case with conferences in Japan you could add an additional week filled with visits to Japanese model companies. Spending two whole weeks with quality specialists seemed a little too much for me but on the other hand: travelling that far just for the conference was not efficient either.

So I asked the travel agency that organized the business trip, if they could arrange an individual one week  tourist trip for me. They actually did a great job and in that short period I saw a lot: Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and the samurai castle in Himeji. My last trip was to Hiroshima, the ultimate pilgrimage destination where everyone should go, regardless of religion, just in the name of humanity.

If you are traveling alone, you have to rely on yourself and on the locals. That always leads to interesting and often also hilarious encounters, especially in a country where you do not understand anything of the language. My knowledge of Japanese was limited to konnichiwa (good afternoon) and arigato (thank you), but that, together with sign language and a lot of willingness of the over friendly Japanese, was enough to travel through a part of the country without problems or getting  lost.

At that time I thought Japanese was an extremely difficult language, but I may have been wrong about that. Today I notice that with the growing interest in the Toyota Production System (TPS) and Lean pretty much everyone seems to speak Japanese. For some professors and consultants it seems like the easiest thing in the world, so you can hear them say phrases like: “jidoka in the form of hanedashi allows the operator in a by Heijunka optimized chaku-chaku line and in conjunction with poka-yoke coupled with genchi genbutsu, to eliminate all muda despite several disruptions by muri and mura “. Absolutely true and a nice change from all the English management terms, but is this really necessary?

Do people really look smarter when they use these Japanese words? Are they more credible the less understandable they become? I should hope not, because this language is very counterproductive if we want to spread the very good systems that lie behind these words. If there’s one thing we should absolutely avoid, then it is to suggest that we can become Japanese, or even worse: should become Japanese. This is only creating resistance against very good systems. It would be much more helpful if more people would capture the essence of TPS and Lean and communicate this instead of speaking bad Japanese.

And another thing that people just don’t seem to understand: most of our business activity does not consist of assembling cars. Toyota has developed TPS over decades and created a magnificent system that has brought them great results for their activity. But that does not mean you can copy paste  this to any other activity. The largest part of our economy consists of services, both private and public. Believe me, these people utterly dislike being confused with a car construction company. More resistance and no wonder that the introduction of Lean fails.

An important principle in TPS is to optimize the added value for the customer. The most essential part of this is the definition of “added value” as given by the customer. This is particularly true in public services where we are dealing with people and very often with vulnerable people. In a recent TV program on Belgian Television a terminally ill patient said: “a little patience, a kind word, a listening ear are more valuable than the medication that I get”. So we would do well as a society not to classify a chat between a nurse and her patient as “lost time”. We can better protect these people against overly ambitious pseudo Japanese consultants that would call this “muda” *.

* Muda = loss, waste