The Complete Meaning of Shitsuke

By Ron Pereira Updated on February 22nd, 2009

There are some Westerners (Americans, Europeans, etc.) who get all bothered when lean folks use too many Japanese terms.

So these people go on about how it’s “Policy Deployment” and not “Hoshin Kanri” or it’s “Continuous Improvement” instead of “Kaizen.”

My personal opinion, if I may be so blunt, is these people lack humility. You see if it weren’t for these Japanese words – or ideas – we may still be waxing poetic about the merits of mass production.

Defining Shitsuke

Along these lines… I recently learned a lot more about a Japanese word I thought I understood. The word is shitsuke and is most commonly referenced as the 5th S in 5S. This final S typically stands for self-discipline or sustain.

Well, after exchanging a few emails with my good friend – Brad Schmidt of Gemba Research who lives in Japan and speaks the language as good as the locals – I came to realize that referring to shitsuke as self-discipline or sustain is only partially correct.

Spare the rod, spoil the child

You see, there is another meaning to the word shitsuke… and that meaning has a lot more to do with disciplining others, such as poorly behaving children, than it does with self-discipline or sustainability.

Here is how Brad put it.

When we first do 5S we do the first shitsuke which has the element of “force” in it. That’s to make sure people don’t stray from the truth. After you do the first shitsuke it then becomes the second shitsuke (self-discipline) which is more a state of being.

Be Humble

So, the next time you hear someone crying about all the Japanese words ask them if they really understand what the final S – in 5S – stands for.

Chances are they may only be partially correct… in which case you have the perfect opportunity to explain the merits of attempting to truly understand the incredible wisdom behind the Japanese words we so often take for granted.

What do you think?

Are you with me on accepting all the Japanese words?  Or do you feel like scratching your eyes out when your lean buddy talks about going to gemba?  And be honest… we’re all friends here.  😉

  1. mb

    February 23, 2009 - 6:50 am

    I agree completely that the Japanese terms should be used and I do so. However, in my practice, I’ve chosen to be more (dare I say) pragmatic if necessary. If a client’s leadership (leadership not shop floor) says they want to use English substitutes (note I did not say equivalents), then we go that way. I do not however leave out the origins of the term or approach in teaching moments (that is disrespectful to both the originator and the learner). To me, the philosophy and approach are more important than the terminology. That may be selling out or dumbing down, I’m not sure, but to do otherwise, seems to lack respect for the client.

    We are all fiends here (I hope).

    Thanks for the great blog.

  2. suneg

    February 23, 2009 - 8:08 am

    I personally stick with the Japanese terms. As mb pointed out, understanding the principles is more important than which term you use to describe it. Communicating with my lean co-workers – we usually use the original terms. Often there is just more meaning in one of those Japanese words than a complete sentence in english 🙂

    Great post Ron.

  3. Chris Young

    February 23, 2009 - 8:23 am

    I too am in agreement with using the Japanese terms. You lose too much in translation. The English translation can sometimes make someone loose the point of what we are trying to accomplish. For example, when I tell our team that we need to reduce the amount of waste, instead of muda that we have in the production cells, each member of the team could interrupt it differently. Some could think of waste in the process, but others cold be thinking about wasted energy, paper, or money. Yes, we should reduce all those things, but the focus was lost simply because we used the English word, instead of the Japanese word. I like the reference to “being humble”, too.

  4. Peter P Patterson, MD

    February 23, 2009 - 9:39 am

    It’s good to see “foreigners” like ourselves acknowledging that there is something inherently beautiful and appropriate about looking into the deeper meanings of the original Japanese words. Perhaps we could see it as a beginning antidote to the “fast answers” that we are so prone to think is the whole story. Nice work John and all.
    /Dr. Pete

  5. Darrin Thompson

    February 23, 2009 - 11:11 am

    If they haven’t learned, you haven’t taught. The value is when students of this stuff adopt new behaviors. So to get them to adopt counterintuitive new behaviors you propose distracting them from the new behaviors with:

    1. Words that begin with profanities that represent poop.
    2. Words that are Japanese.

    Frankly, you lost me at poop.

    Plus in a year you are coming back and telling me you have found a new insight in the mystery word. So the fifth S has two meanings.

    You couldn’t just have had 6 S’s to begin with? What am I paying you for?

    A teacher who distracts her students from learning with this much self-indulgent waste has no business admonishing them about humility.


  6. Andy Wagner

    February 23, 2009 - 12:56 pm

    Great topic Ron.
    My personal feeling is that your language has to fit the culture of the place you’re working.
    I wouldn’t go into GM or Ford these days with a bunch of Japanese words because they probably wouldn’t be well received.
    Some sources say that 5S is derived from Ford’s “CAN-Do”:
    Clearing up, Arranging, Neatness, Discipline, Ongoing improvement
    Why would I use 5 hard to remember Japanese words, or contrived English substitutes when there’s a US origin phrase that conveys the message?

    Why use “genchi genbutsu” when American culture has a robust notion of “seeing for yourself”, “getting your hands dirty” or in Missouri, “show me”?

    Naturally, there are American business that are more modern, more multi-culture, more high-tech, more open, where the Japanese words would fit in fine.

    The language should fit the culture.
    The Japanese don’t a monopoly on lean thinking and got many of their ideas from other places. It’s appropriate to express the ideas in the “native tongue” of your business, whatever that might be.


  7. Harish

    February 23, 2009 - 7:38 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful post. I have actually started to learn Japanese after getting into TPS.


  8. Ron Pereira

    February 23, 2009 - 8:22 pm

    Thanks for the excellent comments everyone… especially you Darrin! I love a nice rant… keep the passion bro. It’s good stuff and I sincerely mean that.

  9. Leroy

    February 23, 2009 - 10:39 pm

    I’m the lean 6 sigma programme manager for a global company.

    One advantage to using the Japanese terms is the uniformity across different languages. We now have Polish operators who do not understand English, but do understand Muda.

    It’s not a definative argument for adopting Japanese Terms, but it is a useful tool.

  10. Kim Niles

    April 16, 2009 - 10:34 pm

    Well done!! … but here’s a twist on your twist. I worked for a Japanese company for almost five years before realizing that their values can be very differnt than ours. So what I’m trying to say is that there are very large and complex differences between our two cultures (US and Japan) such that I still can’t say I understand the multiple meanings of Shitsuke … [smile].

  11. Cesar Yamuta

    April 19, 2009 - 6:13 pm

    Thank you very much, Sir, for your very enlightening sharing on Shitsuke. I really appreciate much your sharing this. I, too, am convinced on the productive merits of retaining the original Japanese words. In my sharing of 5S in our plant I normally make it a point that these Japanese words be somehow understood as to their real context. Seems like the substitutes or other language “interpretations” may not really suffice if really one intends to achieve a real understanding of these words. Also, retaining the Japanese words gives one a chance to initiate in his own a further discovery of the real meaning of the word. Thanks again, Sir.

  12. alex KUBI

    April 27, 2009 - 2:52 pm

    I liked so much when my sensei Horaghushi, would call me Kubi son to come and collect my certificate…and I so relate to those word till today, I prefer the Japanese wording, the people who feel that the names make them feel itchy, go to there gemba, and you will notice the difference…

    Stick to the word like ‘forget me not’…

  13. Bruce Baker

    December 22, 2009 - 9:14 am

    I am genrally with you on the japanese words. You won’t hear me say we have to say policy deployment instead of hoshin kanri.” I say both.
    However, I would suggest that that the people who read Deming, Henry Ford, and the US War Department’s TWI manuals obviously lacked ‘humility’ when they translated all this into Japanese. Your logic not mine. I don’t think it is a lack of humility to try to translate words in to the local language. It may lead to a lack of understanding in many cases. I don’t find it particularly arrogant to try to put something in terms that might be understood by the masses. I don’t think Ohno, or Shingo, or Kiichiro Toyoda were being arrogant when they took the good ideas of americans and translated them for their people.

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