Kanji and Humility

By Ron Pereira Updated on April 16th, 2013

“We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility.”
– Rabindranath Tagore

My friend, and fellow Texas lean blogger / Big Ten college football fanatic, Mark Graban wrote an article earlier this week summarizing ten things he wished lean practitioners wouldn’t say in 2010.

It’s a good list and I recommend you check it out… but there were aspects of his list I respectfully don’t agree with… namely that the:

“Lean movement has gotten a bit carried away in embracing Japanese words.”

Now, to not misquote Mark he does say that he is “not opposed to all things or words of Japanese origin” but Mark’s point, which seems to be shared by several of his readers, is that the overuse of Japanese words is not always positive.

I disagreed with Mark in my comment to his post and then I read Mike Wroblewski’s article on the same topic and my resolve to continue using Japanese words became even stronger.

If you visit only one other blog today you must read Mike’s article.

Does it really matter?

To be sure, this topic of Japanese words has been hotly debated over the years and I imagine it will continue to be debated for a long time.

But the question worth asking is does it really matter? I mean Mark spent valuable time on his well written article, Mike spent time, and now here I am spending time.

Wouldn’t the 3 of us be better off writing about how to make lean work or sharing articles of lean success instead of debating this? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.


You see if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years of practicing lean it’s that humility is at the heart of what we’re all trying to do.

I truly believe that without humility we’re all doomed.

In fact, the day we wake up and feel like we know all the answers or don’t need to ask why or don’t need to study and learn from those that have come before us we’re all destined for failure and government bail outs. Wait? Ah, never mind.

Furthermore, I strongly believe that any tool or concept with Japanese roots should be referred to by its Japanese name.

To attempt to rename or translate to an English equivalent, even a poor equivalent such as when people try to say hansei means reflection, shows a lack of respect to those who paved the lean road before us… in my opinion.

So, yes, it’s Hoshin Kanri not Policy Deployment. It’s kanban not signal or sign. And it’s heijunka (hey-june-kah) not production leveling.

Oh, and to give our German friends their props it’s takt time not, ah heck I don’t even know what people attempt to call this when they’re bothered by the German language!

And, finally, to give my fellow American people their props let’s be sure to reference the awesome work of those that pioneered the TWI movement in all its English language glory.

Please Be Courteous

With all of this said… if you do join those of us proud to stand behind the original Japanese words there is some important advice I’d like to leave you with.

Namely, when you use these terms do so respectfully while quickly explaining what the words mean as well as why you feel using the Japanese word is important.

You see, saying heijunka may sound impressive… but if you’re saying it just to make yourself look clever, or worse yet to intimidate others with your apparent wisdom, you’re completely defeating the purpose and I beg you to stop. You’re not helping.

Do You Agree?

So, dear readers, what do you think of this hotly debated topic?

I know some of you disagree with me… and that’s OK. I’d appreciate hearing your opinion. And I know some of you agree with me and I’d love to hear why.

What do you think?

  1. Matt Hayes

    January 6, 2010 - 1:20 pm

    Sadly, humility is lacking throughout much of the world thus creating issues like this. My only problem with Japanese words is I don’t know proper way to say many of them. But then I realise no one else knows if I am saying them wrong so usually just go ahead!

  2. Kuwabatake Sanjuro

    January 6, 2010 - 3:15 pm

    Debating these sorts of things is waste of human potential.

    The overuse and misuse of Japanese words is akin to the tomfoolery of belts and such in Six Sigma. It can be useful to a point and then it detracts.
    If it is used to make oneself superior to the audience, “Look at me I know a handful of Japanese words” or “You are incapable of understanding this apart from understanding Japanese” then it is very harmful.

  3. Dragan Bosnjak

    January 6, 2010 - 5:11 pm

    Hi Ron,
    I think that the use of foreign words is a common practice in most languages and specially if there is a niche where everybody knows and uses them, like lean is. And I agree with Sanjuro that it is a waste of our time and human potential discussing these things. Everybody is free to use words that he thinks appropriate for the problems he is trying to solve and the people he is talking to…

  4. Abe Sutter

    January 6, 2010 - 9:39 pm

    Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    I completely disagree that this is a waste of time. It is things like this that can make or break buy in with associates. And I agree with the author that we should use Japanese words even though it makes the job a bit harder with some concrete heads.

  5. Bruce Baker

    January 6, 2010 - 11:04 pm

    I agree with using some of the Japanese words, but I don’t agree with all of your rationale. I think in many cases the translation is not an accurate representation of the semantic mental component conveyed by the Japanese word. I am taking the word of people who speak Japanese since I don’t. I do speak fluent Spanish and I can say that there are some Spanish words that don’t have good transliterates in English. If two indo-european languages don’t match well word for word (one is a germanic and the other is latinate though) I would expect two languages as distant as Japanese and English to match up any better. In these cases I think that no translation is better than a weak translation. Go ahead and use more words to explain the Japanese word as this is better than fixing an innacurate semantic understanding based on the English.
    On the other hand I don’t really agree that it is disrespectful to those who paved the way to translate. If that is the case then the Japanese disrespected Henry Ford who described what Shingo would have called a physical contact poka – yoke in the case of the manufacture of bushings and then expounded upon the generalizations of the method in Today and Tomorrow which was written before there was such an enterprise known as Toyota Motors. This is just one example of the lean paradigm that was ‘paved’ by Americans in the English language and then those Americans were subsequently disrespected by your standard by Japanese people who translated them into their language. So when I say error proof do I disrespect Ohno, Shingo, et al or do I disrespect Henry Ford when I say poka yoke?
    That is your quandry not mine. I don’t think it is at all disrespectful to translate words from one language to another. Do you suggest that SPC or PDCA remains in English throughout Japan? TWI has not been translated? Did Genichi Taguchi develop his methods in English since they really are special cases of fractional factorials principally developed by Lawes, Gilbert, Fisher, and Yates – all English speakers. If the answer is no to any of these then the Japanese have no moral claim to cry disrespect when someone reasonably translates their in to another language(if at risk of doing so imprecisely) as they translated the work of other cultures into their language — for the purpose of making it accesible to the majority of people in their culture.

  6. Paul Cary

    January 7, 2010 - 6:20 am

    Dou you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You wish to build a tower to pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundatio of humility.
    St. Augustine

    I have this quote laminated at my workstation and read it every day!

  7. Paul Cary

    January 7, 2010 - 6:45 am

    Dou you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You wish to build a tower to pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundatio of humility.
    St. Augustine

    I have this quote laminated at my workstation and read it every day!

    Words are tools meant to communicate and teach. By using the right word that best fits the situation wheather it be Japanese of english is what I choose to do. Lean thinking uses a set of tools word choices, body language, and thetone of your voice may not be on most list of items in the tool box but I would argue that these may be the most important and inpactful tools to stimulate “lean thinkers”.

    If I can see further that others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

    Sir Isaac Nweton

    We can honor those giants who paved the way before us by not being constrained by our own guilt over not respecting them by the words we choose.

  8. Rob

    January 7, 2010 - 6:55 am

    Using Lean jargon tends to alienate your audience. During the communication process, you make an assessment of the audience’s intelligence and level of knowledge. However, even when you think your audience is very experienced on Lean tools, techniques and philosophy, it is a good idea to avoid using jargon because if folks don’t understand what you are saying, what is the point in you being there? Lean implementation is difficult enough to start with. Why over-complicate the whole process by trying to teach people a completely new language?

    You need to get the Lean message across with warmth and honesty rather than buzzwords!

  9. Tom

    January 7, 2010 - 10:33 am

    Since I lived in many countries I have had to learn different languages and o those languages had one thing in common: they used many words derived from other languages, literally or adapted. So for me it is easy to include some japanese words to my vocabulary if I need to. It is no big deal! But from what I have read in this blog and related ones, I think that now we have to add an 8th deadly waste: Discussing the use of the rigth word. THERE IS NO RIGHT WORD!! Words were invented to communicate with other human beings, so you should use words that will help you communicate your ideas easily or better to others. This is what the Japanese have done by not using Henry Ford’s words when they adopted his methods.
    So all this discussion is OK for a change of pace during the Xmas holidays, but please, as we go back to work, lets stop this nonsense!

  10. Ron Pereira

    January 7, 2010 - 10:56 am

    Thanks for the passionate comments, everyone! I really appreciate them. And keep them coming…

  11. Brian Buck

    January 8, 2010 - 2:59 pm

    I personally belieive in usung the Japanese words to allow for greater learning. My organization has a “no Japanese words” policy that I feel hinders people from outside learning. “Branding” lean with only internal organizational terms instead of the Japanese terms that are frequently used in books, articles, and blogs potentially limits long term understanding.

    I will concede that people should always look into the effectiveness of using the language. If a barrier is created and people can not get past it, don’t die on that hill. It is not sacred to keep the language Japanese. Save the terminology for the group and share it once they begin to display they understand the thinking.

  12. Mark Graban

    January 9, 2010 - 9:21 pm

    I don’t know if it’s an issue of not being humble to want to use your own language. I could argue it’s more respectful to people I’m training to not be bombarding them with too many Japanese words. I guess, as in all things, what does your customer want? I’ve gotten a lot of feedback over time that Japanese words are intimidating when overdone. I mean no disrespect to the Japanese.

  13. Pete Abilla

    January 10, 2010 - 4:40 pm

    Lean words in Japanese have very subtle but important differences than the English equivalents.

    For example, the Lean movement has adopted the tenet “Respect for People”, but internally at Toyota we were always taught “Respect for the Human”.

    There is a subtle but very, very big difference between use of “human” versus “people”. There is a level of meaning and understanding that changes how we behave.

    Only the Japanese equivalent can convey that deeper part, and the English equivalent might be great for most Lean consultants or the Lean subculture, a deeper understanding can come to those who truly wish to go beyond the superficial.

    It sounds mystical, but one can’t escape the connection between language, behavior, tradition, and religion.

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