Get Better Results with Lean by Using Common-Sense Language

Written by
Shane Barber

Get Better Results with Lean by Using Common-Sense Language 

Lean was established to create common sense practices for the common person–easy to digest and quick to energize teams and processes. However, we don’t consistently see those results. (And that’s after partnering with over 400 manufacturers.)

What we do see is intelligent, well-meaning leaders trying to implement Lean practices with tools like Kaizen events, Hoshin planning, or Poke Yok implementation. But when the dust settles, things are quick to go back to the way they were before. 

It doesn’t add up and it’s understandably frustrating for leaders.

Here’s the truth: There’s nothing wrong with the content—Lean is good medicine. The problem lies in the language we use to teach Lean principles. It’s not the language your workforce is used to using and it could be killing your implementation. 

For example, buzzwords like Hoshin Planning and Poke Yok may sound exciting, but they aren’t words your people would connect in any meaningful way to the work they do. The minute your people have to refer to a glossary of terms to understand what you’re saying, it adds complexity.

That matters, because changing people’s behavior already requires a massive amount of energy. Using “elevated” corporate terms that need to be decoded every time they’re used creates an unnecessary barrier to learning and conversion, especially on the front lines of your organization.

Let’s get into the reasons why.

The Lean Language Barrier

So, what’s going on in workers’ heads on the first day of a Lean implementation? Are they mentally applying helpful concepts to their routine tasks? Are they visualizing a more efficient way of doing things? We like to think so—after all, you didn’t hire dummies. 

But what if almost every key term they hear is something brand new? Something wholly separate from their professional vernacular. How does that change how they apply the new information? 

If you’re a leader trying to apply Lean principles to your organization, understanding the answer to this question is critical. Here’s how using jargon disrupts application of information in a nutshell: 

When learning a new skill, unfamiliar terminology can

  • Increase mental load, making comprehension more challenging just by virtue of how many mental calories need to be burned just to follow what you’re saying.
  • Limit mental associations and visual representations. We attach pictures to new words in our mind to help us remember them. Abstract terms are difficult to attach to pictures. 
  • Hinder encoding (how we store information) and retrieval as learners struggle to integrate new information with their existing knowledge. 
  • Decrease motivation, engagement, and the effectiveness of the practice you’re trying to implement.

While your people would probably love to learn how to streamline their processes and improve performance, instead they’re learning a new language. 

And we wonder why our able-bodied team isn’t as quick to implement continuous improvement initiatives that have leaders jumping up and down with pom poms.

We know change is hard. But as a leader, you can greatly minimize the learning curve.

What Does a “Common Language” for Lean Manufacturers Sound Like? 

Let’s discuss a common denominator across companies that have a great experience implementing Lean initiatives: They keep it simple. 

Leaders develop a common language to talk about Lean principles—nothing fancy.  They use terms their workers are already familiar with to approach “continuous improvement.” 

In other words, their people aren’t having to decipher a coded message in order to apply simple principles designed to make their jobs easier. 

For instance, take a few of the buzz terms that crop up when leaders unpack a shiny new continuous improvement strategy: Kaizen. Kanban. 5S (Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, Shitsuke). Jidoka Automation. TPS. Not a single one of those terms, though they symbolize insanely helpful tools, gives any immediate indication as to what they mean! Or how they apply to your workforce!  

So, instead of using the copyrighted Japanese terminology, use words that describe what you’re going to do. 

For example, Kaizen is a Japanese term. A Kaizen refers to a one-time, rapid improvement event. So why not call it that? 5S refers to a system for applying organization and structure to your factory. You could try, “Structure and Organization Initiative.” 

By using language that concretizes the work at hand, you eliminate the burden of having to unpack abstract ideas while teaching the stuff that really matters. 

Why Saying it In Plain English Won’t Ruin the Magic of Lean Principles 

We credit Lean methodology to Japan, and continue to pay special homage to Toyota for the replicable TPS we use today. But Lean’s roots have been around for ages. In fact, did you know: before Toyota was an idea, the United States spent years in the wake of WWII helping Japan rebuild its factories and implement new management practices, laying the groundwork for Japan's post-war economic boom? Then Japan turned around and taught it all back to us—and they did a great job. But the lesson is that no one culture or language has a copyright on continuous improvement. Principles are always true no matter what language they’re spoken in. No matter the initiative, you can always support your people best by meeting them where they are and speaking their language of work.  

What Does This Mean for Leaders? 

Side-stepping the glossary of terms means a little more work for leaders. But it’s worth it. Here’s what leaders need to do on their end to create a common language and lay the groundwork for seamless integration.  

The Leader’s Responsibility: 

  1. Learn the terms your workforce uses: If you don’t know the language and terminology used on your factory floor, spend some time listening. Ask workers to explain their responsibilities in their own words so that you can begin to compile a common vernacular.  
  1. Develop a common language around Lean: Take the time to replace unfamiliar terms built into your initiative with more common-sense ones. Be thoughtful and precise about how you streamline understanding by using concise, concrete language to describe Lean tools and principles. 
  1. Promote team ownership: Using a common language is really about ownership. Build into your initiative opportunities for teams to put their unique brand on Lean principles. Let them decide what to call each part of the process and define what success looks like in their own words. Don’t try to define their success using terms that don’t matter to them.

What Leaders Stand to Gain: 

  1. Time: Implementation is faster and more effective when you aren’t explaining things twice (once with the fancy terms, then again in concrete terms). Think of how much time you save when your workers show up to a “one-time rapid Improvement event” instead of a Kaizen event. You don’t have to waste any time explaining what Kaizen means. You can get right down to work, because everyone’s got a pretty good idea what they’ll be doing.  
  1. Improvement that’s culture-deep: If Lean is going to stick, the language we use to approach it has to be palatable in daily conversation and on the factory floor. Teams that can easily talk about improvement initiatives in the context of their day-to-day are more likely to adopt the principles they’ve learned and make it a part of the culture—not just another checkbox.
  1. Results: By creating a shared language and alignment across your  organization, you are driving superior results. Clearer communication improves adherence to quality standards and compliance requirements, which results in greater efficiency, improved performance, and increased profits.

A Consultant Makes You Translate—A Partner Speaks Your Language 

You may be asking: “What if I’m not the one presenting? We have an implementer who’s doing that.” 

It’s true that most consultants and implementers we’ve seen won’t go off script for you. They have a song and dance and a 5-star product that (if implemented and maintained) is guaranteed to deliver great results. And sometimes that works. 

But the issue is that, even though Lean principles are universal, implementation cannot be one-size (or one language) fits all. After working with hundreds of manufacturers, we’ve learned that it takes a much more personalized touch to see lasting results. 

That’s why at iMpact Utah, we assume the role of Transformation Partners, rather than consultants. We’re yoked with you at every stage of the journey, from assessment to implementation to seeing results.  

Everyone wants to be a Lean, mean, performance machine. Partner with us for a holistic transformation, guaranteed results, and our promise to do it all in plain English.  

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