Sticks and Stones...

. . . can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.   I’m taking this adage out of its original context to make a point that words can be particularly harmful to continuous improvement depending upon what we take them to mean.    

Take, for example, the word “Kanban”, which is one of the earliest Lean words to enter the English lexicon.   A teacher of mine from Toyota calls Kanban the most misunderstood Japanese word in the English language: In 1987 I visited a large auto supplier that had renamed its stockroom to “Kanban.”   A large sign at entrance to the very large inventory repository had replaced the older “Stockroom” sign.    I asked the manager who was showing me around, “What do you mean by that sign?”   He replied, “That’s where we pull our inventory from.”   It would be easy to attribute this misunderstanding to the time period, but for companies just beginning the journey today the pitfall hasn’t changed.  It goes like this:

Take a practice like Kanban, and then try to understand it in terms of more familiar language.  The English language is so vague, it’s easy to travel down a blind alley when using it to describe a concept for which we have no experiential understanding.   

Here’s an example of a more current concept from Toyota that we’ve monkeyed with:  Value Stream Mapping (VSM).  The term was popularized in 1996 by the publication of Learning to See, an excellent primer on a graphical technique used at Toyota to capture the flow of material and information in support of production.    Consultants and practitioners quickly glommed onto the newly unearthed idea – a good thing -- but then proceeded to rework it into something more familiar like a process map.  The word “map” also created confusion for many.  Visiting an auto assembly plant, I was directed to the company’s value stream map, which was essentially the floor plan for the operation.  At another plant I visited more recently, a “future state” map had been framed and placed in the building lobby.   I couldn’t keep from laughing when I saw this: a device that’s supposed to facilitate continuous improvement, itself frozen in time.  

In fact, the phrase used at Toyota, Material and Information Flow (M&I), described the ‘go see’ process of recording these flows.  This I learned from TSSC in 1995: the goal of M&I is to understand and share the current condition of material and information flow in context of  TPS philosophy.    M&I didn’t describe a physical place; it was a piece of paper – a small one (say 11x17”), not a 40-foot roll of brown paper covering the walls of a boardroom – that was a means for sharing our direct observations.  Value Streams, on the other hand have become places, domains sometimes analogous to a business unit, with Value Stream Managers.    As such, a means for continuous improvement has morphed into a physical entity, a territory and unfortunately in many cases an organizational impediment to further improvement.    Maybe Value Stream Mapping is up there now with Kanban in the most misunderstood category. 

On final example of a problem with words that can misdirect our lean efforts:  True North.  About fourteen years ago, the expression True North found its way into the lean lexicon. Before then it had a specific scientific meaning relating to navigation and a more vague do-the-right-thing meaning, but did not come up in Lean discussions.   I recall that sometime around late 1997 I was challenged by our consultant from TSSC to describe True North.   In true TPS fashion, he wasn’t answering the question only asking it – and maybe leaving a few hints here and there. Allusions were made to Taiichi Ohno’s book (link noted above under TPS philosophy).   Hajime Ohba, General Manager of TSSC later referred to True North as “a vision of an ideal.”     In any event the term was now out there as yet another descriptor of TPS.  It didn’t appear in LEI’s Lean Lexicon until its fourth printing in 2008.   By this time there are a variety of definitions flying around, some relating to tangible outcomes like zero defects or 100% on-time delivery, and some describing strategic objectives such as “increased sales.”   Some ‘experts’ suggested that True North was different for every company, once again layering a more familiar colloquialism over what should be a guiding compass for lean implementers.  Sure, I guess any company can “find its True North”, but if it’s not very much the same as Toyota’s, it ain’t TPS.  (More to come on True North in a later blog.)

Perhaps the old adage about ‘words” should read, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can do much worse.” 

Can you think of lean terminology that confounds your improvement efforts?  Share them with me. 


 BTW:  I’ve “found my True North.” ; )

This entry was posted in old lean dude, lean manufacturing, GBMP, Toast Kaizen, safety glasses, kaizen, hoshin kanri, TPM, 5S, true north, poka-yoke, lean in healthcare, toyota production system, made in america, shigeo shingo, made in the usa, value stream mapping on February 04 , 2011.