Are You All Speaking the Same Language?

When I hear people discussing their continuous improvement efforts, I sometimes wonder if they are speaking the same language to each other. It reminds me of a scene from one of the “Lethal Weapon” movies a few years back. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were going to ‘Go on 3′. Before they actually “went”, though, they had a brief discussion about whether it was 1-2-3-then go, or 1-2-go on 3.

In short, they didn’t yet share a common language.

The same problem with not being able to communicate concisely and accurately happens in the workplace as well. The disconnect comes from a few main sources.

  1. People don’t know the terms. Most people are reluctant to confess to not knowing something that other people do. They seldom stand up and ask “What is lead time?” during the middle of a meeting.
  2. People use different terms for the same thing. While not an exact match, some Lean zealots say gemba to mean shop floor.  Or, if you really want confusion, think about the different ways a week long improvement project can be labeled: kaizen, kaizen blitz, kaizen event, continuous improvement workshop, continuous improvement project, rapid improvement workshop, rapid improvement project.  It can be challenging when half the team calls something by one name, and the other half uses a different word.
  3. A word has multiple meanings. The term “kaizen” can be used to mean an improvement workshop or it can indicate any small improvement activity. If people don’t understand the multiple meanings, it can lead to confusion.
  4. People use the term incorrectly. Takt time and cycle time are often, incorrectly, used interchangeably. This is especially confusing when only one person knows the correct meaning, and it results in a completely different action than expected.

Knowledge, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If there is no specific standard set for the meaning of words and terms, then people fill in the blanks.

So, what can be done? The first step is to establish a standard. Create a Lean dictionary, or if you don’t have the expertise or resources to do that, select an existing one to use as the company’s reference guide. Google “lean dictionary” and a long list of options will pop up.  (Note: I am partial to my Lean Dictionary at It has over 400 extensive terms in it, as well as many videos, 30 free terms on PDF totaling over 200 pages, and 25 free downloadable forms.)

Step 2 is to develop a training program to expose people to those terms. Simply having the terms available to people is not always enough. OJT, mentoring, and classroom training are all effective methods. But each of those methods have their own limitations. Think creatively. Set up brown bag sessions. Present a term a day at standup meetings. Or, sign up for our Lessons of the Day. Just be sure that whichever options you choose, you make it an active learning approach. Skills don’t happen by accident.

So, with that, let’s get started learning Lean on the count of 3. 1…2…ummm…are we going on 3, or is it 1-2-3 then go?

2 Responses to Are You All Speaking the Same Language?

  1. David June 7, 2012 at 7:14 am #

    From now and on I will use this site as a helper, it is interesting having some virtual help for you to reach a higher level.

  2. David Coster July 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I completely agree with Jeff, many people in an open forum do not like to ask questions, but in my view this means to situation is not a team learning situation, start by attaching the dictionary to the call for a meeting. But the key to being noticed is to ask questions, if nothing else it shows you are taking part. Ask good questions, this is the real art of learning.