Dr Steve Chicken CEng MIED, manufacturing growth director at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, explores the sensitive subject of why the vocabulary of lean can hinder a successful implementation. Jargon and buzzwords have infiltrated lean and look here to stay-but should they?

In this blog he argues for simplification. What are your thoughts?

“Cut out the ninja nonsense!” – that was the plea I heard from a senior line manager at a famous aerospace company. He was trying to explain why lean was proving so hard to implement across the organisation and I have to say – he had a point (and still does).

Although sometimes it can seem to be a new innovation, lean manufacturing has been with us for a long time. Since the early 1900s there has been a drive to make manufacturing processes more efficient and effective. The fact that the Japanese at Toyota took the principles and concepts and refined them in to an identifiable, globally-relevant manufacturing process is why we practitioners take the ostensibly Japanese lean vocabulary and attempt to shoe-horn it in to British organisations.

As that aerospace manager pointed out, we continue to overuse these Japanese words to describe what we do in lean. Just a couple of second’s reflection conjures up jidoka, kaizen, andon, heijunka, poka-yoke, muri/mura/muda, gemba, kanban and the original 5S’s: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsuke (see the mini-directory below for their meanings). So why are we so surprised when the guys’ eyes on the shop-floor glaze over?

In my experience, this is particularly relevant when implementing lean outside of the automotive supply chain. The Toyota language nearly always gets the reaction that it’s OK for automotive, but it won’t work here. The Japanese words get in the way.

At its heart, lean’s objective is to reduce waste and make the manufacturing process simpler, more efficient and more effective. It is basic common sense built on a set of tried and tested principles. Done properly, it works – which is why it has been around so long. But there is a fundamental barrier – the complexity of lean vocabulary can actually inhibit employee engagement. If you are talking to your team in a foreign language (and one that many of us are not even vaguely familiar with) you are creating a barrier that effectively prevents them from engaging with the process, sharing your passion or contributing.

So please, when you are implementing lean in your companies use clear English; your boss may be impressed by the Japanese words, but the folks where it really matters won’t be. The reality is that if you switch them off you will be making it extremely hard for your company to enjoy the benefits of what is a highly-effective and proven process.


The abbreviated ninja nonsense directory:

Andon – a visual control device that indicates the status of a machine, line, or process.

Gemba – the shop floor or the place where a product is manufactured or the service delivered

Heijunka – smoothing or levelling production

Jidoka – intelligent automation which stops production when an error occurs

Kaizen – continuous improvement

Kanban – signboard, communicates changes in demand and supply

Muda – waste

Mura – overloading or unevenness

Muri – uneven flow of parts, overburden

Poka-yoke – developing a mistake-proof system


And the original 5S’s:

Seiketsu – standardise

Seiri – organisation

Seiso – cleanliness

Seiton – orderliness

Shitsuke – discipline.