Speaking Japanese in the workplace

Some time ago when I was working on my doctorate at Case Western Reserve University, my classmates and I took a study trip to Tokyo. The visits with industry leaders and some government officials were fascinating.  I developed an understanding of Japanese business practices that included more than one understanding of the Japanese economy. We talked with leaders of world class competitive organizations like Honda, Toyota, and so forth, but we also learned that there are some highly protected industries that are not particularly competitive in the world market.

In addition I learned first-hand that being in a country where you not only don’t know the language but also don’t know how to recognize the characters in the language can be a challenging and exhausting experience.  One of my classmates had trouble taking a taxi because he did not get the right tonal inflection when he requested transportation to the Hilton. I got off the wrong exit on a subway and spent a chunk of time asking for directions by naming the Hilton to people who did not speak English and then walking in whichever direction the person nodded. After a half dozen iterations of this process I found myself in front of the hotel.

In the years since then I have been intrigued with the way specific words describing Japanese business practice have become common in our workplaces. Here is my short list of Japanese business language concepts that are making the jump to English.

Kaizen: collaborative analytic process in which members of an organization focus on a particular process and attempt to diagnose root causes of quality issues and jointly develop approaches to address those issues. Joel Daly, a Collaborative MBA alumni, describes making use of kaizen events to develop changes in an assembly line process in his recent blog post.

Yokoten: Joel also gave me another new word. He told me about yokoten, which he describes as helping a group discover “something they possess, but may not realize.”  To me this means identifying activities and processes that have been learned but never carefully defined and developed so that that they can be shared as a “best process.”

PechaKucha: a style of presentation often using PowerPoint that requires the presenter to focus the presentation on twenty images or slides that are visible for no more than twenty seconds. This means that the presentation cannot be more than seven minutes long. As a professor I probably need to practice this myself.

Poke-yoke:  This is my personal favorite. Poke-yoke is a way of structuring activities so it is hard to make a mistake. Putting a sack of garbage in front of the back door so that you remember to take it out in the morning means that you don’t have to remember to take out the garbage. The garbage itself provides the reminder. This is a homely example, but poke-yoke, without the fun name, has long been present in manufacturing procedures in which you must hold down two buttons simultaneously to run a potentially dangerous piece of equipment.  As a college professor, one of the things that scares me most is when someone tells me, “Don’t forget to have your students (fill in the blank).” Unless some aspect of the process makes it nearly impossible for me to forget I know that I will forget at least part of the time. It might be a bit boring but I would love to live in a world with more poke-yoke.

I am always interested in expanding my vocabulary and seeing what other Japanese concepts people use in their workplaces. If you have other words to add to this list please use the comments feature below.


One thought on “Speaking Japanese in the workplace”

  1. Jim Wehrman VP of North American Operations, Honda, retired says:

    These are all good examples, but having worked in a Japanese multi national company for many years, I learned the power of nemawashi. Nemawashi is the word for informal pre-discussion of any significant proposal. This allows the proposer to understand in advance any concerns and allows the evaluator an opportunity to give guidance and to avoid being blind sided by a new proposal. When people speak about the consensus style management of Japanese companies, nemawashi is the lubricant that keeps it working.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *