Walking through factories in Japan, you can visually pick up on the concepts of lean being implemented. Reading through English books on lean, you can generally understand the concepts of lean being implemented. However, some of the essence of lean is hidden behind a veil of Japanese language, customs and culture. It is not generally visible to a foreign eye and not easily translated into a foreign language.

I occasionally hear people say that lean does not work outside of Japan. I think this perception may be due to this veil. We need to understand lean at a deeper level and learn about its original intentions. A deeper level doesn’t necessarily equate to further complexity. Actually, it may equate to simplification.

I have been dealing with Japanese in Japanese for over half my life now. If you have studied a foreign language, you know that some words translated into another language cannot always be done so with the full essence of its original meaning. I find that the Japanese concepts that lean is based upon do not always translate well into English.

In fact, I believe that the English body of lean material is missing that essence.

Take for example the word monodzukuri. If you look at the Japanese language websites of companies in Japan, such as Toyota, you often see this term. It is a common word used in industry. The English equivalent of the website translates this word consistently as “manufacturing”. However, the Japanese word has a much deeper meaning.

Allow me to explain with a brief language lesson. The Japanese language is made up from three different character sets; hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana is generally used for words of Japanese origin and katakana is generally used for words of foreign origin. Neither set have any meaning to their individual characters. Kanji is made up of thousands of characters that made their way from China to Japan. These individual characters have meaning.

Now, break the word monodzukuri up into two halves; “mono” and “dzukuri”. Depending on the kanji you use for “mono”, it can have two separate meanings – thing or person. Depending on the kanji you use for “dzukuri”, it can have three separate meanings – build, create or make. The magic of this word starts to become apparent when you combine some of those sets of words: building things, creating things, making things, building people, creating people and making people.

However, it is generally not written using any kanji, only hiragana and/or katakana, thus encompassing all of these words into one. And the more you read this word in context, the more you start to see that it can essentially be summarised into a simple phrase: the Japanese art of making things.

Can you see how translating it as “manufacturing” doesn’t quite convey the message? Also, can you see why it is not translated to the above phrase each time?! It would certainly spoil the natural rhythm of the sentence.

Working at this from the other direction, “lean” on an English page may be written in katakana (a foreign word) on a Japanese page, but the term does not inspire images of excellence through eliminating waste (like it does to us now in English). In fact, most professionals in Japan are mistaking what the Western definition of lean is. They instead consider that lean refers somehow to becoming very thin, starving and then falling over – bankruptcy!

So let’s get this right. “Lean” is a concept coined in the West to package up concepts based on the Toyota production system. But, if Japan is not using the term “lean” in the same way it is used in English, what terms and concepts do they have that define “lean” in Japanese? Do you really think Honda describes it as the Toyota Production System?

Ben Sparrow is Director and Consultant with lean manufacturing consulting firm Shinka Management. Ben leads kaizen and lean six sigma training courses in Australia and Japan.