The Lean Lingo

Communication in a KAIZEN™ environment

When in a foreign environment it can be challenging to communicate if you do not understand the local lingo. I recently experienced this while staying in Penang, Malaysia, commencing a KAIZEN™ transformation programme at one of our global clients. Although English is widely spoken in the business environment, it is a different kettle of fish when visiting one of the many street cafés or even the restaurants. Interwoven with their rich cuisine culture that makes Penang the “food paradise of Asia”, is the Malaysian language, various Chinese and Indian dialects.

So, there I was staring at the menu; no idea what was on offer, again, due to the language barrier. Not even the visual aids like the photos of these delectable dishes came to my rescue. I realised that I could easily get myself in hot water (or is it hot soup?) by selecting the unknown. I had to rely on the translations and explanations of my friendly and enthusiastic clients to overcome my illiteracy. I obviously had to establish the degree of "hotness" of the items on the menu – is the chilli experienced only on the tongue, down to the throat, the stomach or all the way... Many questions and interrogations later and I was almost ready to place my order.

Almost ready” because the previous day I was offered the adventure to make a meal of a frog. Now frog and dining is usually not mentioned in the same sentence in my family and traditions. Even my adventurous appetite has limits and this was it. I politely declined the offer even to the relief of my client (that speaks volumes!) Hence the slight hesitation to jump knife, fork, spoon, chop sticks and all into a local happy meal one day later. Nonetheless, I eventually made some good culinary choices due to the help of my translators and can highly recommend the food in Penang!

Communication and decision-making can be constrained, confusing and even comical when you do not use the local lingo. This happens so often in our workplaces as well; not only in foreign street cafés. Top management, middle management and our valuable people at the coal face are often not on the same page. We do not understand what we are trying to achieve together as a team. Very often staff members do not know what the over-arching organisational objectives are – they can’t see the bigger picture. They can’t figure out the menu even if there is one available. Targets at team level are often hard to see or to comprehend and the lower you sit in the hierarchy the less clear it is where the organisation is headed. (Sometimes it isn’t even clear at a senior management level.)

Many workplace activities are based on words and verbal instructions with the second-hand version sometimes a deadly concoction. A further chilli in the chowder is a mixed-languages work environment. Staff members often can’t clearly see where to physically perform a task and how to perform it. These are some of the factors that will surely give most organisations heartburn.

The question is: how can we communicate better in an organisation? How can we avoid the “staring” at the daily business “menu” by employees who don’t really know which decisions to make and which actions to take? This uncertainty and vagueness is wasteful and contributes to the losses in an organisation. Is the daily, weekly and monthly planning and communication of our workplace actions so vague and complex that people could easily end up in the hot soup? This unexpected chilli can heat up a process for sure…

The Lean lingo that brings clarity, understanding and engages people is visual management. It is simplistic, easy to understand and to remember, direct, at the point of use, and transcends a hodgepodge of words. It helps everyone (from top management to the frontline) to know and understand what is on the team’s menu and which decisions to make and which actions to take to make the experience positive. The Lean author, Micheal Ballé puts it this way: “We see together, so that we know together, think together and act together.”

The Lean language of visual control implies that we make our communication as visible and simple as possible so that it is easy to understand. In essence visual management is the “5S” of our communication – all the unnecessary has been removed. In other words, we can immediately see what we need to know about our work and related activities. We can identify a deviation from a standard immediately, whether it is a standard target, or a demarcated Work-In-Progress area that is overflowing with excess stock.

Think about areas in your workplace where people are “staring at the menu” and do not know which actions to take and decisions to make. Be creative with them by using visual management techniques to avoid those unexpected, distracting, burning sensations.

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