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Bruce Hamilton



Continuous improvement needs a systems language to clarify key concepts

Published: Monday, April 10, 2017 - 12:03

I grew up in a small manufacturing company where nine different languages were spoken. English was the language of managers, office workers, and some of our production employees. Additionally, these languages were spoken in our factory: Armenian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Italian, Creole, French, and Spanish. We were a melting pot, rich with different cultures, but without a common language. The factory was a veritable Tower of Babel.

If workers had ideas or were struggling with a problem, the language barrier held them back. Talented workers were yoked to simple repetitive tasks, limited by their inability to communicate. This was frustrating for employees and managers, and completely at odds with our continuous improvement aspirations. In 1987, my company made a critical investment to teach English as a second language, (ESL) to non-English-speaking employees. In an ironic twist, we took advantage of the ESL classes to teach TPS concepts, which contained many Japanese words like kaizen or poka-yoke. Students were learning English and TPS at the same time.

The classes were voluntary, but nearly everyone who could benefit signed up. In retrospect, it was the single most important step taken to unlock the capabilities of all of our employees. During a two-year period, we found a common language and a shared understanding of TPS. Employees blossomed, ideas began to flow, and a powerful grassroots improvement process was launched. The investment to provide a common language was an unqualified success.

Around the same time, however, I discovered that among native English-speaking white collar employees there existed another Tower of Babel that was at least as significant as the one from the shop floor that derived from the ambiguity of our English language. Common terms to describe business processes turned out to be not as aligned as I thought. For example, as a young marketing employee working at industry trade shows, I displayed cardboard markups of potential new products that our salespeople described as “released.”

“How can you call them released?” I asked an older salesman.

“If I don’t get an order for this, we’ll never produce it,” he said. “Nothing happens until we get an order.” Such was his worldview. If a potential product made it to a trade show, it was “released,” i.e., mandated for sale.

Later in my career, I transitioned from marketing to IT, where as a bystander to new product development, I cataloged these additional definitions by department for the term “released.” Depending on your venue, a new product was considered released:
• In design and drafting, when the part and assembly drawings and bills of material were completed
• In purchasing and inventory control, when the parts were on order
• In manufacturing engineering, when the assembly fixtures were installed and tested
• In quality, when the inspection plan was complete
• In production, when the pre-production runs were successfully completed (in some cases, the new product development process had lagged to such a point that the pre-production run was sold to customers)

Each department used the word “released” to describe its local part of the push system, yet none really understood the relative imprecision of the word. Depending upon who was speaking to whom, the meaning of released could be radically different.

The ambiguity of the English language can be confounding, setting up numerous miscommunications and occasional disastrous handoffs. It occurs to me that if we are to address continuous improvement from a systems perspective, then we need a systems language to clarify key concepts for our organizations. Call it ESL: Enterprise Systems Language. Can you think of examples of babel in your organization that we can add to the new ESL lexicon? Please share a couple.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.


Tower of Babel

As that great philosopher Pogo oft stated, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" Thanks for unmasking the elephant in the room. We have all lived with this, probably for our entire working lives, perhaps even through our educational lives, accepting the "stove piping" as natural.

Every standards committee, that I am aware of, has a terminology subcommittee (actual or ad-hoc). Perhaps a good first step to sanity would be for these subcomittees to begin the communicate. as for the "established order", perhaps the latest industrial revolution is a great chance for a linguistic revolution.