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Bilingual workplaces? No, non, nyet, nein.

A language standard is the right way to go.

Published: Monday, July 10, 2006 - 22:00

"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the languages of all the earth…"
—Genesis 11:9

The story of the Tower of Babel occupies but nine verses of the Book of Genesis, but it contains a valuable lesson for today: a multiplicity of languages makes it harder to run a workplace effectively. This is especially true when the quality system relies on controlled documents, as required by ISO 9001 and ISO/TS 16949. Robert M. Bakker cites in his "Why companies fail quality audits" (Manufacturing Engineering) three predominant sources of quality system nonconformances:

  1. Documentation control
  2. Inspection and testing
  3. Control of inspection, measuring and test equipment

Companies receive audit nonconformances because auditors find obsolete documents, documents with conflicting instructions, review logs that show failure of employees to read new work instructions, handwritten instructions, and so on. It’s also fairly easy for auditors to find at least one gage with an expired calibration sticker, unless the workplace has a good calibration control system. Off-the-shelf software exists for dealing with expired stickers, but the best document control system on Earth can’t eliminate the risks that come with bilingual work instructions. Bilingual documents are simply an extra opportunity for documentation nonconformances.

Consider, for example, a workplace in the U.S. that issues work instructions in English and Spanish. Every time a work instruction or a procedure changes, someone must translate it into Spanish. Technical translations are expensive and, even worse, increase the chance of introducing an error. Computer translations can introduce errors that range from entertaining to disastrous, especially when technical language is involved.

The problem can be circumvented to a degree if the job can be entirely described by pictures. Quality management systems allow visual aids that are subordinate to procedures and work instructions. When the single-language work instruction changes, the visual aid is simply updated accordingly.

The kind of job that can be described without words is essentially a job for illiterate workers. It’s unlikely to pay much or offer opportunities for advancement. Furthermore, it’s impossible to have effective cross-functional and cross-shift teamwork in a Tower of Babel. A first-shift worker who speaks only Spanish can’t, for example, work directly with a second-shift worker who speaks only English. The need to interact through a bilingual supervisor is inconsistent with worker empowerment principles, because workers shouldn’t need to go through supervisors for routine matters.

Literacy in English is therefore a reasonable job requirement for employment in the United States, and Henry Ford treated it as such when immigrants from Germany, Poland, the Balkans and a multitude of other countries sought work in his factories. The immigrants did’t have to know English, but a willingness to learn was a condition of employment. The Ford Motor Co. provided free instruction and "A refusal to learn English in the school provided accounted for 38 more [discharges]" (Ford, 1922).

The best policy is therefore not to try to run bilingual workplaces, but to provide mandatory classes in English as a second language (ESL) for employees who don’t speak English. In addition to equipping the workers to function effectively in an American workplace, it will help them integrate into American society. The cost of the training will probably be offset by not having to translate every document in the quality system into another language.

The same policy should, of course, apply south of the border. For example, work instructions in Mexican and Latin American factories should be exclusively in Spanish or Portuguese even if the factories are American-owned, and foreign workers should be expected to learn the language of their adopted country.


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For 35 years Quality Digest has been the go-to source for all things quality. Our newsletter, Quality Digest, shares expert commentary and relevant industry resources to assist our readers in their quest for continuous improvement. Our website includes every column and article from the newsletter since May 2009 as well as back issues of Quality Digest magazine to August 1995. We are committed to promoting a view wherein quality is not a niche, but an integral part of every phase of manufacturing and services.