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 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.  Over 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 not to be so aligned as thought. For example, as a young marketing employee working at industry trade shows, I displayed cardboard markups of potential new products that our salespeople referred to as released. “How can you call them released?” I asked an older salesman.  He replied, “If I don’t get an order for this, we’ll never produce it. 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 upon 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.


PS I’m presenting a free 45-minute webinar on Thursday, March 23. I’ll be reflecting on my lean learning over the past three decades – much of it a result of learning from mistakes. Learn more and register here.

PPS I’ll be teaching the foundational Shingo Institute workshop, Discover Excellence, on June 1-2, 2017 at Fort Wayne Metals in Fort Wayne, IN. Read more and register here. See the full schedule of upcoming Shingo Insitute workshops here – including Cultural Enablers, Continuous Improvement, Enterprise Alignment and the brand new workshop, Build Excellence.

4 thoughts on “Babel

  1. Richard Bubb

    Hi Bruce,

    Here’s a couple of Babel-words:

    “Best Effort”: We will not stop until all possible specifications are within a few % (or less) of perfection. Oh yeah, we charge by the hour.

    “Factor of Safety”: Exactly on nominal. Oh yeah, we charge by the hour.

    “Countermeasure” (expressed mathematically): Product of [Arbitrary spec limit +/- 6 Best Efforts] minus arbitrary Design FMEA levels correlated to yet more arbitrary Process FMEA levels that are basically guesses-at-best plus “N” Poke Yoke minus “Y” Poke Yoke that don’t work all the time divided by the square root of negative wtf].

    “Poke Yoke”: literally impossible to make the widget any way but correctly… until the Poke Joker stops by.

    “Poke Joker”: That little laughing voice in your head (oh yeah, you know the one I mean) when someone defeats one of your Best Effort & Factor of Safety Poke Yoke countermeasures. In seconds. cf: “Murphy”

    “Last & Furious”: Your emotional state after Poke Joker and ALL his Murphy friends decide totally wreck your entire week. BTW, it’s Monday and you have to find the 5 Why+Therefore Root Cause, countermeasure it, then poke-yoke it all in 5 days or less or you’re working the entire weekend or at least last out of the door every day.
    Or you can rise above it… just as soon as you learn to levitate.

    Other much more interesting quotes (i.e., not made up by me) can be found here:
    or here see bottom of page for links to the other good ones.

    Best Regards,

    Rich Bubb
    Six Sigma Black Belt
    260-747-4154 x2308

    Fort Wayne Metals Research
    9609 Ardmore Avenue
    Continuous Improvement Group
    Building G [aka: ABG]
    Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA 46809

    “Continuous Improvement is not Contingent Improvement.” — Rich Bubb, 2016 —

    “I’m so cool, I make my own shade.” – Rich Bubb, 2010 –

    Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. –Oscar Wilde-

  2. Kelley Buckentine

    This article references what I refer to as ‘operational definitions’ which are critical to improvement team’s success. I was leading a large kaizen, 22 people (for the largest privately held organization in the world). Our goal was to prepare for SAP implementation, addressing our 9 disparate systems that each held key customer information. We needed to create ‘one common view’ for each customer. Day 2 of the kaizen there was quite a heated discussion. As the facilitator I called an audible and asked ‘when you say customer, who are you referring to’ and went around the room with that question. Turns out there were 13 different definitions of customer. Lesson learned: try to identify key operational definitions to ground your team before you begin process discussions.

  3. Bruce Hamilton

    Thanks Kelley. Good example. Do recall reading this poem as a child?

    Six Wise Men of Hindustan
    By John Godrey Saxe

    There were six men of Hindustan,
    to learning much inclined,
    Who went to see an elephant,
    though all of them were blind,
    That each by observation
    might satisfy his mind.

    The first approached the elephant,
    and happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side,
    at once began to bawl,
    “This mystery of an elephant
    is very like a wall.”

    The second, feeling of the tusk,
    cried, “Ho, what have we here,
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear,
    This wonder of an elephant
    is very like a spear.”

    The third approached the elephant,
    and happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    thus boldly up and spake,
    “I see,” quoth he,
    “the elephant is very like a snake.”

    The fourth reached out an eager hand,
    and felt above the knee,
    “What this most wondrous beast
    is like is very plain” said he,
    “‘Tis clear enough the elephant
    is very like a tree.”

    The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
    said, “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    deny the fact who can;
    This marvel of an elephant
    is very like a fan.”

    The sixth no sooner had begun
    about the beast to grope,
    Than seizing on the swinging tail
    that fell within his scope;
    “I see,” said he, “the elephant
    is very like a rope.”

    So six blind men of Hindustan
    disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    exceeding stiff and strong;
    Though each was partly in the right,
    they all were in the wrong!


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