Words Make Meaning

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 03-17-20

The language and names that we select and use matter. They help add context or perspective to the object or task and can affect the accessibility of ideas and connection between ideas.

For example, when Starbucks started scaling, they used different words for drink sizes, from Tall to Grande to Venti. Fundamentally, they all mean large, but the different sizes created a sense of connection to an artisanal coffee store, making it feel more exclusive and ultimately desirable. In this case, the inaccessibility of the language created the perception of added value.

The opposite has occurred in the lean community. The use of jargon, mostly through the use of Japanese words, created the same sense of exclusivity, and so there were those with the inside decoder ring and those without. But this has also put up walls that limit the ability of everyone in the organization to engage. I have always strived to use easy to understand language, so instead of ‘gemba’ we talked about ‘direct observation’. The teaching behind the phrase was often very similar, and certainly mattered, but the ability to even get started was changed with the purposeful selection of words.

Sometimes you want to create separation through the use of language, in order to convey new meaning or a break from past practice. Many organizations, for example, talk about being customer-focused or customer-centric. You do not separate yourself from others by using that language. Amazon chose the language of “customer-obsessed,” and without any further explanation, you know that it means something different and beyond normal practices.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you should simply copy the language of others. You should be deliberate as well. Language in your organization already has meaning, and you have to understand your own current state before making such choices. For example, some companies have turned the word “coaching” into meaning, “The last HR step before we fire you.”  While coaching should be a great word and at the center of a lean culture, if that’s what the word means in your organization, you may have difficulty making it work for you.