“Wisdom” and “Continuous Improvement” in the Toyota Way

Toyota’s Japanese documents and their English versions often mean different things. Recently, looking at the Japanese version of The Toyota Way 2001, I was surprised to find that what is translated into English as “Continuous Improvement” is “Chie to Kaizen” (知恵と改善), which means “Wisdom and Continuous Improvement.” In the English version, “Wisdom” was not only dropped from the main header, it appears nowhere.

This left me wondering about the following issues:

  1. What do they mean by “wisdom”?
  2. Why was it lost in translation?

On the other hand, the meaning of Kaizen (改善) in The Toyota Way 2001, is explained the same way in English and Japanese, and it does not match the most common usage of “continuous improvement.”


I crowd-sourced answers by asking the questions in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn, where many members are Toyota alumni, and received the following:

  • James Pryor: “wisdom refers to ‘having experience with’.”
  • Frederick Stimson Harriman: “知恵 describes the ‘figuring out’ part of this thought process. One might call it ‘engineering’ or ‘creativity’.”
  • Prasad Velaga wonders “whether it means judicious selection of improvement projects.”
  • Gregory Cornett: “Wisdom might possibly mean ‘Common Sense’.”

Since everyone was taking guesses, I added my own. Looking up chie (知恵 ) in my dictionary, I found Wisdom, Sense, Sagacity, Intelligence, Resourcefulness. My read on it in the Toyota Way 2001 context is as follows:

  • If you can execute a task, you have a skill.
  • If you can combine and sequence tasks to get a job done, you have know-how.
  • If you understand the principles behind the tools and methods you are using and can adapt them as needed in new circumstances, you have wisdom.

For example, those who apply Lean tools by rote may have know-how but not wisdom. My guess is that, in this context, chie refers to the wisdom, in the above sense, accumulated by the Toyoda/Toyota organization since Sakichi Toyoda got interested in looms.

After some back-and-forth on the subject with Frederick Stimson-Harriman and Gary Stewart on LinkedIn, I settled on the notion that, in this context, wisdom is resourcefulness due to the assimilation of accumulated knowledge. It differs from common sense, which is resourcefulness too, but in a field where you have no specialized knowledge.

What it is really saying is that every employee, regardless of rank, should spend part of the work time on improvement, and, when moving on to another assignment should leave the workplace, department, or division performing better than he or she found it. Whatever you are put in charge of, you are not just responsible for running it, but for making it better.

Helen Jackson thinks I “hit this on the head.” But she thinks it is omitted in English because it is “so obvious that it doesn’t need stating.” But, if it doesn’t need stating, why did the authors state it, and so prominently? If you reduce The Toyota Way to two phrases, and the first word of the first one is “Wisdom,” it’s pretty prominent.

Continuous Improvement

Incidentally, in 知恵と改善 (Chie to Kaizen), “Kaizen” is ambiguous. When translated as
“Continuous Improvement” it most commonly refers to small changes to work methods, conceived and implemented by the people who do the work, as opposed to radical change or innovation. In The Toyota Way 2001, however, it includes all forms of improvement, regardless of scope, including kaikaku (改革), “Continuous” refers to doing it all the time, not doing it incrementally.

17 comments on ““Wisdom” and “Continuous Improvement” in the Toyota Way

  1. Wisdom = Knowledge + Experience. Why lost in translation? Edge does to the home team. Former Toyota people who work as kaizen senseis constantly bring up the word “wisdom,” often in the context of using ones ingenuity (creativity, originality, inventiveness) to improve flow.

    • It’s lost in translation because it is in the Japanese original of The Toyota Way 2001 and not in its English version.

    • I was wondering what you meant by this.

      I try to just state facts, and stay away from attributing motive.

      Maybe they just have bad translators.

      • It is well known (perhaps not by you) that they purposely obfuscate at times so as not to make it easy for others to follow. That’s putting wisdom to work.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up Michel. I first went through the Toyota Way with instructors preparing to roll it out in 2002, and “wisdom” did not come up. Instead they spoke of learning by experience. I was asked not to publish The Toyota Way in English, and did not until well after they began to propagate it. When I asked why they did not want it published, the response was that readers think they understand, but do not.

    All the instructors, including my sensei, made a big deal out of acquiring tacit knowledge by experience. Tacit is what you learn that is difficult or impossible to put into words — in any language. Or as Yogi Berra put it, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

  3. @Bob — Company public relations material is always to be taken with a grain of salt, from Toyota as well as from others. The Toyota Way 2001, however is not a document intended for the public but for Toyota employees.

  4. Let me elaborate on why I think Toyota may obfuscate even in an important document intended for their own American employees:

    My view is that the differences in Japanese-to-English translation are purposeful because they assure the Japanese-born people who are also long-time Toyota employees of their position as the keepers of the actual meaning and intent of The Toyota Way and of the heritage and teachings of Sakichi-san, Kiichiro-san, Ohno-san, and other leaders. This makes sense to me.

    Things put into words on a page don’t fully convey meaning (in Japanese as well). Toyota leaders have always very much liked the parent-child relationship when it comes to training Toyota employees, in Japan and elsewhere.

    I also think Toyota senior management wanted to retain a small edge (which is actually a very large edge) over their competitors.

    No matter how good or bad the translation is from Japanese to any language, few people would actually understand The Toyota Way document. As you know, it requires far more curiosity –> study –> practice (and repeating this cycle endlessly) than most people (especially managers) are willing to do.

  5. Michel –

    Good post. Thank you for sharing.

    About a year ago, I asked Jeffrey Liker about Kaikaku and why he didn’t mention it in The Toyota Way (English edition). He said that, in his experience, Toyota didn’t distinguish between Kaizen and Kaikaku; that both were considered part of the ongoing continuous improvement process covered by the word “Kaizen.”

  6. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    It is true that the Japanese do not share all of the key Toyota knowledge with westerners.

    But the reason is not conspiracy – it is that they do not think the “westerner” the “Gaijin” will take the time and effort to fully explore and understand the Japanese culture and meaning – and instead go with the “simple version”. ( backs up some of what Frederick is saying )

    I learned this lesson early in my days – when I actually learned some key concepts from the Honda Guys – came back to my Toyota people and asked why ? – their answer was – we did not think you would really want to understand that extreme depth of thinking – so we did not train you in that concept to that deep level.

    Fortunately that was the last time that happened to me.

    But the real villain is actually the western tendency to shallow thinking.

    I always found that if you were curious enough you could break thru this roadblock – ie if the student keeps showing they are ready ( by persisting to ask more in-depth questions ) – then the Japanese will keep teaching.- but if you stop asking questions ( show you are not now ready ) – they will always, always, stop teaching.

    Now you can see the problem clearly – it was omitted simply because the western people did not understand the vital importance – or had never asked why it was so important. ( why the Japanese allowed it to be omitted is another question.)

    So I think less about the incompetent translation – and more about – just a total lack of understanding about what Toyota really is. ( a shallow understanding is enough )

    Now take this thought and apply it to almost anything copied from Toyota – it will be a shallow design copy of the Toyota thinking and method – simply because that is what we westerners think is acceptable.

    But to the TRUE Toyota people – that is very far from acceptable.

    • What you are saying is that Toyota’s management denied a group of employees access to a complete translation of an official statement of company values based on their being “westerners.” I don’t know how this can be called showing respect.

      Toyota excels at making cars, and that’s the reason their approach commands interest. If they did as you say, it doesn’t show enlightenment in the ways of the world. Other multinational companies excel in other businesses, and have policies that would not allow such practices. I am thinking, for example, of Unilever in detergents, personal products, and processed foods, or Schlumberger in oilfield services.

      What is a “westerner” anyway? The Toyota employees in Japan are Japanese, not “easterners.” Likewise, the Toyota employees in the US are Americans, not “westerners,” and hail from the culture that produced interchangeable parts technology, the machine tool, the assembly line, industrial engineering, TWI, and a few other manufacturing concepts, none of which required Confucius.

      In Manufacturing, national culture and philosophy are best left aside. It’s the company culture and its practices that matter.

    • Gary –

      Your response makes perfect sense. I know you’re not “dissing” Western thinking, just drawing a comparison between it and Eastern. Still, we in the US seem not only to be content with, but to seek the USA-Today-synopsis of the much larger topic. Maybe that’s why I prefer Public TV & Radio reporting.

      As I mature in my own living of Lean, I find the more I ask, the deeper my understanding becomes.

  7. I am not the one saying that Toyota deliberately mistranslated The Toyota Way 2001, Bob Emiliani and Gary Stewart are. Frederick Stimson-Harriman blames incompetent translators instead, which was my first reaction too.

    What puzzles me is that Bob and Gary both think that it’s OK to obfuscate with a category of employees. Imagine we are at Mad Men‘s Sterling-Cooper ad agency in New York circa 1960, and that management puts out a statement on company policy in two versions, a complete one for the men and a simplified one for the women so that they wouldn’t have to worry their shallow-thinking heads with the extreme depth of management thinking embedded in the men’s version.

    What Bob and Gary are saying that Toyota did the same thing. One reason I stick with the incompetent translator theory is that I can’t believe the leaders of Toyota would do something so counterproductive. When you withhold information from a group of employees, you not only diminish their ability to contribute, but they eventually find out and you then lose their loyalty.

    It’s a risk for all multinational companies. When local employees understand that only the expats from the company’s home country get the full story, they learn everything they can and then go work for a local company that they expect won’t have any glass ceiling.

    East versus West dichotomies are simplistic, irrelevant, and counterproductive. I started my industrial career in Silicon Valley and worked in teams where you had as many nationalities/ethinicities as members: Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Italian, British, French… There even was a Texan. And we were too busy working to worry about anybody’s category. Likewise, many years later, my colleague Hormoz Mogarei was running production at Toyota showcase supplier Injex, with 19 different nationalities among 300 employees. And all nationalism was swept aside by the work.

    An injection-molding machine, a lathe, or an assembly line don’t care where you are from. They work the same way for everybody. High-performance manufacturing is universal. All it needs to work is humans.

  8. RE: “I can’t believe the leaders of Toyota would do something so counterproductive. When you withhold information from a group of employees, you not only diminish their ability to contribute, but they eventually find out and you then lose their loyalty.”

    I don’t believe that it is counterproductive. Rather than withhold information, the document serves as a prologue for gaining more information from those people who more deeply understand its meaning and intent.

    As was explained to me yesterday in kaizen with Nakao-san, “apple” (ringo in Japanese) does not mean the same thing as “apple” in English. Translating “ringo” to “apple” is sufficient for English-speakers, but the deeper meaning requires one human to explain it to another. If that takes place, then that demonstrates “Respect for People” and also allows people to further their potential.

    I am not suggesting it is a deliberate mistranslation. Rather, it is a sufficient translation that requires further (ongoing) explanation as one interacts with TPS and The Toyota Way.

    • You didn’t call it “deliberate mistranslation” but you called it “obfuscation.” What’s the difference? As indicated above, I was quite willing to blame incompetent translators.

      I have known the word “ringo” since I first went to Japan almost 40 years ago, and it works very well when you want to buy an apple. I have never known any other meaning for it and I don’t believe there is one. Please ask Mr. Nakao what the deeper meaning is and enlighten me.

      Words, and even grammatical categories like verbs and nouns, often don’t match perfectly in different languages.We don’t all divide the color spectrum the same way and what is in English different shades of blue is two different colors in Russian… But the translator’s task is still to render the exact meaning, whatever words are needed, not water down or simplify.

      In 2010, when I translated Pascal Dennis’s Getting the Right Things Done into French, the title was a challenge. It’s a reference to Peter Drucker that Americans get but the French don’t, because Peter Drucker is not well known there. Since the literal translation of the title fell completely flat, with Pascal’s agreement, we changed it to “Deploy your Lean strategies” (Déployez vos Stragégies Lean).

      What’s left out in The Toyota Way 2001 is not a minor point. And, by the way, the second principle is also mistranslated. The Japanese original means “Respect for Humanity,” not “Respect for People,” but we have discussed that earlier.

      Remember Julia Child? She trained as a professional chef in France and then shared in her book the secrets that the profession kept from the public. Bruce Lee did the same thing for Chinese martial arts. Let’s do it for TPS. We need to read between the lines, de-obfuscate, find the real story (本音, Honne) behind the facade (建前, Tatemae), and tell it. That’s what researchers are for.

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