We've recently kicked off an initiative to implement lean manufacturing principles and operation into our production activities here in Yangon. In preparing the first training on this topic for our staff I had conversations with half a dozen people over the course of a week trying to find a good Burmese term for lean that cast this way or working in a positive light. I started by explaining the English word lean and how it's used to indicate a lack of fat on people or cuts of meat -- and how that's positive because fat in American culture is synonomous for "extra" or "unneeded." I didn't have a lot of luck with this approach because:
#1) It's well acknowledged that being a bit pudgy is valued in this culture. It wouldn't be out of the question to greet a friend you hadn't seen in awhile with a complimentary "you look like you've put on weight!" It follows that the Burmese words for a non-fat person mostly carry the connotation of something like "scrawny" in English.
#2) Also, a good piece of meat in Myanmar comes with a lot of fat. In fact, at one of the restaurants we frequent for lunch, if I order the pork curry I believe I am often given the fattiest pieces of meat they can find as a sign of good service for me.
In later conversations I tried starting with different words that emphasize the idea of 'only what's needed.' We finally landed on our term of choice after starting a discussion with the English word concise...but the Burmese term is several syllables long, so at the time of the training I saw another common part of modern Burmese culture in action -- that is the tendency to adopt convenient English words for things that are new -- and I'm pretty sure that everyone at the workshop will ultimately call lean manufacturing "lean manufacturing."
I'm confident that lean manufacturing principles can be applied anywhere, with any technology, in any culture, and I proclaimed as much to the staff last week. For that to happen, however, I've started to see the need for another type of translation on top of the language. Here are two excerpts from the book "Lean for Dummies" that I'll use to illustrate:
#1) "Can you imagine living without your mobile phone, the internet, or e-mail?...they've become a necessity. All you have to do is take a trip on an airplane and listen for the chorus of phones being turned on the instant the plane touches the ground and you'll know how true this is."
#2)"When you turn on your tap, you expect to have a clean, consistent flow of water. As the customer, you're assuming that the water is disease-free, safe to drink, and fully available when you want it, at a reasonable price."
The writing in "Lean for Dummies" is great, but it's written for an audience with a vastly different culture and circumstances than the people in Myanmar. The UN estimates that approximately 0.2% of the people in Myanmar are internet users. I'd confidently wager that less than 1% of the 50+ million people in Myanmar have ever done even one of the following: used a mobile phone, accessed the internet, or flown on a plane. Similarly, when you turn on the faucet in Yangon you do not necessarily expect clean, consistent, disease-free water. Or any water at all, sometimes for more than a day. So I imagine these analogies would only make it more difficult for a Burmese person to understand the topic.
On the other hand, I was born and educated in a world with limitless communication and countless resources on every imaginable topic. Lean manufacturing is such old news in the United States that some of the experts took the time to write a book on it specifically for stupid people. None of my Burmese co-workers had ever heard of it. So this is my role here: exploit as much of my background as possible to learn about and then "translate" the language and thinking and practices of first-world manufacturing to this place. I don't know if I can do it, but this kind of scrawny, tasteless manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize how we work each day in our factory and significantly reduce our manufacturing costs. Those kinds of things mean a lot even to rich companies making products for rich people; can you imagine how much more it matters for us as we try to make high quality, low cost products for desperately poor farmers in Myanmar? And so we will try...