Lean Translation: A Page From Toyota’s Playbook

Ask your average professional what “lean” means and you will likely get the following answers: Lean means simplification. Lean means downsizing. Lean is just a quick way to reduce costs.

But lean can neither be reduced to a single business benefit nor known by a single name. “Lean Methodology” is sometimes called “Lean Manufacturing” or “Lean Production.” The essence of lean is a set of principles—which commit your organization to continuously improving all production processes and delivering value to clients.

Brief History of the (Lean) Universe

The lean manufacturing methodology was conceived and developed by Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese engineer working at Toyota. His goal: use post-war Japan’s scarce resources as productively as possible to maximize productivity. The TPS (Toyota Production System) is the result of Ohno’s efforts, and TQM (Total Quality Management) is the universal implementation of Ohno’s methodology.

American experts later codified Taiichi Ohno’s manufacturing principles. In their 1996 book Lean Thinking, for example, James Womack and Daniel Jones describe how post-Fordist thinking (as in car manufacturer Henry Ford) helped the US automobile industry weather the competition from Japanese companies.

“Lean applies to every business and every process,” says Lean Translation proponent Matt Arney, TranslateNow’s founder and CEO, who draws much of his cultural approach to business from years spent in Japan. He points out, “It is not a tactic or a cost-reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.”

Arney has witnessed the complexities of switching from a traditional Translation-Editing-Proofreading approach to Lean Translation. For more than 12 years, he ran business development for a major translation and localization company in Asia.

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection”―Mark Twain

How the Lean Methodology Really Works

At the core of the Lean Methodology is the drive to eliminate waste within the production system. In this context, “waste” applies to any activity that does not add value to the final product. By following the lean philosophy, organizations can focus on steps that create value—and eliminate those that generate wasted time, space (on the manufacturing floor, for example), and resources.

Proponents of the Lean Methodology seek a modular workflow that is as close to perfect as possible. To achieve this, they break down each transaction in the production process into micro-tasks. The aim: provide clients with the right product or service at the right time, in the right quantity.

“Lean is not for the faint-hearted. The complexities in terms of management and administration tend to multiply with the growth and expansion of an organization”―Matt Arney, TranslateNow Founder and CEO

This leads to a Just-in-Time (JIT) approach, an important element of the Transaction Process System. The JIT approach helps ensure higher levels of quality, economy, and effectiveness—all by provisioning products and services to the end client.

“Lean is not for the faint-hearted though,” explains Arney. “The complexities in terms of management and administration tend to multiply with the growth and expansion of an organization. Achieving and maintaining a lean process requires willingness to change, flexibility and, most importantly, continuous improvement,” he says.

From TEP (Translation Editing or Proofreading) to Lean Translation

Many have tried to link Lean Methodology to service management. Consider an attempt made in a larger business sector, software development. Here, lean has become a synonym for “agile.” Within an Agile context, the so-called SCRUM production strategy is made up of “sprints” and “iterations.”

Sprints are micro-tasks of the same short duration that can be reiterated and improved. In fact, mistakes from previous sprints can be fixed before moving on to the next phase. The entire workflow becomes faster, more flexible, and more predictable.

“Most waste within a translation process can be found at the start and end of a translation project.”

Some language service providers have already tried to implement Lean Translation. (Often, the suggestion has come from customers, who expect the benefits provided by Agile.) In some cases, language service providers have merely drawn inspiration from lean to satisfy requests for a faster turnaround time, lower costs, and higher quality.

So far, the attempts to apply Lean Translation have yielded variable results. In many cases, in-house staff and vendors have shown such staunch resistance that the company could not succeed with lean.

Mini Case Study in Lean Translation

When it came to launching TranslateNow, Arney chose Lean Translation from the start. It made sense for a brand new language service provider, one of only a handful headquartered in the San Francisco Bay area. TranslateNow’s business is centered around Lean Translation, and provides culturally fluent, full-service translation solutions for Fortune 500 companies in the United States.

“Legacy systems are hard to change and they have insane costs,” Arney notes. “With a Lean Translation approach, companies can respond to changing customer desires quickly and efficiently. Information management not only becomes simpler but also more accurate.”

Lean Translation and Big Business

A Lean Translation buying process has begun to resonate with many companies across all sectors. These days, lean plays an essential role in practically all organizations that belong to regulated industries, including manufacturing, life sciences, automotive, and consumer electronics.

In the case of files containing sensitive information (like MSDS, KIIDs, regulatory documents, shareholder material, etc.) or with specific languages, layouts and formats (Android XML, .NET, XLIFF, YAML, Java, DITA, etc.), it is fundamental that clients have an insight into the progress of the project. Clients must be sure that the translation will be processed as efficiently as possible.

Eliminating waste along entire value streams, instead of at isolated points, creates processes that need less human effort, less capital, and time to make products and services at far less cost and with much fewer defects, compared to traditional business systems.

“Waste” and the Translation Industry

“Most waste within a translation process can be found at the start and end of a translation project,” explains Arney. Taking a closer look at the conventional project workflow is telling: the project manager must analyze the files sent by the client, validate pricing, prepare quotes, wait for approval, pre-process documents for translation and schedule linguistic resources across many different time zones.

“The translation industry doesn’t talk a lot about it, but the typical financial workflow among language vendors is a mess.”

Once a translation is complete, there is the uploading and downloading of documents to an FTP server, more e-mail notifications, client review, TM updates, and archiving projects. And what about billing?

Arney discloses, “The translation industry doesn’t talk a lot about it, but the typical financial workflow among language vendors is a mess. Obtaining POs, invoicing clients, paying linguists and tracking down invoices is a major source of waste. Clients want to manage the bulk of this operation themselves without the involvement of sales or project managers.”

Leaning on Efficient Translation Technology

The core of a Lean Translation approach is the customization of the entire process. Clients can take ownership of how they want their product delivered.

Technology can be key to a Lean Translation approach. A modern management portal can allow project managers to send a quote within seconds, send and receive files, select and schedule the right translators, track their progress, and control the final delivery of the project.

Accurately identifying and selecting the right pool of linguists also becomes more efficient through automation: Lean Translation processes ensure that each translation project is assigned to an ad-hoc team of experts.

Companies incorporating the Lean Translation model may wish to automate the selection of linguists, based on certain criteria. “In the case of TranslateNow, when a project comes in, it is immediately analyzed and, depending on the language pair and subject matter, linguists are automatically notified,” Arney says. “Our selection process is a guarantee to clients that their important translation projects are not only in the hands of experts, but that they will be delivered on schedule,” he adds.

When it comes to speeding up the translation itself, computer-assisted translation tools (both online and offline) come into play, as does leveraging translation memories with previously translated texts to be reused. A client’s up-to-date terminology database can ensure the corporate brand is protected and their messages conveyed faithfully. To service customers who have neither highly sensitive content nor their own translation memories, translation service providers can rely on widely available language data repositories. All it takes to leverage these is the right technical expertise.

More Lean, Modern Technology

In website translation, a translation provider can opt to individually translate the various content files the traditional way. But clients who wish for their organization’s website to go global can go lean—and have their website ready in various languages much faster via proxy technology.

“For startups that want to communicate quickly across the globe, proxy technology can offer a quick, inexpensive solution without the need for internal IT resources,” Arney says.

Partnerships supply the oxygen in a Lean Translation ecosystem, enabling translation service providers to maintain focus and meet clients’ requests. Value-added partnerships, both in terms of expertise and of technology, can allow “lean” LSPs to offer more services, a higher level of quality, and better results to their customers.

“Clients want a more transparent, self sufficient ordering and delivery process. They want to independently track projects, download files and pay invoices while also avoiding the 10% PM markup.”

What Translation Clients Want

Until recently, Lean Translation has mostly been about reducing waiting time and conserving resources. But what are the benefits to the clients of Lean Translation service providers? The most obvious benefit to clients is cost savings. Translation service providers that employ traditional models often charge between 10% and 15% per project for project management. Through automation and streamlined workflows suppliers like TranslateNow have completely eliminated project management fees saving clients tens of thousands of dollars per year.

“Clients want a more transparent, self sufficient ordering and delivery process,” Arney insists. “They want to independently track projects, download files and pay invoices while also avoiding the 10% PM markup.”

TranslateNow recently introduced text notifications for clients who want to know exactly when they can download their translation project and release the product internally. It seems like a very simple thing, frequently used in B2C delivery, but nobody else is doing it yet.

Does Lean Translation Mean the End of Project Managers?

Lean Translation is about putting in place transparent, trackable processes, while leaving room for the human touch. “Lean Translation does not mean doing away with project managers,” says Arney. He points out, “In many ways, their role has even greater importance when building a Lean Translation model.”

“Clients want to work with local, experienced business professionals and troubleshoot issues face-to-face to discuss their ever-changing needs.”

Arney sees the need for project managers to bridge the massive culture gap that often exists between overseas translation suppliers and buyers here in the US. This gulf, he says, leads to frustrating late-night conference calls, unintelligible e-mails and insufficient information that play a major part in communication breakdowns and costly project delays.

“Clients want to work with local, experienced business professionals and troubleshoot issues face-to-face to discuss their ever-changing needs,” Arney emphasizes.

A Lean Translation model doesn’t mean the end of project managers, but instead provides a streamlined workflow to allow them to focus on the quality of translation and service, rather than creating endless emails.

“Lean translation is less about cutting costs than it is about ensuring consistent value, quality, and service to clients,” adds Arney. “The translation-buyer user experience is all that matters.”