Lean-thinking the translation process: Typing is wasteful

Lire en français : Taper, c’est gaspiller…

I trust the header image and title of this post tell the story. Here is, however, a little more meat for the avid, hungry readers.

One of the business strategies executives and entrepreneurs in all industries are being taught nowadays is to adopt the lean-thinking philosophy. Lean is about creating “processes that need less human effort, less space, less capital, and less time to make products and services at far less costs and with much fewer defects, compared with traditional business systems” (lean.org).

Lean proposes a new way of organizing human activities to deliver more benefits to society and value to individuals. It aims at reducing or, better still, eradicating waste, that is, any activity or step in a process that does not add value. When wasteful elements are removed from a production line, for example, employees can focus their skills and time on quality work.

Lessons from the Sensei  masters

The lean-thinking philosophy was inspired from the Japanese car manufacturing industry. In the 1950s, “Sensei” masters in lean thinking would challenge Toyota line managers, for instance, to look differently at their practices by focusing on:


  • The workplace and observing current workflows and work conditions. It is a mark of respect for employees and the opportunity to add value by implementing employees’ ideas and initiatives, instead of attempting to create value through prescribed work.
  • Customer and employee satisfaction, and understanding that it is built-in at every step of the process.
  • Kaizen”. In Japanese, it literally means “change for the better.” Perfection is sought through a commitment to improve things step-by-step, seeking one hundred 1% improvements rather than one 100% leap forward. 

Getting rid of what doesn’t add value

Among the mantras of the lean movement is “eradicate waste”What this means for businesses is that they must understand processes and eliminate all the barriers that slow down or impede the flow.

The translation industry has tirelessly strived to eradicate waste in many ways. In fact, the very reason translation memory systems came into being some three decades ago was the three-R philosophy: reduce, reuse and recycle. Since then, enormous progress has been made in the development of add-in applications designed to increase productivity and reduce the time and effort human translators spend on different tasks.


However, there is one element of the overall translation process that has been overlooked so far: the use of the traditional (mechanical) keyboard as the one and only text input device. I certainly would not set a keyboard on fire and then photograph it; many have done that already. Nonetheless I am one of the few translation researchers who have investigated the use of the keyboard-and-mouse interface by human translators. Beyond translation, hundreds of thinkers and researchers have demonstrated that the traditional PC environment is a major impediment for cognitive performance, creativity and productivity. This is particularly true for natural-language communication tasks.


I have personally observed that almost 10% of the typing activity by translators involves hitting the space bar, and that deleting, correcting typos, and navigating the cursor around using the arrow keys account for 15-35% of keystrokes. Wasteful practice that is begging for a Lean solution. I have also observed that translators are 3-7 times slower when they type than when they speak or read aloud a text in a natural way (with French being the most keyboard-unfriendly language in my investigations yet!).

Interactive translation dictation: An efficient solution just around the corner

To eradicate waste and add more value to human translators, InTr Technologies is lean-thinking the translation process by introducing the human voice as the primary input mode in translation. Beyond other natural language processing applications which, for decades, have benefited the industry and improved translators’ productivity, today’s voice-enabled applications are robust and particularly attractive for the industry. Speech is possibly the oldest tool humans have used to communicate, and it is still the most natural way to do so.

A quote I read recently inspired me, and it should inspire translators, translation project managers and other stakeholders in the industry to start thinking differently:


“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” – Alvin Toffler.

Effectively integrating voice recognition technology into the translation process will necessarily imply unlearning to type, learning to use voice applications effectively and relearning to dictate translations, as many translators did in the days before PCs.

It is time to bid farewell to the mechanical keyboard and begin adopting “a leaner way of thinking” in translation. It is time to eradicate wasteful actions in the translation process that do not add value, and empower human translators through interactive translation dictation. It is possible to start now! Ask us how…


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