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Kaizen Interpreting
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Kaizen Interpreting
By Mary Fons, AIB
Unlike industrial workers and most business managers, freelance conference interpreters spend the lion's share of our working time on our own, with no timekeepers or supervisors, setting our own goals and allocating our time among many tasks: studying hard for specific interpreting assignments, of course, but also reading for general knowledge, keeping up all of our working languages, booking travel and accommodation, accounting, filing taxes, liaising with clients, networking with colleagues, and so on and so forth. All this, and trying to make sure we have a life, as well.
There are few objective standards we are held to. Clients and colleagues alike generally appreciate punctuality, courteousness, consistency and accuracy, but some prioritize specialist knowledge, others emphasize communication impact and others just want cheap rates. All the same, these standards are rather blurry and probably need to be, given the huge variation we get.
Interpreting a World Class Manufacturing audit for the first time is a revealing experience, not to mention an opportunity to pick up a few Japanese words. People who work in companies that implement WCM are holding each other to increasingly higher standards of accuracy, safety, and efficiency. It's fascinating to learn about how poka yokes can help avert serious mistakes in very simple ways, such as shaping a part so that it can only fit into the next part with the correct alignment, and no other. We hear a lot about getting rid of the three sources of inefficiency, mura, muda and muri (wasted resources, variability, and overburdening). It's hard to remember which is which, but luckily we can leave these words in Japanese! The interesting bit is that it changes your focus, and suddenly you're spotting them all over the place.
Then we go home and turn to our own work, which is so very difficult to standardize, and while half our soul is glad not to be under this particular kind of stress, the other half would really like a good system to help us streamline our quoting, billing and bookkeeping. And some of us grapple with an important question: Am I meeting my own quality standards? Since the standards are blurry in the first place, that's hard to figure out.

So here's my latest approach to this question, and it's another Japanese word, kaizen, which I originally learned in a WCM context. I came across it again last summer in a non-work-related context, when I started to teach myself to swim better using online material rather than finding a personal trainer to yell at me to swim harder. The idea of kaizen swimming in the Total Immersion method is to focus on improving one small aspect at a time, starting with the easy pickings. I now think of my approach to interpreting overall as kaizen: every week I will try to focus on improving one important thing at a time. With so much variety and stress in our work lives, it's easy to end up running around in headless chicken mode trying to do everything, whether or not others can tell this is what is happening. I hope to use the kaizen approach to counter that tendency.

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