The Physics of Responsibility: Can It Really Roll Uphill?

“If you want to create a certain result, you must create the conditions that will absolutely force that result to occur.

Kazuma Tateishi, Founder of Omron

One of my most memorable experiences in a Japanese-run factory happened several months after I arrived in the Deep South from Kanagawa Japan some 24 years ago. The plant was brand-spanking new, thanks to the multi-million dollar investment the Japanese parent company made to gain a foothold into the U.S. automotive market.

Walking into the plant one morning, our Japanese Manufacturing Engineer (Mr. “Tanaka”) approached me in a tizzy. He said he just received a complaint from the customer that we had shipped a defective part, and that they expected us to identify the root cause and issue a corrective action report.

Tanaka-san grabbed my sleeve and dragged me out to the assembly line where the part in question was made. He wanted me to interpret.

It’s worth mentioning that Tanaka-san had worked over 30 years in the trenches of a noisy stamping plant. No surprise he was hard of hearing and consequently yelled everything he said. So I knew I had to tread carefully in facilitating the interaction that was about to happen.

As we approached the line operator, Tanaka-san barked, “Tim-san, tell her the customer found a defect, and ask if she’s ever noticed any weak, non-conforming welds?”

I interpreted.

“I only make quality parts,” said the operator. “That defect didn’t come from me!”

I interpreted.

Mr. Tanaka said, “She seems like she’s afraid of something.”

I agreed, but didn’t mention that his loud demeanor might have something to do with it. Then I added, “She thinks you’re blaming her.”

Well this took Mr. Tanaka by surprise. He turned to me and yelled, “I would never blame her. If anyone is to blame it’s me, because my responsibility is to make sure our operators have stable processes that always make good parts.”

Now imagine the look on the operator’s face after I interpreted, as the poor lady wondered why Tanaka-san was screaming this kind of message: the incongruence of the words and demeanor must’ve blown her mind.

Truth is Tanaka-san’s thought-process was a revelation to me too, so I was as stunned as the operator. But as my experience and insights into Japanese management grew deeper over the years, I came to realize that this thought-process permeates Japanese manufacturing culture in general, certainly in the elite Japanese companies. It would take several more years before I learned that a Japanese business legend, Kazuma Tateishi, had actually coined a term for this way of thinking. He called it “the Theory of Provided Conditions.”

A Business Leader with a Social Conscience

Kazuma Tateishi, founder of Omron, is one of my heroes. One reason is because he was one of Japan’s rare leaders who had the will, talent and intellect to build revive his company from the devastation of postwar Japan.

The other reason is he believed that the corporate enterprise was a public servant for the community at large. (Don’t dismiss this as pure altruism; Tateishi also believed that, in the long run, “those who serve society best will win.”)

And Tateishi put his money where his mouth is: he built a new company, Omron Taiyo in Kyushu, that he staffed entirely with severely handicapped people. Out of respect for these special-needs employees, he held them to the same standards and operational goals that he did with employees in all his other divisions. To his delight, they consistently exceeded his assigned targets and turned a profit within just a year. In Tateishi’s own words:

“…the creation of this company has allowed handicapped persons to become taxpaying, productive members of society. Here is a prime example of ‘the company as public service.’ Moreover, successfully overcoming the risks of creating a “social service factory,” which no other large or medium-sized company had been willing to accept, was just the sort of challenge that Omron, with our venture spirit, likes to take on.”

Putting aside Tateishi’s commendable public service philosophy, what impresses me most from a business standpoint is his cerebral, strategic approach to management and leadership.

Big-Business Disease

In the early 1980s Tateishi was worried about his growing company succumbing to what he called “big-business disease.” As Omron’s divisions grew and widened their scope of activities, so did his division managers’ responsibilities. Tateishi’s remedy for big-business disease was predicated on The Theory of Provided Conditions, the belief that if management wants to create a certain result, then they must first create the conditions that make that result inevitable.

To achieve these ends Tateishi restructured. He selected a small number of managers to lead his divisions, then put them into a structure that forced them to take responsibility–whether they liked it or not! He assigned each of them the same responsibilities as those of the President of a medium-sized company, including Profit and Loss, the balance sheet, cash flow, research and development, and so on. Omron’s corporate restructuring hence created the conditions whereby Tateishi’s divisions had no choice but to become venture businesses.

Confucian Leadership

This is not to say that Tateishi invented the Theory of Provided Conditions, but he certainly crystallized a fundamental management concept that many Japanese managers employ today without even thinking about it. But the approach is only made possible if one embraces certain assumptions about the nature of people and the role of leaders in an organization.

When I was first introduced to Tateishi’s legacy (and specifically his book The Eternal Venture Spirit), and got to the part about the Theory of Provided Conditions, the light bulbs started clicking on. Suddenly the experience with Mr. Tanaka and the operator made perfect sense. Behind Tanaka-san’s approach were some very big, unspoken cultural assumptions with an internal logic. To wit:

1)    People are basically good; they innately aspire to do quality work

2)    Blaming employees is counterproductive, as fear only motivates them to hide mistakes

3)    Continuous improvement is impossible when mistakes are hidden

4)    People who make products are human, not perfect

5)    The customer expects perfection

6)    Responsibility rolls uphill

Logical conclusion–it is management’s job to provide the conditions that ensure imperfect people make only perfect parts all the time.

The problem with these assumptions is they don’t necessarily crossover into other cultures, certainly not individualistic cultures like America that believe “the individual is responsible for his own actions”. No doubt the proverbial troops in the trenches in even the most culturally American organization would gladly embrace the above thinking, but you’d be lucky to find takers in middle management, where everyone knows “the shit rolls downhill” and it’s every man for himself.

Ironically corporate America provides conditions conducive to hiding mistakes, covering one’s ass, which naturally leads to finger-pointing.

Case Study in an American Factory

When I was hired as plant manager to run an American factory, I immediately moved my desk out of the front office onto the shop floor where the action is. A couple weeks into the gig I remember my 1st shift supervisor approaching my desk, handing me a piece of paper and saying, “Tim, when you get a chance would you please sign this?”

I looked at the document. Written across the top in capital letters was “CORRECTIVE ACTION.”

As I read on, it soon became apparent that the document was what we used to call an “employee write up”–except it was disguised as an improvement tool. (Someone apparently had taken a Total Quality Management course and decided that if you change the words from “Write Up” to “Corrective Action” then your systems will somehow produce zero defects.)

Continuing the conversation, I went into detective mode, “What’s the purpose of this document?”

“Well, the operator passed a defect that made it to the customer. It’s his first incident, but we have to record his mistake. We have a 3-strikes policy so he has two more chances before he’s terminated”

“So if I sign this document does this mean the problem is solved and that no more defective parts will reach the customer?”

She stammered, “Um, I don’t think so…”

“Then why do I need to sign this?”

“Because it’s HR’s policy to document all operator mistakes.”

“Do you think that’s fair?” I asked. “No one documents my mistakes. I’ve made a lot more than three, and I’ve only been here a couple weeks.”

“Well, it’s our policy…”

“The way I see it, if the operator failed to make a good part in a process that management established, then management has to accept most of the responsibility when the process fails.”

Now she was really confused. It had never occurred to her that maybe management had a hand in making the defect.

Then a sudden flash of inspiration hit me: I scratched out the operator’s name on the CORRECTIVE ACTION, and wrote mine.

“You’re going to write yourself up?”

Almost blurted out, “I thought it was a ‘corrective action’!”–but held my tongue.

I continued: “Look, the operator makes $20,000 a year at best. Managers make a lot more than that so we have to accept more responsibility. And this means if my subordinate makes a mistake then I own the mistake too.” Then I added with tongue in cheek, “And since this person also works for you, maybe I should put your name on this Corrective Action too?”

She didn’t like that idea.

“Introduce me to the operator,” I said.

So together we walked through the plant to the operator’s workstation. As I approached the operator with the dreaded corrective action in hand, his face turned pale. The poor operator was certain I was there to punish him.

I introduced myself and he did the same. Then I apologized for not providing a stable process that made consistent quality parts, and tore up the Corrective Action sheet. Totally blew his mind.

“I’m not going to write you up. But in return I need you to be part of the improvement team to help fix this problem so it never happens again. Since you run the job everyday, you’re the most knowledgeable person about the process. We need your help. Would you help us?”

The operator was thrilled to be part of the solution. He joined my new improvement team and immediately became a contributor.

Working together on this project we grew closer and I learned that the operator had immigrated to the U.S., and that not only was he an engineer in his home country, he was also a carpenter and welder. He eventually became a full-time member of our improvement team, and evolved into one of our most valuable employees.

It’s worth summarizing the moral of this story: if you take a punitive approach to managing employees you create fear; if employees are afraid, they hide their mistakes, it’s only human nature. And if they hide their mistakes then the problems will never get to the surface where they can be rectified. Continuous improvement is impossible unless you drive fear out of the organization (exactly what American TQM guru Edwards Deming articulated in his 8th Principal).

This story also highlights one of the biggest obstacles in creating a continuous improvement culture in corporate America. Japanese culture has Confucianism, a legacy that supports the notion of responsibility rolling uphill, if not in reality then at least in principle. Unfortunately most Americans are familiar with the adage that “the shit rolls downhill”. In an American factory environment, it means the poor operator on the production line ends up holding the bag of shit.

Teaching any American organization to roll responsibility uphill is one of the toughest nuts to crack from a cross-cultural point of view. It is so counter to America’s “individual responsibility” paradigm, so threatening to American managers, that few leaders are willing to belly up to the bar and say “it’s my fault now let’s fix it”.

Still, I believe some American companies have the right values and leaders in place to make The Theory of Provided Conditions work for them. In future posts I’ll examine and analyze the basic elements of this philosophy so organizations can decide for themselves if TOPC will work for them.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


5 responses to “The Physics of Responsibility: Can It Really Roll Uphill?

  1. Aloha Tim! Excellent post! Would be interested in your take on the Olympus scandal unfolding because a foreign CEO followed up on media articles about possible fraud committed by the board of directors and was immediately fired for “not understand Japanese culture”. Noriko thinks he shouldn’t have made the accusations public because it harmed the company. I applauded him for his efforts because fraud had been committed and investors had been mislead. Saw a lot of this post bubble in Japanese firms I consulted for…your take?

  2. I suspected this issue would be raised–or worse the behavior of TEPCO. I have been following the Olympus scandal and am especially interested in the yakuza angle; after reading Jake Adelstein’s “Tokyo Vice” and also Robert Whiting’s “American gangster in Japan”, I realized just how deeply the yakuza permeate the Japanese business world. Indeed, Japan has a dark side that the Olympus scandal is now bringing to the fore.

    So some disclaimers are called for…First, to avoid giving the impression that I’m claiming all of Japan operates according to The Theory of Provided Conditions, I chose my words very carefully, limiting the cultural practice to Japan’s “elite manufacturing companies”. But even there TOPC is not always practiced. My point is that the principle is well-established, especially at the Japanese mid-manager level. It’s part of the shared-responsibility paradigm that comes with collectivist thinking that believes the group lives and dies together.

    Unfortunately, Olympus clearly had some bad eggs at the top who lacked the courage to accept responsibility for the company’s poor performance, and chose instead to commit fraud to cover their asses and, I’m guessing here, line their pockets. Ditto for TEPCO and the Japanese government. Government-business collusion is never a good thing. Of course we see it here in America so as I see it, it’s more of a structural problem that one of culture.

    Why do so many Japanese folks believe that the Olympus CEO blowing the whistle was wrong? Because it goes against so many of their values: collectivism, loyalty to one’s “inner” group (uchi-soto mentality), and obviously maintaining the “face” of the collective by not airing one’s dirty laundry.

    Why do so many Americans believe that the CEO was right to blow the whistle? Because Western culture values “the truth”, and America in particular values “fairness”

    Last disclaimer: just because our respective cultures value these principles doesn’t mean we always adhere to them. There is always a gap between the ideal and the reality. All cultures of the world have their bad eggs. It’s so sad that a few greedy, corrupt people at the top of the organization destroyed the good reputation of an iconic Japanese company. If Olympus has a chance to restore it’s good name, it would be to hire back the British CEO who blew the whistle, and let him turn the company around.

    Hopefully the Yakuza don’t get to him first…

  3. A follow up footnote here on an edit above. A Japanese reader was kind enough to send me a link to the wikipedia entry on Omron’s history. After reading that Omron was actually established in 1933 then incorporated in 1948, I decided to change the word “build” to “revive’, in the following passage: “…(Kazuma Tateishi) was one of Japan’s rare leaders who had the will, talent and intellect to build revive his company from the devastation of postwar Japan“.

  4. Hi Tim, Thanks for your article on Dr. Tateishi (also spelled TATEISI sometimes). An OUTSTANDING man and human being. I had the great pleasure of knowing him and working in the USA operations as Exec VP and ultimately, as President of Omron Business Systems, Inc. I had the occasion to visit Japan over 100 times during my time at Omron and, frequently Dr. Tateishi would make a surprise visit to just say hello when he heard I was in town. One of my favorite quotes is the motto: “To the machine, the work of the machine; to Man, the Thrill of further creation.” This pretty much summarizes Dr. Tateishi and his creative thinking.

    Robert J J Gaudio

    • Thanks for your comment Robert (and also your email), sorry it took so long to respond to this, I was on the road when you posted it so it scrolled off my radar.

      Tateishi’s philosophy had a great impact on my management style as well, even though I never worked for Omron. He was a visionary for sure, a disciple of Peter Drucker so his philosophy resonated with me.

      As an aside, we used to live close to the Omron office in the Chicago ‘burbs (we lived in Hoffman Estates) and even had some contact with Omron folks way back when.

      Thanks again for taking time to post your thoughts.

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