Driving Change with a Samurai Boss

“There are two kinds of Japanese bosses: the enlightened zen master and the crazy samurai.”

–long-time American employee of a Japanese-owned company

Back in the mid 1990s I worked for a Japanese management consultancy that specialized in productivity improvement. When they hired me I had eight years of manufacturing under my belt, two years in production control, four in sales, the rest in cross-cultural consulting with a focus on manufacturing operations.

So for me this was a new direction, one that entailed excruciatingly detailed analyses of factory operations and good old-fashioned industrial engineering. There was nothing sexy about it. My Japanese colleagues described our profession as “dorokusai,” literally “smelling of earth,” a euphemism for in-the-trenches and unrefined. The opposite of sexy.

But below the unsexy surface were some timeless principles and techniques geared toward introducing change into any organization with minimal resistance, a tall order in any case. Throw in cultural and linguistic barriers and the order gets even taller.

My Japanese boss was an expert at making factories efficient. A seasoned factory rat who looked exactly the part, he came to work everyday with disheveled hair wearing wrinkled clothes. He had a nervous habit of pursing his lips and sticking out his tongue, something clients found either amusing or disturbing, depending on how well they knew him. (He was harmless.) And if you dressed him up in a two-thousand-dollar suit, my boss would still look like a factory rat. In an expensive suit.

But the guy deserved his props; he knew his stuff, shared his knowledge generously, and treated me with respect. His achilles heal was his people skills. He was awkward enough with fellow Japanese, so no surprise he was clueless in dealing with non-Japanese folks as well.

Conversely, I was clueless about industrial engineering but good at connecting people. So our skills were complementary, and it turned out to be a tremendous learning experience for me.

But I’d be lying if I said the gig was fun. The work had its perks for sure, the learning part the big one. But our days were long. We lived out of a suitcase five days a week and ate at bad restaurants. Our boss, a good person deep down with noble intentions, was a controlling hard ass, the classic old-school “crazy Samurai” manager. And I swear he smelled just like the earth. Dorokusai.

And it’s not like we were working in happening places like New York, Chicago or LA. Nope. We were in places that made Mayberry look exciting, like Greencastle Indiana or Blanchester Ohio, where they rolled up the sidewalks at night just before we’d get off work. These were lovely places inhabited by nice people, but there wasn’t much to do. Thankfully we didn’t have the energy after work to do anything anyway. My idea of an exciting evening was clipping my toenails and watching TV in the privacy of my hotel room. Eventually got so sick of hotels that even now when I go on vacation, I’ll rent a house instead of a room because hotels remind me too much of those lonely days on the road.

My whining aside, the work was challenging and meaningful. I learned more in those two years than the previous ten. The big lesson I took from the experience was the strategic approach my samurai boss and mentors took to introducing change into the workplace. In the next few posts over the coming week I’ll cover the key takeaways from my adventures, namely: The Power of the Team; Leading with Dirty Hands; the Importance of Big Picture Communication; Creating Team Ownership; and finally, Driving Change Across Cultures.

Keep in mind that while the focus and related examples will be in manufacturing, the basic principles apply in any industry, any culture. Tomorrow we’ll start with The Power of the Team.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

One response to “Driving Change with a Samurai Boss

  1. Love this, sounds strangely familiar.

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