How Words Can Mask Our Good Intentions

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 32 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 (“Tanaka-san”) 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 had worked over 30 years in the trenches of a noisy stamping plant, which means he was hard of hearing and consequently yelled everything he said. 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 his 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.

Here’s my breakdown of how a simple verbal exchange can mask good intentions and create undue fear.

The Defect.jpg

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

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2 responses to “How Words Can Mask Our Good Intentions

  1. Aloha Tim! Thank you. Valuable insights. One of my first mentors (I didn’t ask him to be my mentor but my father in law assigned him to watch over Noriko and me as we opened our first business in Aomori City) was a crane barge owner/operator and could not talk in a normal voice since he was used to yelling over the ocean and construction noises. His name was Hosokawa-san, and he would take Noriko and me to a local sushi place once per week for lunch to check in on us. Trying to get a handle on the conversation (besides a roaring voice he had a strong tsugaru dialect) I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. He roared at me (he also had a peg leg) that the American firebombed and killed his 8 brothers and sisters and he only survived because he fell down a well…and had to have his leg amputated. I kind of sat there stupefied….and then he roared with laughter and said “but I love Americans! They could have raped and pillaged but they instead helped us become a strong economic power”. Roaring voice but heart of gold.

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