Category Archives: leadership

How to Avoid Being Micromanaged by Your Japanese Boss

CrossCultMdl JE.jpg

On yesterday’s post, I introduced my communication model. Building on that foundation, today I’ll provide yet another concrete example of a typical communication breakdown that happens when Japanese and non-Japanese work together.

For some context, Japanese managers have an expression called “hōrensō.” It is actually an acronym made up of three Japanese words: 「報告」(hōkoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sōdan), which literally translates as “report-contact-consult.” Note that the acronym is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“hōrensō“), which makes it easy to remember. (For more details on the hōrensō process, check out The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss.)

Many non-Japanese believe that “hōrensō” is a form of micromanagement, but I see it as a tool to avoid being micromanaged, a technique to turn the tables and actually manage your Japanese boss. Granted, it can be time-consuming at first but think of it as an investment in your time to build trust, an essential condition to get your boss to back off and let you do your job.

So without further ado, here’s my analysis of how Japanese and non-Japanese are on different wavelengths in terms of how this concept is perceived. (Two examples are provided: one in English, one in Japanese.)


And the Japanese version…


Hope these visuals help.




The Cross-Cultural Communication Model


The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the right message.”

–Edward T. Hall

I recently resurrected a cross-cultural communication model that I developed years ago. It’s an elegant way to communicate not only the limited role of language in the communication process in general, but also the importance of hidden differences that too often prevent effective communication from happening. The Edward T. Hall quote above highlights the importance of the adage, “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Below are three charts. The first is the general communication model (in Japanese & English). The next two charts depict a concrete (and realistic) scenario that I plugged into the model (one in English, the other in Japanese).

Even concepts that seem simple on the surface can be far more complex than we imagine, and can lead to serious cross-cultural misunderstandings.

CrossCultMdl JE.jpg

To quote the late and great Peter Drucker:


Here’s an example of a deeply rooted cross-cultural misunderstanding even in a seemingly simple interaction.

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Here’s the Japanese version.


Hope you find the model and these examples useful.

10 Things We All Need to Apologize For

board-229730_960_720The other day an article scrolled onto my LinkedIn feed titled 10 Things to Never Apologize For Again. My first thought was that people in my culture don’t apologize enough. My second thought was, please don’t give my people more reasons not to apologize!

In fairness, it was a good list and the author made some great points.  Still, can’t help but think the world needs more apologizing, not less. So to get the universe back in balance, here’s my list of things we should always apologize for. In no particular order.

You should apologize if…

  1. … you overuse fancy jargon to make things sound more complicated than they are. (My field is the worst offender. Unless it’s actually rocket science, please speak plain English.)
  2. …you send connection requests on LinkedIn without a brief courtesy message. (A simple greeting will do.)
  3. …you are a keyboard warrior who flings insults online that you’d never dare say to someone’s face. (If you can’t be brave, at least be civil.)
  4. …you argue politics on social media, especially on LinkedIn. (Divisive and unproductive, business and politics are a bad combination.)
  5. …you think you have nothing to apologize for. (You do.)
  6. …you accuse everyone else of being in a bubble. (Proof you are living in the tiniest of bubbles.)
  7. …you assign yourself a pretentious business title that doesn’t exist in real life, like “Relationship Integration Versatilist,” (counselor) or Transparency Enhancement Technician (window washer).
  8. …you use nouns like “leverage” and “gift” as verbs. (Who gave these nouns permission to become verbs?)
  9. …you use words like “opulent,” “high-toned,” and “resonantly floral” to describe your coffee. (Just drink it and enjoy!)
  10. …you make lists of reasons people should apologize. (For that I sincerely apologize.)

It’s easy making this list for other people. Now try making one for yourself. Not so easy, and not nearly as much fun. But there’s a big upside: it’s a wonderful exercise in self-reflection.

What’s your list?

Mending Fences & Connecting Cultures in Japanese Overseas Subsidiaries


The client approached me for help. Tensions were high, productivity was low, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture.

Same old story.

This was going to be a tough gig. But the burden was on the client to make it meaningfulMy job was not to solve their problems, rather, to help them define their current situation so they could solve their own problems.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and accompanying emotional baggage muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, except without the marriage part.

I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by separately educating Japanese and non-Japanese staffs on each other’s cultures. Then I bring them together for a third session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. That’s when things get real.

At the beginning of each separate session, I have participants make lists of what they enjoy about working with the other culture and also what drives them crazy. No surprise the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “enjoy” lists, a telling statement about human nature. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings and cultural ramifications of their own comments, with a quick history and culture lesson thrown in for good measure. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, I translate both lists—Japanese and English—into the other language so each side clearly understands what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program fifteen years ago. I’m happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it’s not a walk in the park either. It’s a grind, in most cases with no single definitive turning point.

But each workshop takes on a life of its own, so I have to improvise. The one constant is education. I build on that with dialogue, self-reflection exercises (“hansei-kai”), and a brainstorming session at the end to invite ideas from participants on improving relations. If I have a “go-to” technique, it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the final joint session. If you can get both sides laughing together, then you’re almost home.

Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once conducted a workshop in which the Americans complained—as they always do—that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying the Japanese staff was intentionally withholding information from them. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese managers by surprise; they assumed as a matter of course that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decisions were supposed to be made.

The American participants learned in the training that these offline meetings were not aimed at shutting them out (well, most weren’t), that their Japanese counterparts routinely held small, offline meetings even in Japan when working exclusively with fellow Japanese. This revelation alone went a long way in placating the Americans.

During the joint session, a Japanese work group addressed the “secret meetings” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their offline meetings, they defaulted to the Americans’ description. With a straight face, a Japanese manager faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many secret meetings. So our countermeasure will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But imagine if context had not been provided. I might’ve had to break up my first fight.

But the participants in this particular engagement were a tougher crowd. In the initial Americans-only session, the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the causes of their problems. Still, no one was ready to sing Kum Ba Yah.

In contrast, the Japanese session started out completely tension free, but only because the Japanese managers were oblivious. When they learned just how resentful their American counterparts were, they grew visibly nervous.

Sometimes nervous is good.

Imagine my glee when the final joint session took a sudden, positive turn. After hearing numerous complaints from frustrated American counterparts on how they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the senior Japanese executive asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny island with no natural resources. Your town has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in the middle of this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention of insulting or disrespecting you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened; it was written all over their faces.

We didn’t sing Kum Ba Yah, but the rest of the session was fun, engaging, and productive. They even started laughing at my jokes. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they’d put more effort into communicating, cooperating, and socializing outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up and keep the lines of communication open.

In the end, the client made the session profoundly meaningful. I can’t overstate the importance of the senior Japanese executive’s apology in winning over the Americans, a testament to the power of humility in building bridges.

These tougher engagements are especially rewarding because they are so challenging; they are welcome reminders of my good fortune to work in a field that mends fences and connects people.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Americans More Rank Conscious Than the Japanese?

A friend just shared with me an interesting article, The Extra Legroom Society. It’s about America’s obsession with status, and it’s spot on.

This is where I confess that I’m complicit as hell. After all, I’m yet to turn down a First-Class upgrade offer from my airline, and don’t plan to in the future. (Does that make me a bad person?) But as an observer of my own culture from way back when, America’s obsession with status in the workplace has been obvious to me since returning to the U.S. some 27 years ago.

This was back in my former life as a transplant factory rat. During a late-night drinking session, a Japanese colleague confessed to me that before he came to the U.S., he read that America was an egalitarian society. But after he got here and worked with Americans for a couple months, he concluded that “Americans are more obsessed with rank and status than we Japanese, and we’re pretty bad.” He then proceeded to point out all the rank/status symbols that permeate corporate America: fancy suits, colorful neckties, private jets, the corner office, big salaries, reserved executive parking spots, executive cafeterias, not to mention reluctance by white collar types to get their hands dirty.

It’s hard to deny that we Americans were obsessed with status 27 years ago. The bad news is it’s gotten much worse.

Talk about a counter-intuitive value contradiction! Aren’t Japanese managers supposed to be hard-core Bushido authoritarians? And American counterparts casual and sensitive? If you believe in stereotypes, then yes.

I believe in reality so here’s my take: Americans pretend to be egalitarian because it’s a cultural ideal that we cherish, at least in the abstract. But we’re really into status too, perhaps driven by the ideal that America should be (at least on paper) a meritocracy where any person with the drive and talent can succeed? 

To the Japanese credit, at least they’re honest about their rank-consciousness. They don’t pretend there isn’t a pecking order. The Confucian hierarchy is woven into the fabric of their collective society, out in the open where they can deal with it, even choose to downplay it. Speaking from my experience in Japanese manufacturing, most J-managers took great pains to downplay rank, easy to do when everyone knows their place in the pecking order. In concrete terms, Japanese managers routinely work on the factory floor, wear the same uniforms as production associates, share the same cafeteria, fight for the same parking spaces, and get their hands dirty everyday.

In contrast, too many Americans are in denial about their love of status and rank. We deal with it like anyone else deals with a value contradiction: through cognitive dissonance–like being on a first-name basis with the boss while knowing in your heart of hearts you’re not equal, or accepting that First Class upgrade and the added perk of boarding the plane before those poor souls condemned to coach.

As the attached article states, our society continues to ratchet up the status game. Can’t help but wonder if a cultural backlash is coming.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

On Driving Change Across Cultures & Rolling in the Mud

Installment #6 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1)

The Power of the Team(2)

Leading with Dirty Hands(3)

The Anatomy of Productivity(4)

The Team Owns It(5)

It’s tough enough introducing change into a monoculture organization–although it’s hard to imagine such an animal even exists today in our global economy. But let’s face it, people of all cultural persuasions resist change.

Let me rephrase that: People of all cultural persuasions resist change that’s forced on them. And this is really the crux of the matter.

To use an extreme example, suppose I’m living happily in my home back in Chicago, and suddenly the government knocks on my door and tells me they’re going to build a highway right through my living room, so I have to move out. Needless to say I’d be ticked off and resistant to leaving. If I really loved that home I might even chain myself to a tree when the bulldozers arrived. Or worse, hire a lawyer.

On the flip side, if I were living in the same house but decided on my own to move to, say, Hawaii because I’m sick of shoveling snow, then the decision to change would be mine, and therefore a good thing.

The moral of the story is that forcing change on people breeds resistance. The optimum way to work around this human flaw is through education, engagement and involvement. You educate employees–especially the resisters–to understand the current situation and that there’s a better way; you have them collect the data, help them understand what it means, and challenge them to come up with their own solutions to improving their own work areas. If it’s their idea, they are more likely to put it into practice than if it’s yours.

But whether change is forced or not, when you throw different cultures and languages into the soup, introducing change gets exponentially more challenging. Not only do you have to cope with the normal resistance all people have to change, but you’ve also got hidden culture gaps messing with everyone’s heads.  The logical approach then is to find and tap into common values and motivations that can keep the different cultures “glued” together. The good news is that once common ground is established and the team properly educated, multi-culture workplaces rock with the best of them.

Pulling It All Together

Hope it’s clear by now that the point of my ramblings isn’t about factories and industrial engineering. It’s about applying the broader principles that drive and nurture positive change in any organization.

And to that point, a brief recap:

Improvement starts and ends with structured teams of competent, educated, and motivated employees led by leaders willing to get their hands dirty.

In getting the team to embrace its mission—whether it’s productivity improvement or developing an on-line marketing campaign—it is persuasive and therefore effective to start with the big picture before burdening the troops with details. Context is critical for a shared understanding and eventual buy-in. In my experience, the “deductive” approach has been effective in communicating with cultures around the world.

And while it’s necessary to provide context, ultimately the team has to own the project for any good to come of it. They own it by doing the work, from data collection to analysis to brainstorming through implementation and follow up. The leader’s job is to advise, support and catch folks when they fall. And occasionally roll around in the mud with ’em.

But if you do just one thing right, make sure it’s building solid relationships up, down and across the organization, accomplished by generously sharing knowledge and being humble enough to learn from others, especially the folks on the front lines who are creating value for the organization.

My years as a manufacturing consultant weren’t much fun. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It broadened my understanding of business and management, taught me how to strategically approach improvement, and hooked me up with some quality people who are still friends today.

Thanks to all my great Japanese mentors–even the crazy samurai mentors–it shouldn’t surprise that my management style has a distinct shoyu flavor. And yet, as much as I respect the improvement approach used by these mentors, it has, as my Japanese boss liked to say, “much room for improvement.”

We’ll revisit the “big picture” in a future post, next time from forty-thousand feet. Coming soon.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Driving Change with a Samurai Boss: The Team Owns It

Installment #5 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1)

The Power of the Team(2)

Leading with Dirty Hands(3)

The Anatomy of Productivity(4)

After our team members understood the three key dimensions of productivity, we’d show them exactly what data needed to be collected to measure those dimensions, and specifically how to collect it.

For measuring work methods we often used time studies, sometimes predetermined time standards based on time-motion studies. For measuring performance we used a combination of historical data and time or motion studies. For utilization we used a statistical technique called “work sampling” whereby we’d conduct thousands of random observations in the factory to measure, within a certain margin of error, uptime of both equipment and operators.

As you can see, except for our initial big-picture “classroom” training, the rest of the learning would have to be earned through actual work, an offshoot approach of the old Japanese apprenticeship model.

In kicking off the data-collection process we would go to the floor with team members and show them how to use a stopwatch then take it from there.

Together we’d perform work-sampling observations as well. In both cases we’d stay with our teammates until they got the hang of it. When they were ready to fly on their own we’d cut them loose. From this point on, they owned it.

Meanwhile we’d set up spread sheets and have them input all the data they were collecting. The spreadsheet outputs were charts and graphs showing line-balances, man-machine relationships, workload breakdowns, etc. When all the data was in, our senior Japanese consultants would analyze it together with the team, and make sure everyone understood “the current situation.”

Then we’d get to the fun part.

Let the Team Decide What to Do

Once our team reached consensus on the “current situation” of our target production line (including waste, problems, challenges, etc.,) we’d follow up with a brainstorming session where we requested input from everyone, with assurances that we welcomed even the craziest ideas. They never let us down.

Brainstorming is absolutely where my American compatriots shined, and it shouldn’t surprise. Americans pride themselves on being creative, fun, crazy, and out of the box—and it’s not like we’re shy about expressing our opinions or anything.

But if we Americans do have a weak point, it’s that our crazy ideas sometimes come with a cost. Hey, the company has lots of money, let’s buy new computers and automate everything!

The mindset of the Japanese, in contrast, is geared toward brainstorming high-impact-low-cost improvement ideas, picking the proverbial low-hanging fruit if you will. Japanese want to exhaust all the cheap ideas before spending any serious money, the essence of lean thinking when you get right down to it. And to get our American team members in the same lean state of mind, we had the perfect tool—we called it “ABC Analysis.”

ABC Analysis is a prioritization exercise aimed at identifying optimum ideas to implement first. From a human psychology perspective, it allows the team to participate in not only creating the ideas, but also participate in filtering out and prioritizing those ideas, based on a guiding criteria, for example, only using high-impact, low-cost, easy-to-implement measures, etc.

Using lean criteria virtually guarantees an attractive return on investment and (most important for us as a business entity), justified the amount of money the client would spend to retain our services; otherwise we weren’t adding value and they didn’t need us.

After we narrowed our list to the leanest meanest measures our imaginations could muster, we’d develop a return-on-investment analysis for upper management’s review along with a detailed implementation plan. Since we only selected high-impact-low-cost ideas, the ROI always looked good and we’d quickly win leadership’s approval. From this point forward the pressure was on us, as success hinged on the effectiveness of the team we were leading.

And our teams never let us down. In all projects we achieved productivity improvement results well into the double digits. Japanese leaders who worked for our clients marveled at how we got Japanese and American team members to work together so effectively. It wasn’t easy for sure. But it wasn’t rocket science either. Amazing what a little education and communication can do to get folks playing nice with each other.

I shake my head when people suggest that the “human dimension” is missing in the field of industrial engineering. As someone who walked in those moccasins, I can tell you that everything we did was human driven. It all came down to human psychology, human motivations, human limitations, human potential, human relationships. Our job was to orchestrate a harmonious union between wonderful but imperfect and inconsistent human beings, with technology, toward the goal of producing perfect products for demanding customers. It was both an art and a science applied at the intersection of two strikingly different cultures, truly a cultural anthropologist’s dream.

It was meaningful because there was no ambiguity, nothing theoretical about it; everything we did was quantified and analyzed. Either we hit our targets or we didn’t. (And we almost always did.) And yet it’s impossible to quantify exactly how much of an impact our cross-cultural “connecting” skills had on achieving these results. What I can say for sure is that without communication, nothing would have happened. Nothing.

And that brings us to our last post in this series, coming up next, Driving Change Across Cultures.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012