When it comes to managing and preventing friction in the mixed Japanese-American workplace, one of the toughest nuts to crack is reconciling the two cultures’ starkly different approaches to decision-making. Consider what happens on a human level when Japanese and American decision-making styles collide.
American Gripes About Japanese Decision-Making
In my cross-cultural seminars, I like to kick off sessions with small group activities, at which time I ask each group to collectively make a list of what they enjoy about working with the other side and also what drives them crazy. (On both sides of the cultural divide, the “drives-them-crazy” comments nearly always outnumber the “enjoy” comments, a telling glimpse into human nature.) The comments are as interesting as they are enlightening. Common American gripes include:
“It takes forever for Japanese to make decisions.”
“Japanese want too much data—’analysis paralysis.'”
“Japanese have ‘secret meetings’ that exclude Americans.”
“We (Americans) go to meetings to debate an issue to make the best possible decision, but the Japanese always make decisions prior to the meeting.”
“Japanese don’t involve Americans in the decision-making process.”
“Japanese don’t like to take risks.”
Japanese Have Plenty of Gripes
On the other side of the cultural divide, consider what Japanese managers say about Americans:
“Take action without understanding the problem.
“Don’t gather enough data and don’t conduct root-cause analysis.
“Don’t practice plan-do-check-adjust.”
“Aren’t data-driven and instead prefer to act on their feelings.”
“Don’t take time to understand the current situation.”
“Take shortcuts through trial-error without proper follow-up, a risky approach that can create unintended consequences.”
“Are specialists, take action without consulting with other departments, and don’t try to view problems from various perspectives.”
“Take risks lightly then don’t accept responsibility when failures occur.”
As someone with one foot in each culture, my first observation is that both sides don’t always practice what they preach. I also happen to believe that there is some truth to what each side is saying. Stating the obvious, these gripes are based on perceptions heavily influenced by culture—the “truth” as each side sees it. It is open to debate on how accurate each side is in its assessment of the other side.
The intent of this article is not to take sides. Depending on the context, one could argue that in some situations, the “American way” (whatever that means) works, and other times the “Japanese way” works. (It’s worth noting here that former Japanese bosses used to swear up and down that they were just practicing their own version of the “Deming way”; Deming, of course, was an American.)
My thought has always been that if someone can figure out how to combine the disciplined Japanese cross-functional approach to defining problems with American efficiency and creativity, it would be a game-changer. Easier said than done, but a worthy aspiration to pursue.
Be that as it may, below is my analysis of the key disconnects at play below the linguistic surface when Japanese and my compatriots talk about “making a decision.” Unless these disconnects are understood by both sides, the twain will never meet.