Tag Archives: 1-minute insight

One Minute Insight: The Art of Japanese Kikubari Service

What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!


One Minute Insight: The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

The 2nd installment of “One Minute Insights.” Feedback is welcome.

Go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!

One-Minute Insight: What Japanese Say About Foreign Customer Service

What do Japanese say about our customer service when we’re not around? And what can we do about it? The answers are a click away.

This is a new on-line training concept I recently developed with the help of a friend. A big mahalo to Roberto De Vido for help on the graphics and visuals!

Feedback is welcome. My first installment, so go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!

The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

Okay, there’s no secret. But over the years I picked up some techniques–some I learned from my father, others from Japanese colleagues–to avoid being micromanaged by a Japanese boss. These are the most important:

“Hear 1 Do 10”

My very first Japanese boss told me this the first day of work, meaning he expected me to be observant, read between the lines, process the information around me, then take initiative without specifically being told what to do. Thankfully it’s exactly how my father raised me; I still remember dad telling me that if I ever ran out of work that I shouldn’t wait for instructions; that I should pick up a broom, or find something else constructive to do without being told. This foundation made it easy for me to adapt to the Japanese expectation that employees take initiative.


The other key concept is what Japanese managers call “HORENSO,” an acronym, made up of three Japanese words 「報告」(hokoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sodan). The acronym literally means “report-contact-consult”, but it’s pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“horenso“), making it easy to remember.

Here’s an easy way to understand this concept: your boss tells you to do “1”; you take initiative and do 1, 2, 3. Then you go back to your boss to show him what you did. He pulls out his red pen and tells you everything you did wrong (usually without any praise); you in turn fix your “mistakes,” then proceed to do 4, 5, 6. Repeat the drill with Japanese boss and red pen. After fixing the red marks on 4, 5, 6 you proceed to 10, then once again repeat drill with boss and red pen.

Some of my American compatriots think HORENSO is “micromanagement,” but it’s actually the antidote to micromanagement. (Trust me, I’ve broken in a few Japanese bosses in my day.) Horenso is absolutely the best way to manage your Japanese boss. Rather than waiting for him to come breathe down your neck, you beat him to the punch by going to him first.

HORENSO has also been the most effective technique for me in building trust with previous Japanese bosses and colleagues. Once that trust is established, all my Japanese bosses have backed off and given me breathing room. And we lived happily ever after…most of the time.

Also related is the concept of kikubari, the idea of “distributing one’s ‘spirit”, and proactively taking action through the fine Japanese art of anticipation. The best example is the dangerous Japanese beer-pouring ritual where each person at the table stays on the lookout for half-empty glasses to fill, then takes initiative to pour without being requested to do so. An uninitiated (and very drunk) American friend once quipped in slurred tones, “I had 53 half glasses of beer!”

Nemawashi and Chosei-yaku

When Japanese set out to introduce change into their organizations–whether it be a single decision or a series of decisions directed at solving a problem–they meet informally with numerous people throughout the organization to ask for help in defining the problem. Indeed many of these meetings happen one-on-one, sometimes outside of work at social functions. This is the Japanese way of laying the groundwork for change, a process they call nemawashi.

For some background, the word nemawashi is a gardening term that roughly translates to, “digging around the roots.” The actual nemawashi process happens when a Japanese gardener undertakes the delicate task of transplanting a tree or plant from one part of the garden to another. If the gardener simply rips out the plant and buries it in a new location, it dies of shock. To avoid this he instead “digs around the roots,” keeping the surrounding soil loosened up for the appropriate period of time. It’s the gardener’s way of giving the plant a “heads-up” that change is coming.

Similarly when change becomes necessary in the workplace, nemawashi is analogous to pre-selling a decision or initiative through consultations with affected departments. And the act of moving the tree to its new location in the garden would be analogous to implementing any given decision in the workplace. Nemawashi is a useful analogy to describe how Japanese take time upfront to lay the groundwork, so quick and effective implementation is possible.

The nemawashi process is absolutely critical to introducing change in a Japanese organization, but it also works in Western organizations if done properly. At a seminar I administered a few years ago to a group of Japanese managers, one of them remarked that the word nemawashi had an underhanded nuance. It was the first time a Japanese participant had expressed this sentiment in all the years I’ve been consulting. It piqued my interest so I did a survey and found that not all Japanese share his opinion. However most agreed that “chosei” is a more palatable expression.

Explaining the chosei process is a dissertation in itself. Suffice it to say that the concept of “chosei-yaku” (Japanese-style, cross-functional coordinator) is missing in the West’s highly compartmentalized way of organizing work. (For more on the chosei process check out The Hunter and the Fisherman: Glimpses of Culture Through Decision-Making & The Hunter and the Fisherman II: A Zen Master’s Guide to Problem-Solving)

Lastly, it helps to understand why the Japanese and Western approaches are so different. The West has the legacy of the Greek philosophers who, rightly or wrongly, put “truth” at the top of the hierarchy of values. And to get to the truth they invented the dialectic, what most folks call “debating” or sometimes “arguing”. This legacy lingers today: when Western managers go to a meeting to openly debate the issues they are trying to get to the “truth”. Whether they realize it or not, the ghost of Socrates lurks quietly in the background.

In Japan the corresponding value is harmony, where the ghost of Confucius lingers. It’s not that the Japanese don’t like the truth, but when truth and harmony collide, often the truth gets swept under the rug to preserve harmony. So how to avoid harmony-shattering confrontation? Why you negotiate behind the scenes (nemawashi/chosei) so as to avoid confrontation at the meeting! The better you learn to conduct chosei, the more effective you’ll be in managing your boss and doing your job.

A quick disclaimer before signing off: when humans are involved there will always be a gap between the cultural ideal and the cultural reality. Just because Westerners value the truth doesn’t mean we always tell the truth; it’s simply an ideal that we aspire to uphold. Similarly, just because the Japanese value harmony doesn’t mean they are harmonious all the time. When true harmony cannot be achieved in Japan, fake harmony is the next best option.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari

It’s humbling to hear what Japanese say about American customer service. On the positive side we’re “kind,” “friendly,” “charming” and “warm.” But we can just as easily be mean, scary, obnoxious and aloof.

America is indeed a culture of extremes: when we’re good we’re really good. But when we’re bad we’re really bad. Most Japanese would rank average American customer service well below the average in Japan. Problem is, Japanese customers are notorious for not complaining when they feel mistreated–while they quietly stew in their own juice.

Here’s what they tell their friends and family when we’re not around: Americans don’t always keep their promises; don’t apologize for breaking promises; make excuses; don’t know how to properly speak to customers; and are not considerate.

What level of customer service do Japanese get in Japan? A personal experience at a Japanese hotel tells the story: on the way to meet the chairman of a company that employed me at the time, I walked for twenty minutes in the sticky heat of Japan’s late-July summer. I entered the lobby of the Otsuki Hotel drenched in sweat. The chairman had not yet arrived so I found a sitting area to wait.

Meanwhile an observant clerk behind the check-in counter noticed my discomfort, and took it upon herself to bring me a glass of iced barley tea and a chilled oshibori towel. She anticipated my needs and fulfilled them proactively, the ultimate in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese call this “kikubari” (pronounced “key-koo-BAH-ree”).

The value of the employee’s thoughtful gesture was immeasurable. The cost to create this wonderful experience was a cup of tea.

What similar high-impact, low-cost measures bring instant value? Review the complaints listed above then educate your employees to do the opposite. Specifically, commit your organization to:

  • Keeping promises
  • Apologizing when customers are inconvenienced
  • Taking action to solve problems rather than making excuses
  • Learning to greet customers in a respectful way
  • Being observant and paying attention to detail
  • Practicing kikubari, the art of anticipation, with customers and with each other

All this requires training, of course. But it cuts much deeper than training. Business leaders in Western companies that serve the Japanese market have to first acknowledge the need to upgrade their product. Once leaders get their heads wrapped around Japanese expectations, most will understand the need to improve. Without leadership’s understanding and support, there’s no point in educating the troops, because nothing will stick.

Education is essential for opening minds to the creative possibilities and guiding employees on innovative ways to connect with Japanese customers. Education is also a low-cost-high-impact way to get quick results. It sets favorable conditions for leveraging the mind-power of  your people. The improvement ideas that come from the hearts and minds of employees always work best: if it’s their idea they’ll do it; if it’s someone else’s idea they won’t.

The foundation of any improvement strategy is staying true to your organization’s values and culture. Japanese guests seek authenticity; the last thing they want is their foreign hosts acting like Japanese! You have to be who you are. Kikubari is a natural and beautiful way to put Hawaii’s customer-service values into practice.

In the end human relationships trump all. They have the power to overcome rising costs, aging facilities, and the inevitable cross-cultural faux pas. Human bonds cemented by acts of kindness add precious value to the customer experience that money can’t buy. Kikubari is a simple but powerful way to reach out and build relationships with people from any culture. Whether or not you serve the Japanese market, making kikubari part of your customer service culture will give you a powerful edge over competitors that are reacting rather than anticipating.

For another take on kikubari check out The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011