Tag Archives: cross-cultural management

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

Madogiwa Misfits & the Power of Peer Pressure

“Peer pressure is much more powerful than a concept of a boss. Many, many times more powerful.”

Jim Buckley, long-time employee of GORE

Just as Japanese parents punish their children in ways unimaginable to Westerners, so it goes in the Japanese workplace.

In the previous post we looked at how values affect the way we punish our children. Remember the image of young Kurumi pounding on the door to get back in the house while her mother ignored her cries? She just wanted to belong! (Meanwhile naughty, individualistic Tim was grounded at home, yearning for freedom and independence.)

Today we’ll look at corporate Japan’s version of “locking-out the naughty child.” But for context, it’s worth mentioning that Japanese expats find plenty of “strange” things about the U.S. workplace.

For starters, it’s tough for Japanese expats to grasp all the overwhelming policies, rules and regulations they have to follow to stay out of trouble in America. And indeed, some fail to stay out of trouble.

It helps to understand that Japan is a homogenous society–about 98% of the population is Japanese. Under these conditions, no surprise Japanese companies have no EEOC regulations to deal with. This reality alone makes HR systems in the Japanese workplace much less complex than in America.

Don’t misunderstand–Japan has plenty of complexity. It’s just that the complexity is built into the culture.

From a World Without Individual Job Descriptions!

Here’s another big difference between Japanese and American workplaces: to the chagrin of many American HR professionals, Japanese expats come to the American workplace with no clear individual job descriptions, an outgrowth of Japan’s collective way of structuring work. (They don’t have clear job descriptions in Japan either.) This means that each Japanese employee’s specific job responsibilities are fuzzy at best. Now try to imagine the sheer inefficiency caused by duplicated efforts.

And here’s the rub: the collective teamwork concept in Japanese companies is predicated on the assumption that each employee will take initiative.  The employee has no choice, really: not only does he not have an individual job description, his boss is averse to spelling things out from “1 to 10,” and offers only smatterings of ambiguous feedback, more often than not of the negative variety.

Indeed employees in Japanese companies are expected to figure out for themselves what to do. The most successful take initiative and “think for themselves.” And while pride and commitment to quality are great motivators in Japanese culture, individual performance is driven to a great degree by an underlying fear of performing below expectation of one’s peers.

So what’s a feedback-starved, self-motivated employee to do? Ere on the side of caution, of course: Assume your efforts are never quite good enough; keep going the extra yard, just in case. This mindset keeps many Japanese employees scrambling their entire careers.

Fear of This, Fear of That

As strict as Japanese society can be, it’s ironic that Japanese factory managers are shocked at America’s punitive approach to employee mistakes.

A good example is the write-up system common in American factories, a technique usually tied to a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” kind of policy. (Sometimes you get more strikes, sometimes less, but the sword always looms near the poor production operator’s neck.)

It might surprise you to learn that Japanese believe this kind of punitive system is crazy, because it encourages employees to hide mistakes, a condition counter to continuous improvement philosophy, a core management strategy embraced by Japan’s elite companies.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Japanese employees don’t feel fear in the workplace. They feel it all right. But it’s not fear of losing their jobs. They feel the fear of that little girl pounding on the locked door, her fear of rejection from the collective.

This is why Japanese companies don’t need all those fancy schmancy HR rules to get employees to toe the line. When it comes to regulating employee behavior, American style three-strike policies can’t hold a candle to the power of Japanese-style ostracism.

The Power of Peer Pressure

The Japanese don’t have a monopoly on ostracism, of course. Anyone who has ever played team sports has seen or felt it–no one on the team wants to be the guy doggin’ it. Fear of letting down teammates keeps most team members motivated enough to contribute.

Some American companies also use the peer-pressure concept to regulate employee behavior. Japanese automakers have employed it with great success in their U.S. subsidiaries as well. The U.S. company Gore, maker of Gore-Tex™, organizes its employees into small teams for this reason. Gore’s leaders say that peer pressure is a much more powerful motivator than any punishment a middle manager could ever mete out. Guided by this organizational philosophy, the Gore organization functions effectively and efficiently with a minimal headcount of middle managers. (For more on this, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.)

Peer pressure notwithstanding, it takes some major-league goof-ups and seriously disruptive behavior–not to mention a total lack of effort–before Japanese will give up on a teammate.

The good news is that Japanese managers will move heaven and earth to salvage a non-performing subordinate, even move the subordinate into lateral positions to match his or her talents to the needs of the organization. The bad news is that once the Japanese finally give up, the errant teammate soon finds himself with a newspaper–compliments of the team–and a seat near the window. Whether he realizes it or not, he is now officially at the end of the bench, a member of the infamous madogiwa-zoku or “window tribe.”

This is the Japanese non-verbal, passive-aggressive way of saying, “we’ve given up on you, you’re useless, stay out of our way.”

Madogiwa-zoku in the U.S. Workplace?

Imagine employing the “window-tribe” tactic in the U.S. The American non-performer would think he’d gotten a promotion! “Hey, I’ve got a window with a view, a newspaper, don’t have to work–I’ve made it!”

If you think about the madogiwa-zoku phenomenon it’s really just the corporate version of my Japanese wife many years ago being locked out of her house by her mother. The glaring difference is that the party being pushed out at work is no longer dealing with an indulgent mom. Once you get that window seat in the workplace, the door is locked forever. Your only choices then are to live near the window in shame, leave the organization on your own accord, or jump out the window.

Indeed Japanese teammates can be a tough crowd to please, and the individual is merely a fraction of the whole. (Interesting the Japanese word for “self” is jibun, literally “one’s part.”) As cultures go, Japan is the mother of all pressure cookers, as it forces conformity based on the uncompromising assumption that each “fraction of the whole” will sacrifice personal desires for the greater collective. The payoff is acceptance by the group.

Most Americans would not consider acceptance by a group with such strict demands and commitments a good deal at all. That’s because belonging isn’t a big motivator for Americans. It’s safe to say that for many Americans, the value on belonging ranks well below individualism, freedom, independence, and the pursuit of individual happiness.

Life in a Pressure-Cooker

No doubt peer pressure controls lots of problems in Japanese society, or at least sweeps them under the rug. But Japanese-style peer pressure is wrought with painful ambiguity that few Americans are comfortable dealing with. You never really know where you stand with the Japanese (even if you’re Japanese) so you’re stuck guessing.

American culture is much clearer. We don’t beat around the bush, we tell subordinates in no uncertain terms what we think, good or bad (at least in theory). Non-performers in America will be hard-pressed to find someone willing to put in the time and effort to “salvage” them. Truth is, an American misfit would have a much better shot at redemption in a Japanese company.

My guess is that the days of the madogiwa-zoku “window tribe” are numbered in Japan. After all, who can afford the luxury now? But I don’t see ostracism going away anytime soon; it’s just too ingrained in Japan’s collectivist psyche.

For what it’s worth, after living and working with the Japanese for some thirty-seven years, here’s my take: it is really tough to be Japanese. This personal awareness of the pressure-cooker nature of Japanese society–the burden on Japanese people to conform and selflessly please everyone else–inspires tremendous respect and compassion for my Japanese friends, family and clients. And it makes me appreciate even more my good fortune to enjoy the freedom my culture encourages.

To avoid becoming a madogiwazoku in the first place, check out: The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Truth, Harmony, White Lies and Monkey Traps

Years ago while browsing for something to read at a bookstore in Tokyo, I stumbled onto a gem by Robert Pirsig entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (For more on this see Zen and the Art of Total Quality.) It was such a bizarre title, I had to look inside. The first page hooked me and I bought the book.

It’s been years since I read Zen, but I still recall a passage where Pirsig introduces the concept of a “value trap”. He illustrates the idea with a story about the South Indian monkey trap.

The trappers use a simple but effective device to catch monkeys. They put food in a place only accessible through a narrow slot. The monkey can slip his open hand through the slot to grab the food inside. But with his fingers wrapped around the morsels it’s impossible to back out of the slot with a fistful of food. The monkey refuses to let go of the food and the trappers take him away.

Pirsig challenges the reader to give the trapped monkey general advice that will help him out of his predicament. In other words, don’t tell the monkey to let go of the food–that would be too specific.

What general advice would you give the monkey? Pirsig says to tell him to reconsider his priorities–food or freedom?

Of course it’s not such a simple decision for the poor monkey. He can’t reason beyond the here-and-now. He doesn’t grasp the consequences of his single-minded desire for the food and hangs onto what he thinks is “good”. Unable to adjust his priorities under extraordinary circumstances, the monkey is trapped by his own value rigidity.

Cross-Cultural Value Traps: a Case Study

As smart as humans are, we too fall victim to value traps and sometimes fail to reason beyond the here-and-now. It happens in our daily lives, it happens at work. No one is immune. Here’s an example of a value trap that made a monkey out of me in a Japanese transplant many years ago.

Two American managers were feuding. It was a classic territorial rivalry: Quality Control versus the Production Department. A large batch of defective parts were awaiting disposition. We knew they couldn’t be reworked. The only glimmer of hope was the customer granting a temporary deviation, but it was a long shot. As days turned into weeks it started looking more and more like an expensive operational blunder.

The American plant manager proposed storing the defective parts in front of the final assembly cells where all the production associates could see them. The intent was to raise awareness among the production associates that they had “screwed up big time”, and should be more diligent in the future not to make the same mistake.

The American QC manager begged to differ. The proposed spot was way too close to the shipping dock for comfort; he was concerned the parts might find their way onto a truck and get to the customer. He thought the suspect parts should be safely quarantined in the QC cage until the customer gave final disposition. And he believed the onus was on management to fix the production process to avoid making the defective parts in the first place.

In the middle of the feud was a soft-spoken, senior Japanese executive just looking for a little love.

As the debate raged on the parts sat in limbo in a dark, distant corner of the plant (nicknamed, appropriately, “Limbo”). Everyday at the production meeting the Americans tried to push the Japanese executive into making a decision. And everyday he would dance his way out of it, always with an ambiguous remark in broken English. His words always confused us and, in retrospect, it was probably intentional.

This just made the American managers more determined to persuade him to accept their respective points of view, each using his own brand of logic to win over the Japanese executive. The meeting would always end with the executive saying he would think about it, and the debate would rage on behind the scenes.

The Japanese executive’s indecision was as confusing to me as it was to my co-workers. But I should have known better. Dealing with this on a daily basis for several weeks forced me to reflect on what might be causing the stalemate. And it dawned on me that, just like the battling American managers, contrasting cultural values were competing for dominance. The question was, what values were clashing?

Western Value on Truth and Logic

A philosophy teacher in college once forced me at gunpoint to read Plato’s Republic. At the time I couldn’t imagine the information ever serving a useful purpose. I learned that in ancient Athens the seeds of scientific thought were planted as philosophers engaged in deductive reasoning, pondered the nature of reality and argued about metaphysical issues that could never be proved. It took too many years in the real world for me to truly understand how profoundly these thinkers influenced us. Their contribution permeates Western thought. So much in fact, that it is as invisible to most Americans as water is to a fish. I was swimming blind.

After some reflection the light bulb went on and I saw the proverbial “water.” When you think about what the Greek philosophers were saying and boil it down to its essence, it was all about finding the truth through the process of debate, or what they called the “dialectic.” This commitment to the truth is at the core of Western culture; it’s at the core of science.

It’s worth mentioning that just because Westerners value truth and logic, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re always truthful and logical. It simply means that Western culture puts truth at the top of the hierarchy of values, an ideal we aspire to uphold. Most Westerners believe, in principle, that “telling the truth” is the right thing to do.

In Confucian societies the corresponding dominant value is harmony. Truth is important, but harmony is king. It is hard to imagine a Confucian society ever inventing science–harmony would smother it.

Don’t misconstrue this to mean that Confucian cultures don’t value the truth. But when truth and harmony collide, the Japanese are more likely to opt for harmony than Westerners. In the example cited above, the Japanese executive didn’t care as much about truth or logic as he did about maintaining harmony and making sure no one “lost face.” He was hoping the problem would go away quietly, and it might have if he were dealing with a Japanese staff. But his avoidance tactics were ineffective with Americans and merely exacerbated the situation. The longer it festered, the more everyone dug in their heels.

In the eyes of the Americans a “decision” was never made. But their assessment was incorrect. The “decision” was to do nothing and let the parts sit in limbo. And that’s where they remained until they were officially scrapped when the customer finally nixed the temporary-deviation idea.

My guess is the Japanese executive was relieved that he managed to delay the decision long enough for everyone to save face. On the surface it seems like a victory for harmony, but the ordeal just deepened the rift between the two Americans. Many other Americans were seduced into taking sides and most came to resent the indecisive Japanese executive. Perhaps the relationship between the two Americans was doomed from the start, but what began as a minor problem escalated into an ugly divisive issue. Bad feelings lingered long after the parts were scrapped out and forgotten.

In this situation most American bosses would have been more decisive. People’s feelings would have been considered, but only in regard to how the decision was communicated, not the outcome of the decision itself. In the ideal American business world, the pursuit of “truth” – not personal feelings – drives decisions. Taking an American approach would surely have made at least one of the American managers unhappy. But most Americans would accept it as a consequence of serving “the truth”.

White Lies in America

As much as we Americans claim to love the truth it would be hypocritical to call harmony-loving Japanese “liars”. Americans are known to tell a fib now and then. We just don’t like to admit it. And our culture certainly doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

Here’s an example: Let’s say an American is invited to someone’s house for a semi-formal dinner. The host worked hard to prepare the dinner and is proud of his cooking abilities. But the moment the dinner guest takes her first bite she decides it tastes terrible. In this situation most Americans will pretend to like it, or at least give a reason for not eating it. (“My stomach’s feeling queasy”; “I ate a big lunch”, etc.) The lie is unofficially sanctioned in the name of sparing someone’s feelings, and it’s proof that even truth-loving Westerners will sacrifice the truth when the situation calls for it.

Japanese culture openly acknowledges this dichotomy and the Japanese even have a name for it: “ honne-tatemae. ” Honne means “one’s true feelings”; tatemae, “the truth for public consumption.” The Japanese see honne-tatemae as two sides to the same coin of reality.

American culture doesn’t acknowledge such a dichotomy because it would conflict with the value Westerners place on the truth. Westerners–certainly Americans–pride themselves on being truthful, so why would we acknowledge being otherwise?

Yet it seems to me that in the current politically correct environment with ethnic, religious and racial sensitivities running high, America has been moving closer to a honne-tatemae society for the last thirty years or so. The dichotomy is there, it’s resented, and we still haven’t come up with a good name for it.

Escaping Your Value Traps

Unlike monkeys we humans have the capacity to reflect on our mistakes and learn from them. The irony is that upon reflection, the defective-parts fiasco made monkeys of us all! I was trapped by my reverence for the dialectic; the Japanese executive couldn’t let go of his desire for harmony; and the American managers clung to their egos, each claiming to be more logical than the other.

What would have been the best course of action? The American managers should not have let ego influence their behavior: both were too stubborn. But the Japanese executive at the top bears most of the responsibility. His indecisiveness created conditions for bad feelings to fester. A lot of pain could have been avoided had he acknowledged the good points proposed by both men and facilitated a compromise.

The executive should have insisted from the start that all further discussions about the storage issue take place in a private meeting with just the three of them. This would have been the appropriate forum for the Japanese executive to acknowledge that the idea of raising awareness among the operators was a good one. And that putting the parts in the QC cage also made sense. Then the executive might have proposed moving the parts into the QC cage and scheduling plant-wide training for all production associates to learn about the problem, the impact it had on the company’s financial health, and what was being done to rectify it. Such a proposal would have turned a negative experience into something positive. It would have nipped in the bud a petty, territorial feud and provided instead, an educational event that promoted interdepartmental communication.

The above proposal is just one option, and is not without weaknesses. But it is decisive, reasons are given for the decision, and it doesn’t embarrass anyone. Both managers would have grumbled no matter what the boss decided. But they would have respected his decisiveness and then moved on.

The best general advice for Western managers dealing with cross-cultural conflict is to pick your battles carefully. Save the fight for the principles you believe are worth fighting for.

In the larger scheme of things, the location of the defective parts was unimportant. Yet we wasted so much time bickering over it–all for naught.

If you must do battle, a little passion never hurts as long as you are constructive and respectful. But it takes only a couple emotional outbursts to lose credibility with the Japanese. You can make much better use of your energy by learning to participate in the Japanese decision-making process (coming soon in a future post), as this is the most effective way to expand influence within a Japanese-owned organization.

Learn to sense impending conflict. When you do, make a conscious effort to set aside your emotions and examine the values that might be trapping you into a limited view of the situation. Ask yourself if your values reflect the right priorities for the situation. Should you hold onto the food or live to eat another day? Imagine what values might be driving the other person’s behavior. Consider the possibility that making concessions might serve a higher purpose. Understand that by gently deferring to others in matters of less importance, you command more respect when you choose to make a stand for things that matter.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Zen and the Art of Total Quality

“The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times…He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be “here.” What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The most fulfilling part of my job is helping American and Japanese workforces communicate and work together effectively. After wrapping up two cross-cultural management seminars several years ago at a Japanese transplant, I was invited to dinner by the Japanese president at a local restaurant.

The meal started out with the standard small talk you’d expect at a business dinner. But as the evening unfolded and the beer flowed, the president started probing into my professional experience and ideas on management. I had no idea at the time where the conversation was going. I just remember him firing off questions in Japanese, and refilling my glass between each sip of beer. If it weren’t for the alcohol, I’d have thought it was a job interview.

The beer-pouring ritual soon achieved its intended purpose of lightening the mood, and the shy president began to open up. Our conversation drifted to various topics—his ongoing efforts to understand U.S. labor laws, his struggles to deploy strategic policies among the American ranks, and recurring operational problems in the factory. The president was harshly critical of himself and expressed concern about the state of his organization. None of this alarmed me, of course, as Japanese leaders of even the most successful companies are fond of the old “sky-is-falling” line. Yet in this particular instance, the president’s humility and concern seemed genuine.

His concerns notwithstanding the alcohol kept the mood light and relaxed. With my guard down I didn’t see the next question coming: would I train his American managers on Total Quality Management?

Stunned, I bowed my head and politely declined. Total Quality Management was not my bag. Many other more qualified consultants specialized in this kind of training and I offered to introduce them.

The Japanese president dismissed my protests: “You can teach Total Quality Management, that’s what we’ve been talking about all evening! I have no idea how to teach it to Americans, and can’t speak English, anyway. You understand TQM, and our American employees will listen to you.”

Most entrepreneurs with even modest ambitions would jump at the chance to expand sales and enter a new market segment. But in my mind TQM was the domain of quality control professionals well versed in statistical methods. It was about scatter diagrams, bar charts, histograms, Pareto analysis, control charts, fish-bone diagrams and measles charts, what’s known as the Seven Quality Tools. I had studied them all and had a working knowledge of how to use them. But it didn’t qualify me to teach TQM. The president had to know that he had people within his organization more qualified to teach his employees how to use these tools, and I proposed it as a cost-saving option.

He dismissed my idea with a wave of his hand: “We don’t want to teach them about the statistical tools,” he said. “They’ve already been trained in that and the results haven’t met our expectations. Something is missing. Our American staff needs to understand the philosophy and spirit behind the tools. Please help us teach them this kind of thinking.”

For the remainder of the evening the president poured my beer, dismissed my protests and stroked my ego until the TQM training started looking like a good idea—in a blurry, impaired sort of way. And somewhere in the cobwebs of my memory I recall promising to do my best, then being driven back to the hotel where I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep. The next day under the glaring lights of sobriety I realized the commitment I had made and started worrying. How was I going to develop a seminar on a topic with such vague parameters? I had no clue what the president wanted me to do.

Any cross-cultural specialist worth his salt understands that when people talk, subtle assumptions about the meanings of words can make or break whether they truly communicate. So my first challenge was to make sure we were defining the word “quality” the same way. This turned out to be a fruitful direction.

What is Quality?

“Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist…Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others…but what’s the “betterness”?…so round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Robert Pirsig

After thirty years of listening to Japanese friends, family and coworkers complain about the inferior quality of American products and services, there is no doubt in my mind that the definition of “quality” is colored heavily by culture.

If you’ve had the opportunity to serve the Japanese market you know that the average Japanese customer has higher expectations than Americans when it comes to quality and service. What’s not so obvious is that unlike Westerners, who tend to conceptualize quality as something that exists “inside” the objects around them, the Japanese see it more as a spiritual state of mind.

This is an important cultural assumption that colors the Japanese view of the world: the implicit belief that whatever manifests on the outside—the well-run factory, the timely departure of the bullet train, the high-precision widget, the impeccable and consistent service—comes from the spirit within the people doing the work. That’s why Toyota focuses on developing people before making cars: they know that quality cars can only come from the hearts and hands and minds of quality people. It’s classic inside-out-process-orientated thinking.

And with this thought the Japanese president’s expectation of the training became clear to me: he wanted to infuse his company with some Total-Quality soul—or to borrow Toyota’s expression, to inspire employees to cultivate a “challenging-mind” culture.

The connection the president made between developing a “challenging mind” and creating a Total Quality Management culture, got me thinking about a book on Quality written decades before.

Long before America’s Total Quality Management boom in the eighties, philosopher Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The relevance of this book to my predicament was its focus on the spiritual dimension of Quality—that elusive “challenging mind” that Japanese leaders love to talk about.

To give some background, Zen is a true story about author Robert Pirsig’s personal inquiry into the values that shape how Westerners conceptualize reality. Pirsig literally went insane trying to figure out how the notion of “Quality” fits into the Western world’s view of reality. Lost in the depths of his philosophical construct, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to an institution. Before being committed, he constructed a philosophy that united Eastern and Western outlooks based on the organizing concept of Quality, or “goodness”. He called his philosophical construct, the Metaphysics of Quality.

Pirsig’s mental condition was diagnosed and treated back when shock treatments were considered an acceptable method of therapy. He was subjected to numerous shock treatments intended to erase his “insane” personality. The book unfolds years later inside Pirsig’s head as he rides his motorcycle from Minnesota to the West Coast with his eleven-year-old son in tow. While they are riding, he begins to remember who he was before the shock treatments, and reconstructs for the reader the Metaphysics of Quality.

It’s a beautiful story, impossible to do justice to in a couple paragraphs. But one memorable lesson I took from Pirsig’s musings is that quality should be your inner spiritual guide, and you connect with quality through the simple act of caring. Cultivate Quality in the inside – care enough to seek out goodness – and quality will naturally reflect in the work you do.

Pirsig reminds us that the “measurement techniques, the charts and graphs are just a means to an end”; that the ultimate human motivation for connecting with quality is to achieve “peace of mind,” nothing more.

In the Quality-centered world defined by Pirsig, the Japanese president’s concerns made perfect sense. The president had lost his peace of mind and was struggling to get it back. He knew his organization needed to continue reaching for higher levels of quality to survive. It bothered him that his American employees didn’t seem motivated to improve themselves, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why.

The president wanted his American workforce to embrace Total Quality as a way of life, not just learn how to use statistical tools. The distinction was important to him. He had made the innocent mistake of assuming his American staff had already cultivated a quality state of mind when the company provided training in the Seven Quality tools. What he didn’t realize is they had simply shoveled the statistical tools into a collective state of mind grounded in ego.

Painting the Roses Red

What happens when employee behavior is grounded in ego? An excerpt from Alice in Wonderland provides an apt analogy:

Alice stumbles onto a group of cheerful card characters singing, “We’re painting the roses red! We’re painting the roses red!”

A confused Alice asks them why in the world they would paint the roses red.

They respond:

“Why the fact is, you see, Miss, this here ought to have been a red rose tree, and we put a white one in by mistake.”

The lesson? Treating the symptoms of a mistake is analogous to painting the roses red. And educating your workforce on the Seven Quality tools without a thorough grounding in the values that form their foundation almost guarantees your workforce will be “painting the roses red.” Said another way, they will be compelled to weave the data to make themselves look good, or at least not guilty.

The truth is if employees don’t care about their work, then all the fancy-shmancy statistical tools in the world ain’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Without a certain measure of humility, “Total Quality” becomes a big charade, a fake scoreboard designed to prop people up with bullshit—to paint the roses red—rather than use the data to genuinely improve oneself.

Using an honest Total-Quality approach to the white-rose problem starts with calling the white roses what they are: white roses!

It means acknowledging that white roses are not what the King ordered. It means getting to the root of the problem instead of putting on a bandaid–or covering up the problem with a fresh coat of red paint.

If employees don’t care enough to figure out root causes and implement appropriate measures, they’ll be painting the roses red forever.

In this instance, the Japanese president had provided systems and tools that enabled his employees to keep score, but it was a game grounded in ego. The president was on a mission to dig up the white roses and plant the red, spiritual seeds of a quality consciousness, with the goal of inspiring egoless introspection; he wanted to start on the “inside” by inviting his American employees to engage in the humble act of reflection, and work their way out from there. He wanted them to want to improve themselves.

The Humility-Quality Connection

Inspiring employees to look inward for quality is a tall order. Here’s some wisdom from Pirsig on the role of humility and introspection when searching for quality ways to solve problems:

If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality. When the facts show that you’ve just goofed, you’re not as likely to admit it. When false information makes you look good, you’re likely to believe it. On any mechanical repair job ego comes in for rough treatment. You’re always being fooled, you’re always making mistakes, and a mechanic who has a big ego to defend is at a terrific disadvantage. If you know enough mechanics to think of them as a group, and your observations coincide with mine, I think you’ll agree that mechanics tend to be rather modest and quiet. There are exceptions, but generally if they’re not quiet and modest at first, the work seems to make them that way. And skeptical. But not egoistic. There’s no way to bullshit your way into looking good on a mechanical repair job, except with someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing.

Substitute the word “mechanic” with “employee” in the above quote and you get a good picture of many American workplaces. The American corporate system—intentionally or unintentionally—encourages employees to make themselves look good rather than uncovering and eliminating problems that block the path to quality.

Humility and sincere introspection are prerequisites for connecting with quality. Humility allows you to connect with that internal goal, because you’re no longer focused on the ego-fulfilling pursuit of a goal that exists outside yourself. The here and now, inside each of us, is where we find that “challenging spirit” that keeps us challenging the status quo.


Contrary to initial concerns that Americans wouldn’t be receptive to the “spiritual” approach to TQM, we managed to make a connection (based on our post-seminar survey results). The American managers’ reaction bolstered my confidence that corporate America is ready to give humility a chance. Seven years and hundreds of seminars later, I know it’s true.

To the Japanese, humility and reflection is as natural and invisible as the air we breathe. The need for a reflective workforce in developing a Total-Quality culture was so blatantly obvious to the Japanese president that he took it for granted. So the president’s observation that a “challenging mind” was missing among the ranks of American managers was very perceptive. Our solution was to institute the ongoing practice of reflection to make it part of the company’s DNA.

It’s not so difficult to create the awareness among employees that TQM is spiritual in nature. It’s much more difficult to nurture the culture. But you have to start somewhere. Creating a reflective workforce requires removal of certain destructive cultural and organizational obstacles. And it begs two important questions that will be covered in future posts: what are the obstacles to nurturing an egoless quality mindset in corporate America? And how does leadership go about removing these obstacles?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan, 2008

Confucius in the Factory

The benevolent man is attracted to benevolence because he feels at home in it. The wise man is attracted to benevolence because he finds it to his advantage.


In the late 1980s I worked for a consulting firm in Tokyo providing cross-cultural training, language and consulting services to Japanese clients doing business internationally. It turned out to be a gateway job into the Japanese manufacturing world, as Japanese automotive assemblers were scrambling at the time to set up factories in America’s Midwest and all across Dixie. (Five months into my very first gig with an automotive company, the client would end up recruiting, then repatriating me back to the U.S.)

My soon-to-be employer was a world-class metal stamper based in Shizuoka. At the strong urging of its largest customer, the company was about to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the heart of America’s Deep South. Eight Japanese managers would oversee startup of the plant. My job was to prepare them for the assignment. Training would take place at their headquarters in rural Shizuoka.

The end of our first training session is still vivid in my memory over twenty years later. After three intensive hours of technical English drill, the lunch bell rang. Knowing the class was fatigued I thanked the participants for their attention, my hint that it was okay to rush off to the cafeteria. To my surprise no one moved. After a brief silence I turned to the senior member of the group and asked, “Are you going to lunch?”

He frowned, shook his head and said, “No, we can’t go yet.”

“Why not?”

His face softened. “Because our production workers have a really difficult job. Without their hard work our company would have no product to sell. To show our respect we let them go to lunch first.”

Confucius Say What?

A country of a thousand war chariots cannot be administered unless the ruler attends strictly to business, punctually observes his promises, is economical in expenditure, shows affection towards his subjects in general, and uses the labor of the peasantry only at the proper times of year.


Just two years removed from college I had no way of grasping the significance of the senior manager’s words. It was not at all what I expected to hear. The manager’s respect for, and deference toward the production associates seemed so incongruous with the strict Confucian hierarchy that permeates every facet of Japanese society. After all, I reasoned, wouldn’t Confucius dictate that the senior people go before their underlings?

Filtering the situation through American values and assumptions, I was seeing the corporate hierarchy as an organization with power concentrated at the top. It didn’t occur to me that other models existed in other cultures. I didn’t know, for example, that most Japanese organizations distribute power more broadly, with middle managers collectively getting the lion’s share of influence. I also missed the critical assumption by Japanese managers that leaders can only succeed with the support of subordinates, a reflection of three implicit beliefs rooted in Confucian thinking:

1) All levels of the hierarchy are interdependent.

2) Leaders are expected to practice benevolence toward subordinates.

3) Responsibility rolls uphill.

It’s not surprising that the American organization, with authority concentrated at the top, would favor charismatic take-charge leaders, while the Japanese model favors the humble, understated Confucian gentleman.

This difference in leadership style and expectation is as misunderstood as it is significant. Imagine the challenges this presents for Japanese and American leaders trying to run a company together.

It surprised me to learn that dictatorial leaders are the exception in corporate Japan. And as much as I was uncomfortable with the inequalities inherent in a hierarchy, I found it appealing that Confucius at least goes to bat for the underdog. This is Confucianism’s version of “checks and balances” to discourage power abuses the hierarchy invites, by putting the onus on leaders to be humble models of moral behavior, even go as far as “showing affection” toward underlings.

Can Westerners relate to Confucian values? Not all values, of course. But certain dimensions of Confucianism strike a chord with Westerners.

The three Confucian beliefs referenced above are potentially powerful connecting points for Japanese and Americans in the workplace. Leaders have the power to build cultural bridges within their organizations by embracing the following policies/practices:

1) Acknowledging that all employees, regardless of rank, are interdependent
2) Leaders practicing benevolence toward subordinates
3) Leaders accepting responsibility as it rolls uphill

On paper the ideal Confucian leader is expected to demonstrate humble behavior, never succumb to complacency, do any task he’d ask a subordinate to do, acknowledge his own weaknesses, and learn from mistakes through ongoing reflection. Sounds like the kind of leader Americans could embrace right now.

That’s the ideal. And while there’s no denying the powerful influence of Confucianism on Japanese society, it in no way implies that all Japanese leaders fit the humble, Confucian-gentleman mold. It’s simply a cultural ideal toward which the honorable leader is expected to aspire.

Certain dimensions of Confucianism offer universal values compatible with Western culture. In future posts we will discuss how the world’s best Japanese companies tap into the power of humility to drive continuous improvement in their organizations, and show how American values can access the same power.