Tag Archives: Japan Management

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


Leading with Dirty Hands

Installment #3 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1) 

The Power of the Team(2)

“How can you expect to do your job without getting your hands dirty?”

–Eiji Toyoda, Former Chairman, Toyota Motor Company

One thing our company had going for it—and I mean this sincerely—is that no work was beneath anyone, including our boss, who required us to work on the very production lines we were improving, if for no other reason than to fully understand the process through direct experience. (Japanese call this way of thinking “genba shugi” or sometimes “genchi genbutsu,” what I call “go-to-the-spot philosophy,” a practice that’s institutionalized in most Japanese factories.)

An equally compelling reason to work on the line was the human connections we made interacting with the production operators. Nothing like contributing to a team effort to build camaraderie. It was always humbling to fumble through the processes, but invaluable in getting input and support from the folks who would ultimately have to live with the new process design.

Interestingly, even though Japan is a hierarchical Confucian society with a clear pecking order and elitist tendencies to boot, based on my experience in Japanese factories, Japanese managers are much more egalitarian than my compatriots in the US workplace who profess to love equality. Let’s start with the obvious: no neckties; Japanese all wear the same uniforms including the president. There’s no special “executive cafeteria” either, so everyone eats the same food; no reserved parking spots for the president, no private jets, not even private offices. Did I mention Japanese leaders spend a lot of time in the plant getting their hands dirty?

Drucker alludes to the “egalitarian” contradiction when he points out the difference in roles between an industrial engineer in Japan versus in the West. To wit: “In the West, the industrial engineer starts out with the assumption of resistance to his approach by the employee, whether in manual or in clerical work. In Japan the industrial engineer tends to complain that the employees expect and demand too much from him.”

Drucker nails it. And this unexpected value contradiction has institutionalized elitism written all over it: the Western industrial engineer sees himself as the “thinker,” the smart guy with the degree who makes decisions then issues commands top-down to the “uneducated” associates. Of course they’re going to resist!

The Japanese industrial engineer, in contrast, sees himself in more of a servant role supporting production associates, the very folks who create value for the organization; he acknowledges the value of the operators’ practical knowledge and experience, and acts as facilitator in helping associates improve their own work areas.

In the same vein, in many Japanese manufacturing companies all employees are required to start their careers working on the production line so they can understand where the money is made and lost. (And yes, it’s a great way to keep everyone humble.) This means that most Japanese managers you’ll meet in the manufacturing industry—including the executives at the very top—aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.

As a consultant I once found myself on a production line in rural Indiana assembling dashboards with several Japanese executives, because a snowstorm kept half the production workers from showing up on time. When the associates finally made it to work they were awestruck by the sight of the Japanese President and his Japanese VP of Operations furiously plugging in wire harnesses. One associate even remarked that she couldn’t imagine an American company president ever doing that.

And herein lies a great Japanese attribute that transcends culture: the Japanese leader with dirty hands will garner much respect in blue-collar cultures around the world. It’s a Japanese strength that facilitates and encourages change in organizations through leaders’ personal displays of empathy, humility and hard work.

Being the dorokusai Japanese consultants that we were, our hands-on approach proved to be a huge asset in getting things done. And what we lacked in finesse we made up for in sheer effort. We were relentless bulldozers that “smelled like the earth.” It wasn’t always pretty but we got the job done.

But before we jumped into the trenches, we had to first get our players’ heads into the productivity game. My mentors had the foresight to launch our projects by explaining the ABCs of productivity, starting with the big picture, and eventually moving to the details–of which there were many.

We tried our best to avoid “industrial engineering speak” and just tell the story in plain English. In our case, the story was about productivity, so we started by defining our terms, and took it from there. That’s what we’ll cover in the next installment: The Anatomy of Productivity

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Driving Change with a Samurai Boss

“There are two kinds of Japanese bosses: the enlightened zen master and the crazy samurai.”

–long-time American employee of a Japanese-owned company

Back in the mid 1990s I worked for a Japanese management consultancy that specialized in productivity improvement. When they hired me I had eight years of manufacturing under my belt, two years in production control, four in sales, the rest in cross-cultural consulting with a focus on manufacturing operations.

So for me this was a new direction, one that entailed excruciatingly detailed analyses of factory operations and good old-fashioned industrial engineering. There was nothing sexy about it. My Japanese colleagues described our profession as “dorokusai,” literally “smelling of earth,” a euphemism for in-the-trenches and unrefined. The opposite of sexy.

But below the unsexy surface were some timeless principles and techniques geared toward introducing change into any organization with minimal resistance, a tall order in any case. Throw in cultural and linguistic barriers and the order gets even taller.

My Japanese boss was an expert at making factories efficient. A seasoned factory rat who looked exactly the part, he came to work everyday with disheveled hair wearing wrinkled clothes. He had a nervous habit of pursing his lips and sticking out his tongue, something clients found either amusing or disturbing, depending on how well they knew him. (He was harmless.) And if you dressed him up in a two-thousand-dollar suit, my boss would still look like a factory rat. In an expensive suit.

But the guy deserved his props; he knew his stuff, shared his knowledge generously, and treated me with respect. His achilles heal was his people skills. He was awkward enough with fellow Japanese, so no surprise he was clueless in dealing with non-Japanese folks as well.

Conversely, I was clueless about industrial engineering but good at connecting people. So our skills were complementary, and it turned out to be a tremendous learning experience for me.

But I’d be lying if I said the gig was fun. The work had its perks for sure, the learning part the big one. But our days were long. We lived out of a suitcase five days a week and ate at bad restaurants. Our boss, a good person deep down with noble intentions, was a controlling hard ass, the classic old-school “crazy Samurai” manager. And I swear he smelled just like the earth. Dorokusai.

And it’s not like we were working in happening places like New York, Chicago or LA. Nope. We were in places that made Mayberry look exciting, like Greencastle Indiana or Blanchester Ohio, where they rolled up the sidewalks at night just before we’d get off work. These were lovely places inhabited by nice people, but there wasn’t much to do. Thankfully we didn’t have the energy after work to do anything anyway. My idea of an exciting evening was clipping my toenails and watching TV in the privacy of my hotel room. Eventually got so sick of hotels that even now when I go on vacation, I’ll rent a house instead of a room because hotels remind me too much of those lonely days on the road.

My whining aside, the work was challenging and meaningful. I learned more in those two years than the previous ten. The big lesson I took from the experience was the strategic approach my samurai boss and mentors took to introducing change into the workplace. In the next few posts over the coming week I’ll cover the key takeaways from my adventures, namely: The Power of the Team; Leading with Dirty Hands; the Importance of Big Picture Communication; Creating Team Ownership; and finally, Driving Change Across Cultures.

Keep in mind that while the focus and related examples will be in manufacturing, the basic principles apply in any industry, any culture. Tomorrow we’ll start with The Power of the Team.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012