Tag Archives: Japanese management

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


Driving Change with the Big-Picture: The Anatomy of Productivity

Installment #4 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1)

The Power of the Team(2)

Leading with Dirty Hands(3)

What impressed me most about my company’s strategy in introducing and managing change was the deductive (general-to-specific) approach we used to educate our clients and team members. It impressed me because previous Japanese bosses had always been inductive (specific-to-general) in their training and presentation methods, not at all forthcoming with big picture information.

So to my surprise, our approach wasn’t about us walking in as “experts” and telling clients what to do; instead we provided them a framework that gave context and meaning to all improvement activities that would follow.

My boss would begin his rap at the 20-thousand-foot big-picture level, so he could later swoop us all in for concrete analysis, process redesign and actual implementation.

Our starting point was defining “productivity.” We kept it simple:

Productivity is the ratio of input to output.

We explained the different ways to express the input-output ratio. One is input over output, for example, man-hours required (input) to make a single widget (output). Another way to express the ratio is to flip the equation over and look at output-over-input. An example would be number of widgets produced (output) per hour (input).

High input is generally considered bad, while high output is good. Conversely, low input is good, but low output is bad. This means efficiency-improvement kaizen activities strive to maximize output while minimizing input.

Hence we explained that the basic ways to achieve productivity improvement were to: 1) maintain same input with increased output; 2) reduce input with the same output; or ideally 3) reduce input and increase output.

Once our team members got their heads around the concept, we provided an overview describing the dimensions of productivity. We presented it as such:

Productivity = Method x Performance x Utilization

We would break down the three dimensions in a way that anyone could understand. We’d explain that method is “how” work is done; performance is the actually time it takes to complete work in relation to how long it’s supposed to take; and utilization is uptime, or “non idle” time of both equipment and workers.

We then expounded on each dimension.


As mentioned, method is related to how work is done. A concrete example tells the story:

Suppose an inefficient production line is set up to produce 50 parts per hour. Let’s also assume the production operator is taking lots of unnecessary steps to do her job, bending at the waste to pick up stacked material, reworking bad products coming off the production line, etc., all work that is unnecessary to making a good part, and therefore, wasteful. This fictional method is terrible because the input is high relative to the output.

Now let’s think about how we might improve the efficiency of such a line. Ideally we would analyze the current situation, brainstorm improvement ideas, and likely decide that a more compactly laid-out line would reduce unnecessary steps for the operator, that a spring-loaded table would keep line-side material at waist level to eliminate operator bending, that finding and eliminating root-causes for quality issues would provide stable processes that produced only quality parts and thus eliminate the need to rework, etc.

Extending the example, let’s make another assumption: that our new-and-improved redesigned process can (theoretically) produce 100 parts per hour. In this case our input remains the same (1 hour) but the output (number of parts produced) doubles. The result is the labor cost is halved, a substantial chunk of change, a magnitude of improvement that was not at all unusual in the projects we led.

Once our team members understood the “method” dimension of productivity, we let them know upfront that we planned to do lots of method improvements moving forward, but that we couldn’t do it without their help. And every word of that was true.

Performance and Invisible Culture Gaps

Next we would explain the “performance” dimension as the ratio of actual work time in relation to the time it is supposed to take, also known as “standard time.” So using our previous example, suppose standard time under this wasteful process translates to 50 parts per hour, but we are actually only making 40, then our performance to standard is only 80%. (40/50=80%)

This is where we normally let our clients know that performance improvement was a longer-term project than method improvements. And it’s also where I stumbled onto a huge gap in how Japanese and American managers frame the performance challenge.

In the land of individualism (and all those precise individual job descriptions that come with it), responsibility for performance improvement is clearly placed on each individual’s shoulders, from the president on down to the production worker. In simple factory terms, this means American operators are responsible for their own performance, in short, for simply working faster.

This is not at all how my Japanese superiors saw the world. Through their Confucian, collectivist lens, performance was driven by employee morale, and high morale was deemed only possible if leaders provided the necessary and sufficient conditions that nurtured high morale. (See The Physics of Responsibility.) That was the theory anyway. And I bought it unconditionally. (Unfortunately for me and my teammates, our boss’s morale theory didn’t apply to the work situation in our company.)

Precisely because performance was a long, drawn-out, leadership-development project—or perhaps because we weren’t good at the morale-building schtick anyway—we chose to put performance-related projects on the back-burner and instead focus on getting the quick impacts that come from method improvements, along with improving the last key dimension in the productivity formula, “Utilization.”


Utilization measures the “uptime” of both equipment and operators. In the ideal world you want the operators working in harmony with the equipment at the minimal machine cycle required to produce conforming product. So not only do you want operators in sync with one another, you want man and machine in sync as well, which basically means not bottlenecking each other. (Note that utilization goes out the window in the absence of customer orders, as the lean company without orders will always choose to shut down the line.)

Assuming customer orders are rolling in, let’s use some friendly round numbers to tell the story: if a machine is down 20% of the time for whatever reasons, the uptime—or utilization—is 80%. Aside from equipment problems, line stoppages due to quality issues, etc., in some cases the machine  is down because it’s waiting for the operator(s) to finish the work.

And sometimes it’s the opposite—the operator finishes the work early and is waiting for the machine to finish cycling.

Either way they are not in sync, so one or the other is idle.

In the first example, you’d attack the machine downtime problem by figuring out reasons for stoppages, quantify downtime by category, then line up the categories on a Pareto chart. Next you’d work on figuring out the root causes for the top downtime offenders and implement corrective action accordingly to eliminate the causes and, consequently recurrence. All in a perfect world.

If, on the other hand, the operator is the bottleneck, then a method improvement is in order with a focus (perhaps) on reducing motion from unnecessary steps, bending from the waist, etc. Ideally the new method would be designed so an average-skilled operator could comfortably complete all tasks within the target machine cycle. Short of that, adding an operator to the process might also be a viable option depending on how the numbers crunched.

Once the Method x Performance x Utilization formula was understood, we’d plug in the numbers to tie it all back together again.

Getting back to our make-believe wasteful line that was producing 50 parts per hour, we also established that our new-and-improved design would theoretically get us 100 parts an hour. So the efficiency of our current method in relation to the new-and-improved one is 0.5, since it’s only making 50% of the parts it could make under our superior method.

As for the performance piece, if standard time under the current method calculates to 50 parts per hour, but the actual output is only 40, then the performance to standard is 0.8, because the process is only producing 80% of what it’s designed to produce.

Finally, utilization—if the line is down 20% of the time for whatever reason, it means the uptime is .8 or 80%.


Productivity = Method (0.5) x Performance (0.8) x. Utilization (0.8 )= 32% 

So to summarize and simplify: for work to be productive, its method is efficiently designed (devoid of waste and unnecessary motion), the work done by highly motivated production workers dedicated to hitting production targets, running at maximum uptime in harmony with equipment and technology.

Interestingly when we’d apply our productivity equation to our clients’ factories, the American staff would freak out because the final number was so much lower than they expected. Most American clients equated “productivity” with only the “performance-to-standard” piece of the puzzle. So if you described the make-believe wasteful production line above, most of them would assume “productivity” is 80% since only performance-to-standard was on their radar. No surprise that when you hit them with a low number (like 32%) their feelings got hurt. In their own eyes, it made them look bad.

But surprise surprise, my Japanese comrades saw the world differently. Their measuring stick for success was not about where the baseline was; it was about how much improvement could be achieved from that starting point. So a number like 32% would be viewed as so deliciously low, that it made dramatic improvement almost inevitable.

Once the productivity story was told and understood, we were ready to jump into the trenches and start digging. But to get the team to jump in with us, we had to get them to own it. Up next, the challenge of creating team ownership.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Driving Change With a Samurai Boss: The Power of the Team

<<Installment #2 continued from Driving Change with a Samurai Boss>>

“Everyone has access to capital and technology these days. All else being equal, the only competitive advantage we have is our team.”

–Japanese Plant Manager

The process of peddling our consulting services typically started with the yobi-chosa, a preliminary analysis of the client’s factory, or sometimes just a problematic production line. Keep in mind that the Japanese guys I worked with were wily old veterans with decades of experience in factories, while I was just a young pup trying my best not to look like an idiot. It never ceased to impress me when my boss would walk through a prospective client’s plant and, on the fly, determine how to improve productivity well into double-digit levels. This always got the client’s attention.

Once the client decided to use our services, we would request resources from the organization to be members of our improvement team. At the minimum we wanted a couple operators from the plant, ideally associates who could do basic math, were self motivated and most important, respected by their peers, the plant’s “informal leaders,” if you will. These resources would play a key role not only in helping us analyze and solve problems, but also would serve as our quasi-ambassadors for promoting change amongst their peers, and ideally convincing them that consultants weren’t evil. 

We also would request a manufacturing and/or industrial engineer along with a couple fabricators to avoid bottlenecks in building jigs, work stations, etc. And to ensure leadership was on board with all the changes coming down the pike, we insisted the Plant Manager and Production Manager become at least part-time members of our team. In retrospect, it was a “recruit-the-enemy” insurance policy for minimizing potential resistance to the changes we were driving. It was absolutely critical that we won over the key leaders to hit our targets, and good business practice to make them look like heroes in the process.

Our role was multidimensional. We were primarily teachers and project leaders, but when the drama hit the fan (and it always did) we could morph into counselors and babysitters. Our mission was to get our ragtag team of resources from different parts of the organization educated, trained and pulling in the same direction. (And for the record, they never disappointed us.)

But we wore whatever hat needed to be worn on any given day. And unlike traditional consultants we didn’t simply analyze our clients’ problems then hand them an action plan and walk away; we blended in with the employees, wore their company uniforms, shared an open workspace, socialized outside of work, and ultimately trained and guided them to improve their own company.

So as consultants we absolutely played a leadership role but were also working members of the team. And on all the projects we led, we were evaluated based on the results achieved by our team, an unambiguous data-driven deal that was impossible to bs our way through.

But we had one big advantage going for us, an endearing Japanese leadership trait that almost guaranteed hitting our targets: we didn’t mind rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.

And that’s exactly what we’ll cover next–the importance of leading with dirty hands.

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

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

When Positive Reinforcement Clashes with Japanese Negativity

Positive Reinforcement: “The giving of encouragement to a particular behavior with the intended result that it is more likely to be repeated.”

I recently wrote a piece on American Culture and Positive Reinforcement. I received some thought-provoking responses. Rather than adding a long comment to the original post, I decided to continue the conversation here.

Does Positive Reinforcement (Necessarily) Land Upon Cultural Lines?

Let’s start with Darren’s comment that he “takes issue with the implied premise that ‘positive reinforcement’ lands upon cultural lines.”

I agree that positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily land along Japanese/American cultural lines. It could just as easily be generational changes in values and behavior, or as Darren points out, differences in subcultures within any given country.

It’s easy to get tangled up in semantics. Darren understands this, but for those who don’t, I’d like to point out that the notion of “cultural differences” doesn’t only refer to cultural gaps between nations. Cultural differences exist between my father’s generation and mine. They exist within the borders of my country, between North and South and East and West– not to mention the cultural differences between Irish Americans and German Americans and African Americans and Native Americans, etc. Japan also has issues of diversity (Kanto versus Kansai, etc.), but obviously not as dramatic as the US.

The reality is that cultural tendencies do exist–and clash–in mixed Japanese/American workplaces, especially when you focus on positive versus negative approaches to training and management.

Mixed-culture workplaces have a way of highlighting behavior patterns that you might not otherwise notice. I can’t remember ever working with a Japanese transplant in the U.S. that didn’t experience friction due to Japanese (perceived) “negativity” and the Japanese boss’s reluctance to pat subordinates on the back. This distinct pattern provides ample proof that a huge cultural gap does indeed exist, certainly within the context of the workplace.

Why Are Japanese So Negative?

In highlighting the gaps, it’s instructive to not only ask why Americans are so enamored with positive reinforcement, but also consider why Japanese take such a negative approach to developing employees.

I submit that Japanese “negativity” is a product of the Confucian hierarchy (bushido version) and Japan’s traditional epistemological framework best described as “radical-empiricism-meets-bushido”, the idea that the only way to learn is through experience, repetition and getting beat up (usually in the figurative sense). A representative model of the traditional Japanese teaching approach is the Japanese karate instructor: he only critiques what’s wrong, never offers praise about what’s right.

In this framework it’s impossible to ignore the sensei-deshi (teacher-pupil) hierarchy and its implications within the framework of Japan’s “totei seido” (apprenticeship) system. In a Japanese-style apprenticeship program the student is expected to suffer in order to improve, to “steal” the boss’s knowledge and techniques rather than wait to be taught. (Now there’s an operative word if I ever heard one: “steal”. Operative because the Japanese boss doesn’t give explicit feedback to subordinates: his loyal deshi gotta come dig for the knowledge–while the Japanese boss beats them up for every little mistake they make.)

There’s a great quote about totei seido in Robert Whiting’s book, The Meaning of Ichiro: the new Wave from Japan and the Transformation of our National Pastime:

“Orix’s pint-sized manager Shozo Doi believed in what was known as the totei seido (apprenticeship system), long evident in many areas of Japanese society from small factories to large corporations and government offices. To Doi, totei seido meant baseball rookies should endure a certain amount of pain and suffering and should not be allowed to experience too much success too early…Thus, after Ichiro, in his first season as a professional, had led the Japanese minor leagues in batting with a .366 average in 58 games and compiled a .253 average in 40 games with the parent team, Doi returned him to the farm club early the following year.”

Doi explained his rationale as such:

“Ichiro had come too fast too far. He was progressing without any problems. A player has to know hardship if he’s going to reach his full potential.”

No surprise that the poor deshi in Japan make lots of mistakes while struggling to emulate the sensei. Every time a mistake is made the boss lets the deshi know it, sometimes in a nice way, more often in a gruff, harsh way (depending, of course, on whether the boss is a “wizened Zen Master” or “Crazy Samurai” type personality).

Now I’m wondering if apprenticeship-style systems around the world might share this negative approach. My dad was a pipefitter who learned his trade within the apprenticeship system. Like the Japanese, when he got in his teaching mode he favored the “negative reinforcement” approach (my term). Not always. But he was hard on us–not to be mean but to push us to be better, not unlike former Japanese bosses. (Not implying here that it worked in my case, just that the negativity was driven by good intentions. ;-))

In regard to my father’s “Japanese-style” approach, I believe it’s a generational issue. But I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with apprenticeship culture (particularly in the trades). If anyone has an opinion on this please enlighten me.

The discussion continues in my next post…

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

The Hunter and the Fisherman Part I: Glimpses of Culture Through Decision-Making

“The Westerner and the Japanese mean something different when they talk of ‘making a decision.’ In the West, all the emphasis is on the answer to the question. Indeed, our books on decision-making try to develop systematic approaches to giving an answer. To the Japanese, however, the important element in decision-making is defining the question. The important and crucial steps are to decide whether there is a need for a decision and what the decision is about. And it is in this step that the Japanese aim at attaining consensus. Indeed, it is this step that, to the Japanese, is the essence of the decision. The answer to the question (what the West considers the decision) follows from its definition.”

Peter Drucker
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

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 in the workplace.

American Gripes About Japanese Decision Making

In our cross-cultural seminars aimed at Americans, we kick off sessions with small group activities, at which time we ask each group to collectively make a list of what they like and don’t like about working with Japanese counterparts. 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 the decision prior to the meeting

Japanese don’t involve Americans in the decision-making process

Japanese don’t like risk

Japanese Gripes About American Decision Making

To complete the cross-cultural picture, consider what Japanese managers say about American counterparts:

Americans take action without understanding the problem, and consequently repeat the same mistakes

Americans don’t gather enough data; don’t conduct root-cause analysis; don’t practice plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA); Americans are not data driven, they prefer to act on their feelings

Americans are confrontational and push their ideas on others

Americans don’t take time to properly define a problem; instead they take shortcuts through trial-error without proper follow-up, a risky approach that can create unintended consequences

Americans are specialists; they take action without consulting with other departments and don’t try to view problems from various perspectives

Americans do not cooperate/communicate well across departments

Americans take risks lightly then don’t accept responsibility when failures occur (resulting in excuses and finger-pointing)

With one foot in each culture it’s no surprise I have mixed feelings about the issue. Having refereed countless decision-making bouts between Japanese and American managers over the years, I see the pros and cons of each culture’s approach better than anyone–which means I can praise and bash with the best of ‘em. Today you’ll get a little of both.

So without further ado, let’s look at a concrete case study to shed light on the dramatically different ways Japanese and Americans make decisions.

The Short-Shot Heard Around the Factory

“The Japanese process is focused on understanding the problem…It does not permit commitment until management has decided what the decision is all about. Japanese managers may come up with the wrong answer to the problem, but they rarely come up with the right answer to the wrong problem.”

Peter Drucker
Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

Back in a previous life I managed the operational side of an American injection molding plant. It was the culmination of a decade of training in Japanese factories run by Samurai engineers obsessed with continuous improvement. All serious, stern-looking men, they brainwashed me from early on to embrace certain tenets of Japanese shop-floor control. One of the sacred, uncompromising rules was that reams of data and rigorous analysis were mandatory before any changes could be introduced into a process.

Well imagine my surprise when I discovered how my American compatriots attacked problems on the factory floor. Try this, try that, try something else then try that again–lots of trial and lots of error–without understanding what the problem was! Insane.

Granting that American decision-making has its upsides in the right circumstances, it has a dark side that not many people talk about…which is exactly what we’re going to talk about today.

Let’s kick it off with a story, an operational blunder that happened not just one fateful day in an American factory, but on many fateful days in many American factories. And you can bet it’s happening right now as you read this.

Imagine this scenario: a trained press operator paying close attention to her work, catches a defective part coming down the chute from an injection molding press. The defect category is called a “short shot.” It’s called this because not enough plastic was injected into the mold cavity to make a complete part, leaving it “short,” a condition the customer deems unacceptable. For the sake of visualization, picture in your mind a part that’s only half the size it’s supposed to be.

So what’s a conscientious production operator to do in this predicament? Standard Operating Procedure says to page a technician, one of the resident molding experts. And that’s exactly what the associate does. So far so good.

The technician who shows up happens to be a young guy still going through “technician training”. He has strong vigilante leanings that are about to get the better of him. A proud young man, he’s reluctant to consult with others prior to taking action, for in his mind, his ability to solve this problem without help from others defines his competency, which in turn creates a sense of “job security”. And although none of his assumptions are even remotely true, he believes in his heart they are and that’s all that matters. His pride and false convictions directly drive behavior that will ultimately create consequences detrimental to the organization.

So our young technician–we’ll call him “Knob Turner”–looks at the half-formed part and seizes the day. He decides that if he jacks up the pressure then the plastic material will fill the entire cavity, thereby forming a complete part. Confident his hunch will save the day, Knob Turner increases pressure and waits a few cycles for it to “kick in.” And lo and behold several cycles later he’s got himself a fully formed part. Technician Turner then pats himself on the back and rides off into the sunset to find another fire to fight. It feels good to be a hero.

But hold the phone! Houston we have a problem: there are many possible causes of a “short shot” other than lack of pressure. (In spite of absolutely no technician training, even I knew that.) And had technician Turner considered this reality, he might also have considered the possibility that the problem could be an obstruction in the runner system (the “tunnel” through which liquid plastic flows to the cavity where it’s molded) or a poor runner balance; it could also  be insufficient injection speed, improper heat settings, malfunctioning heater bands, lot-to-lot variation in viscosity of raw material, or some funky combination of all the parameters mentioned above. But taking action without identifying the root cause(s) of the short shot was just plain dumb–especially the decision to jack up the pressure.

What’s the big deal? Besides safety concerns there’s the risk that excess pressure will “blow open” the mold, a condition that will not only produce unacceptable parts, but can also cause serious tool and equipment damage.

Fortunately we never bumbled our way into a broken tool. But boy did the technician’s actions tick off our customer. Why? Because several injection cycles after Technician Turner rode off into the sunset, the jacked-up pressure found its groove and kicked up yet another notch, creating another type of defect called “flash”. (Flash is the excess/undesirable plastic created when liquid plastic under pressure seeps through the “parting line” where the two mold halves clamp together during the injection process.) In the example above, since Technician Turner unilaterally declared the problem “solved”, no one thought to follow up to see if the law of unintended consequences had reared its ugly head. Big mistake.

We found out about the unintended consequence, oh, about a week later, via an angry phone call from the customer asking why we sent flashed parts!

We dutifully consulted our records and found no documented evidence of flashed parts. “Gosh, it’s a mystery” we told our customer. “We had a record of short shots that we caught internally that day…but no idea where the flashed parts came from…”

What did the young technician do wrong? Well, he came up with the right answer to the wrong question, that’s what. Had the short-shot problem been caused by “lack of pressure” then turning up the pressure would have been the right answer, albeit a lucky guess. As it turns out, Technician Turner was answering the wrong question; assuming the best of intentions, his action proved to be a terrible, irretrievable decision that hurt the organization. And it illustrates the danger of putting too much faith in a lone “expert”.

How Would You Expect Results-Oriented Folks to Make Decisions?

A cultural pattern in American decision-making is so blatantly obvious you almost miss it: it’s our obsession with “finding the answer”–What’s the answer, what’s the answer, what’s the answer!

This is classic results-oriented thinking. Compared to the Japanese, Americans have little resistance to skimming over the process of defining the question, and are happy instead to take trial-and-error stabs at problems based on hunches, with the ultimate goal of finding a shortcut to the desired result. What’s the answer?!

As you might imagine this is not how process-oriented Japanese managers roll, a reality that can cause hurt feelings among the Americans. For while Americans are asking themselves, what’s the answer, what’s the answer, what’s the answer, Japanese are thinking, What’s the question, What’s the question, What’s the question?

The twain will never meet until both sides see this gap. But the moment they do, hurt feelings immediately dissolve and both sides gain instant knowledge on how best to adjust their approaches. In concrete terms–now both sides will understand the importance of defining the question before talking about answers.

Who’d have thought that contrasting decision-making styles would offer such a profound glimpse at culture and humanity? Indeed there is a human story to tell here. So buckle up, for in Part II, we’re going to blast out of our results-oriented mindset, into a process-oriented place I call “the Zen mind”.

This post is continued in Part II– A Zen Master’s Guide to Problem Solving

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009