What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!
What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!
What do Japanese say about our customer service when we’re not around? And what can we do about it? The answers are a click away.
This is a new on-line training concept I recently developed with the help of a friend. A big mahalo to Roberto De Vido for help on the graphics and visuals!
Feedback is welcome. My first installment, so go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!
Knowing others is wisdom; knowing yourself is enlightenment–Lao Tzu
Folks who hear me speak Japanese often marvel at my “knack for foreign languages.” Truth is I don’t have a knack. I’ll admit that I always did okay in English at school and had a decent grasp of grammatical concepts from an early age, so maybe I’m slightly smarter than the average bear when it comes to learning languages. But that doesn’t constitute a knack.
It also doesn’t hurt that I come from a long line of Irish talkers; both my parents were articulate, and raised us to speak standard, grammatically correct American “Midwestern” English. In this sense I’m carrying on the great Sullivan tradition of talking.
The Navy provided the conditions that made it possible to learn Japanese, by sending me to Japan at the tender age of nineteen. My eventual fluency in Japanese was a product of sheer effort backed by a powerful primordial motivation: I wanted to talk to all the beautiful Japanese ladies (yes all of ’em), most of whom didn’t speak a lick of English.
I was discharged from the Navy in Japan in 1979. In April 1980 I enrolled in Waseda University’s one-year, intensive Japanese language program. That year at Waseda was a turning point. It was the year I learned to carry on a basic conversation (however clumsily) in Japanese. It was also the year it dawned on me that learning a foreign language didn’t assure effective communication would happen. I learned the hard way that if you don’t understand the values, assumptions, thought process and culture behind the language you’re studying, then it’s better if you don’t speak the language at all.
The idea of distinguishing the spoken word from the concept of “communication” might sound odd, maybe even cryptic to someone with limited experience with other cultures. To simplify the concept let’s use driving a car as an analogy.
We can all agree that a car is essentially a transportation tool to get you from point A to point B. You can learn the mechanics and technique of driving that car — how to start the engine, put it in gear, turn left or right, press the brake to stop, etc. This would be analogous to learning the grammar and vocabulary of a foreign language. Problem is, if you don’t understand the “rules of the road” then how would you know that a red light means “stop”? Or which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on?
Extending the analogy, by learning and using a foreign language without knowledge of the cultural “rules of the road”, your language ability ceases to be a tool, and now becomes a dangerous weapon. And that’s exactly where my development was at that point in time: unbeknownst to me I was “driving the car” on the wrong side of the road, and in doing so, running through red lights and over my Japanese hosts, rather than building meaningful connections as I should have. It took several years of hard-knocks to figure it out.
Again and again I stumbled onto clues that something was missing in my communication repertoire. Wasn’t sure at the time exactly what it was, but I had the foresight to enroll at International Christian University in Mitaka Tokyo, where for the next 4 years I would continue studying the Japanese language, and eventually major in communications with an emphasis on Intercultural studies.
I stumbled onto intercultural communication when I signed up for a class in my sophomore year entitled, appropriately, “Introduction to Intercultural Communication.” Taught by a stodgy American professor, I showed up the first day of class thinking we would be studying the finer points of Japanese culture. Imagine my surprise when the professor announced that we were going to focus on American culture.
I immediately decided to drop the course, but politely waited until the end of class, after which I approached the professor to ask when he’d be offering a class on Japanese culture.
The professor couldn’t answer my question but gave me great advice that stuck with me all these years. He said, “if you really want to learn to communicate with other cultures, you have to understand your own culture first. That way you have a baseline for comparison and are better equipped to deal with any culture.” Then he added, “Unfortunately most people don’t understand their own culture. Focusing on self-understanding is the best place to start.”
I took his advice to heart and didn’t drop the course. And it proved to be a humbling experience, because I realized for the first time that I had been unconsciously projecting my values onto my Japanese hosts since I had arrived in Japan. To quote Rick Perry, “oops.”
Here’s a Zen parable that beautifully sums up the notion of knowing oneself:
Two tadpoles are swimming in a pond. Suddenly one turns into a frog and leaves the pond. Upon the frog’s return to the water, the tadpole sees the frog and asks, “Where did you go?”
“I went to a dry place, ” answers the frog.
“What is ‘dry’?” asks the tadpole.
“Dry is where there is no water,” says the frog.
“And what is ‘water’?” asks the tadpole.
“You don’t know what ‘water’ is?” the frog says in disbelief. “It’s all around you! Can’t you see it?”
The moral of the story: Values so permeate our cultures that we take them for granted; so immersed are we that our values are invisible. Without self-awareness, it’s impossible to connect with others.
In concrete terms I had been assuming that just because I, as an American, valued individualism, freedom, self-expression, equality, logic, and truth, that my Japanese counterparts–and every other culture in the world for that matter–naturally shared these values.
How wrong I was!
This “introduction” to my own culture proved to be a major turning point in my life. But it was more than that. Once the light bulb clicked on my worldview suddenly had a panoramic vantage point. The notion that something as abstract and “invisible” as a cultural value had so much power in connecting (and driving apart) people was an epiphany. And it kindled a passion for cultural anthropology, eventually leading to the profession that I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years practicing.
Learning a foreign language was indeed a game-changer for me. But only because it forced me to look at myself through the filters of another culture and “see” my own values. Unfortunately it took too many head-on collisions to realize I was driving on the wrong side of the road, evidence that maybe, just maybe, I’m not smarter than the average bear?
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012
“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
Here’s an article my son sent me yesterday, and I believe it was in the local paper today as well:
“Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley suggested that AIG executives should take a Japanese approach toward accepting responsibility for the collapse of the insurance giant by resigning or killing themselves…” (read more…)
To give some background to the folks who haven’t read my bio, in college I majored in cross-cultural communication/cultural anthropology. My senior thesis was on “black humor in rakugo” (that’s “Japanese classical comic storytelling”). Needless to say I did a lot of research on cultural attitudes toward death with a focus on comparing Japan and the West.
What I discovered blew my mind. I never imagined that the gap between Japanese and Westerners’ views of death could be so wide. Today’s post will attempt to illuminate some key gaps that surprised me the most.
But first let’s get the morally outraged elephant out of the room. This is where we all step back, take a deep breath and–before getting caught in the monkey trap set by the media–consider the possibility that maybe the remark was taken out of context? Imagine, the media doing something like that.
So let’s suspend judgment and cut the Senator some slack. We’ll assume the remark was made tongue-in-cheek with the suicide quip just an over-the-top card he played to maximize emotional impact–or perhaps he was simply angling for a laugh? Not having heard the remarks firsthand it’s impossible to make the call.
But what we can say is that his remarks reflect what lots of folks are thinking these days, if not literally then certainly figuratively. For what its worth here’s what I’m thinking: Those dirty rats running AIG need to show us some humility and remorse then give all the money back. All of it–including every penny in their fat personal bank accounts… then maybe, just maybe, we’ll forgive them.
If you’ve read my posts Can American Executives Manage Without Their Corporate Jets?, or Japanese Automakers More Patriotic than the Big Three? then you know I’m critical of the fat-cat elitist “leaders” who are running our country off the cliff. But since I’m not a political writer you won’t see me taking shots at Senator Grassley, although I do question the wisdom of feeding political rivals ammunition so they can claim the moral high ground (whether it’s true or not). Time will tell whether Grassley becomes a punching bag or a hero for his “insensitive” remarks. Likely he’ll be both.
But since this is the Intercultural Twilight Zone (not the Political Twilight Zone), let’s forget about the Senator for now and refocus the discussion on what death and suicide actually mean in Japan. But…before we let the good Senator off the hook I’d like to point out one subtle but important boo-boo he made in his remarks. To wit:
“I suggest, you know, obviously, maybe they ought to be removed,” Grassley said. “But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they’d follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide…And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology.”
Wrong Senator. In this case, the suicide you’re suggesting they commit IS the apology, the ultimate unspoken apology. (Words just don’t carry the same weight in Japan that they do in the West.) But other than this minor error, Grassley’s on to something.
What’s the Point of Suicide in Japan?
For those of you who saw The Last Samurai you might recall the scene where the Tom-Cruise character is helping his samurai friend disembowel himself in the middle of a battlefield. (Because that’s what real Samurai friends do, you know.) And as the old samurai is dying he sees the cherry blossoms blowing off the sakura trees and utters his last words, “perfect, perfect”.
Want to take a guess as to what he meant?
This is where I turn to my thesis advisor in college, Stuart Picken, because this guy literally wrote the book on Japanese and suicide. (His book, published in Japanese, is indeed titled “The Japanese and Suicide’) His conclusions about Japanese social attitudes toward death and suicide are fascinating. Here’s the gist:
Japanese culture romanticizes suicide: it helps to understand that the samurai were not only a class of professional warriors, they also studied the arts, including painting and poetry. Aestheticism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, so much so that my old thesis advisor used to refer to Japanese society as “the cult of the aesthetic”. Indeed, in Japan everything has to be beautiful: the food, the packaging, money in decorative envelops, and yes, dying a “beautiful” death in the middle of a bloody battlefield. The cherry blossoms added the perfect poetic touch to the gritty old samurai warrior’s last stand. That’s why he said “perfect, perfect”.
On a similar note, Shinju or “double-suicide” dramas were popularized by Kabuki Theater in the Edo period (1603-1868). The storylines were pretty much boilerplate: two forbidden lovers living in an unforgiving world that won’t allow them to be together, take the ultimate escape through double-suicide shinju. These kinds of tragic stories illustrate how ingrained the idea of a “romantic death” is in Japan, and it helps to explain why you don’t see a lot of happy endings in Japanese literature.
Suicide is a form of communication: how do you non-verbally say you’re sorry in Japan? You kill yourself, of course. How do you exact the ultimate revenge? Same way. Compared to the West, the Japanese don’t put a lot of stock into words anyway. Action–or at least the perception of action–is what they want. Since faking your suicide is tough to do, the offending party is logically left with only two choices: live with shame or die forgiven. Suicide is a time-honored, perfectly acceptable, non-verbal way to say you’re sorry in Japan.
Death has no moral significance: in Japan, when you’re dead you’re dead. No one judges you anymore because, well, it really sucks being dead, especially because there’s no place to go–that’s right: no heaven, no hell.
This means the moment the doctor pronounces you dead you immediately become a hotoke-san, a kind of “Buddhist saint”. What this means in concrete terms, is that when Charles Manson dies Japanese Buddhism will wipe his evil slate clean and canonize him. Imagine that. This also explains why every year Japanese politicians pay their respects to Yasukuni Shrine–the place where Japanese war criminals are buried–knowing the pilgrimage is going to once again tick off the Chinese government. The Chinese have long memories, of course, and still are bitter about Japan’s aggressive role in World War II. What the Chinese probably don’t grasp is that in the Japanese mind–right or wrong–everyone is forgiven once they’re dead, even those dastardly war criminals.
But there is one important caveat worth mentioning about the afterlife in Japan: while Japan’s indigenous religion Shinto is considered a “this-worldly” religion totally devoid of afterlife concepts, Buddhism came along in the 6th Century and brought with it concepts of heaven and hell. The afterlife enjoyed great popularity with the elite rulers in ancient Japan, but over the long haul, the afterlife–especially the unsavory idea of going to hell–couldn’t be reconciled with traditional Japanese optimism and a strong “this-worldly” take on reality. By the end of the Edo period the Japanese had pretty much phased out the afterlife, even while they continued to practice Buddhism. And they’ve been keeping their focus on this world ever since.
Today Japan is a secular society. Most Japanese will tell you they’re atheists, although just as many will say they believe in ghosts. (One man’s ghost is another man’s god?) But while most Japanese don’t practice or belong to an organized religion, they continue to keep alive their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism.
As a final note on explaining suicide in Japan, I left out one important point: Japan is considered a “shame” culture by most anthropologists. Japanese society is perhaps best described as a “pressure cooker” that leverages the cultural value on harmony to regulate social and morale behavior. Shame is a powerful motivator for people who value harmony and belonging. Once you’re “caught” doing something wrong in Japan, society gives you the two options I mentioned earlier: apologize and live the rest of your life in shame, or redeem yourself with the ultimate apology. Too many Japanese take that second option as it’s the easiest way out.
How does a “Shame Culture” differ from the West?
“God can’t see inside my van!” –Kelso, That Seventies Show
Let’s first consider morality through Judeo-Christian filters, and start with the underlying belief that each person is constantly under the moral scrutiny of God. Based on this kind of thinking, it means that no matter where you go–even in Kelso’s van–God sees what you’re doing. To simplify the concept somewhat, one might say that Western morality is concerned with pleasing a God who is watching you 24/7.
Not so in Japan. Japanese morality is anchored to society, a reality that tolerates “situational morality”, a big no-no in the West where morality is framed in universal statements like “Thou shalt not do this or that”.
Naturally breaking any kind of rule is considered shameful behavior for the individual in Japan. But there’s a bigger cross to bear than just personal shame: since Western individualism never took root in Japan, the shameful actions of any individual also brings shame upon that person’s family and affiliations. So the Japanese kid will think twice about stealing an unlocked bike at the train station, not because he thinks God is watching him, but because of the sheer burden of guilt and shame it would bring upon his family. Even today, it’s hard to get your bicycle stolen in Japan.
You have to wonder though…did the AIG executives believe that God was watching them when they destroyed the company and so many people’s lives? Or is it simply that they have no shame? Clearly someone should have been watching them. And clearly, they should all be ashamed of themselves.
No, I don’t want to see AIG executives commit suicide. And I’m pretty sure Senator Grassley doesn’t want that to happen either–just imagine how he’d feel if one of the AIG executives actually took him up on it. But we all know what the Senator meant: that the shit needs to start rolling uphill; someone has to take responsibility for the AIG mess.
I have a much more attractive option for the AIG executives than suicide: Find your moral backbone, apologize and give the money back.
I won’t hold my breath.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009
It’s humbling to hear what Japanese say about American customer service. On the positive side we’re “kind,” “friendly,” “charming” and “warm.” But we can just as easily be mean, scary, obnoxious and aloof.
America is indeed a culture of extremes: when we’re good we’re really good. But when we’re bad we’re really bad. Most Japanese would rank average American customer service well below the average in Japan. Problem is, Japanese customers are notorious for not complaining when they feel mistreated–while they quietly stew in their own juice.
Here’s what they tell their friends and family when we’re not around: Americans don’t always keep their promises; don’t apologize for breaking promises; make excuses; don’t know how to properly speak to customers; and are not considerate.
What level of customer service do Japanese get in Japan? A personal experience at a Japanese hotel tells the story: on the way to meet the chairman of a company that employed me at the time, I walked for twenty minutes in the sticky heat of Japan’s late-July summer. I entered the lobby of the Otsuki Hotel drenched in sweat. The chairman had not yet arrived so I found a sitting area to wait.
Meanwhile an observant clerk behind the check-in counter noticed my discomfort, and took it upon herself to bring me a glass of iced barley tea and a chilled oshibori towel. She anticipated my needs and fulfilled them proactively, the ultimate in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese call this “kikubari” (pronounced “key-koo-BAH-ree”).
The value of the employee’s thoughtful gesture was immeasurable. The cost to create this wonderful experience was a cup of tea.
What similar high-impact, low-cost measures bring instant value? Review the complaints listed above then educate your employees to do the opposite. Specifically, commit your organization to:
All this requires training, of course. But it cuts much deeper than training. Business leaders in Western companies that serve the Japanese market have to first acknowledge the need to upgrade their product. Once leaders get their heads wrapped around Japanese expectations, most will understand the need to improve. Without leadership’s understanding and support, there’s no point in educating the troops, because nothing will stick.
Education is essential for opening minds to the creative possibilities and guiding employees on innovative ways to connect with Japanese customers. Education is also a low-cost-high-impact way to get quick results. It sets favorable conditions for leveraging the mind-power of your people. The improvement ideas that come from the hearts and minds of employees always work best: if it’s their idea they’ll do it; if it’s someone else’s idea they won’t.
The foundation of any improvement strategy is staying true to your organization’s values and culture. Japanese guests seek authenticity; the last thing they want is their foreign hosts acting like Japanese! You have to be who you are. Kikubari is a natural and beautiful way to put Hawaii’s customer-service values into practice.
In the end human relationships trump all. They have the power to overcome rising costs, aging facilities, and the inevitable cross-cultural faux pas. Human bonds cemented by acts of kindness add precious value to the customer experience that money can’t buy. Kikubari is a simple but powerful way to reach out and build relationships with people from any culture. Whether or not you serve the Japanese market, making kikubari part of your customer service culture will give you a powerful edge over competitors that are reacting rather than anticipating.
For another take on kikubari check out The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011
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.”
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.