Faça Primeiro e Pense Depois: What I Learned from Japan in Brazil

Edson Oda
Senior Operations Consultant
On the Evolving Excellence blog today Bill Waddell admits he doesn’t speak Japanese, warns against drowning your Lean efforts with Japanese lessons, and takes on the Japanese for not being curious enough to visit and learn from his website. Bill, the Japanese are not hitting your English website because despite being the world’s number two economy, Japan’s English language educational system is completely broken.
Bill begins with a justified criticism of the comments on India by Kenichi Ohmae, a Japanese management guru. Turned off by Ohmae, Bill concludes that there’s not much to learn from Japan, aside from Toyota. Ohmae is newsworthy because he is provocative. He no more speaks for Japan than does Tom Peters for America.
Edson Oda is a senior consultant in our Sao Paulo, Brazil office. He told me that in Brazil there is a near 100% acceptance of things from Japan being good. This is due to a century of history of Japanese immigrants helping develop agriculture and industry in Brazil. If it’s better than what you have, you copy it. Brazil has been a developing country and has much to learn from Japan, the U.S. and other countries. They have not copied Japan’s English educational system, thankfully.
I support using Japanese terms, though only to the point that it makes senses. Why use Japanese terms? “Kanban” is a lot shorter and more precise than “production control signal cards”. Kaizen means something different, and more nuanced than “continuous improvement.”
With apologies to Bill, I’ll introduce another Japanese phrase to the Lean vocabulary. The phrase yattemitekara kangaero means “Give it a try first, then think about it.” Edson introduced me to this expression that the Japanese managers of NEC in Brazil used as a way to teach their kaizen philosophy. It’s learning by doing rather than by reading the theory and trying to completely understand it first. I prefer the Portuguese: Faça primeiro e pense depois.
When a Japanese factory manager who has had “do first, think later” drummed into him receives the “why” question from his Indian subordinates, you can hardly blame him for wanting them to learn by doing rather than through discussion. Ohmae has not thought deeply enough about this issue, and he completely fails to make this connection. My advice to Japanese doing business in India is to put respect for people first, seeking understanding of the national culture and how this affects business culture. Ask Toyota how it’s done.
The biggest challenge I have heard from our clients who have operations or suppliers in India is that the infrastructure there today is terrible. India’s higher education system is very good, and people in India are inquisitive and eager to learn. They are also more individualistic and confrontational than the Japanese. This presents an opportunity for a culture shock for the Japanese factory managers in India.
My Japanese teachers of kaizen, for all of their faults, had great insights into the work culture of people in various countries. Leading change as they did in high-pressure environments around the world week after week they needed to understand quickly which cultures like to talk for hours before trying anything (Germany) and which cultures meant “never” when they said “tomorrow” (Mexico). Stereotypes exist because in general, they contain truth.
Why should we learn from Japan? We should learn from everyone we possibly can. Today, Japan is still the place where you fill find the best examples of the thought of Ford, Deming, Ohno, and Shingo in action every day. The Japanese certainly don’t have all of the answers. Toyota certainly doesn’t claim to either. Anyone who claims to hasn’t thought deeply enough about the problems.