The Art of Nemawashi

Nemawashi is the building of support for a project through advance communication and consensus. The Japanese term nemawashi (根回し) comes from “to dig around the roots” in order to prepare a plant for transplant. Without proper nemawashi, a bonsai tree transplanted to new soil may die.
Many people first hear of nemawashi in the context of Hoshin Kanri (policy deployment) which is a fact-based approach to planning and tracking breakthrough objectives. As awareness of the Toyota Way and its elements become more mainstream, the mention of nemawashi as a management behavior has increased.
In business how many projects die because ideas were transplanted to minds that were not prepared to nurture them? The only place I can think of in the U.S. where nemawashi is practiced regularly is in Congress, where the passage of laws requires the support of a certain number of votes and lawmakers spend time and effort to gain support for their ideas.
Like much of kaizen, there’s nothing mysterious about nemawashi. It’s not a science (though you could take a scientific approach) or a 12-step process. If you have a project that requires decision and support, here’s how to get started with the art of nemawashi:
Create the project document. What is the current condition? What are the root causes? What is it costing us to do business this way? What are possible countermeasures?
Tip: Fit this on one page, even if it’s a big piece of paper (A3 size).
Review the project document with people. Do this in person (in many cultures doing this individually will yield better results than review in groups). Ask each person if they understand the current condition, the root causes and the actions proposed. If you are a leader, prepare to listen and teach but resist the tempation to justify or explain.
Tip: Send the project description to people in advance so they can review it and prepare for your face to face meeting.
Rewrite the project document. At this stage the document it is no longer a proposal as such but a summary of what has already been agreed by those who influence and make decisions in the organization.
Tip: Keep the original document hard copy with your notes to show the various changes and inputs you gained from people throughout the nemawashi process. Until nemawashi becomes second nature this “draft” document will help people visualize how nemawashi works and how their ideas and inputs were valued.
Meet to decide formally to support the project. This should take less than an hour, including time for questions and clarifications.
Tip: If at first you fail to gain smooth agreement at this meeting, spin the PDCA cycle and learn why. Did you miss certain people in the nemawashi process? Was the project document unclear? Did the nemawashi process go on too long so that priorities changed?
There are three main benefits to the nemawashi process:
1) You will have a better understanding of the current condition as people challenge the initial assumptions and results of root cause analysis
2) It creates ownership for the project because others have had a chance to influence and shape it. People support what they create.
3) Time waste in meetings is eliminated or replaced with time doing nemawashi.
Nemawashi is best done in the project design phase or Plan phase of PDCA. How long should this process take? Probably as long as you need to make sure the project will be successfully transplanted in the minds of the people who have the ability to nurture or neglect it. The more that people in positions to influence significant change practice nemawashi, the greater the chance of success will be for these changes.

3 Comments

  1. robert thompson

    March 26, 2007 - 4:56 am

    The process of discussing problems and potential solutions with all of those affected, to collect their ideas and get agreement on a path forward is time-consuming but is essential to become a learning organization through relentless reflection (hansei) and continuous improvement (kaizen). I’ve found that your chance of success is proportional to how effectively you can nemawashi the right people in the right order.
    Rob

  2. Che

    October 18, 2007 - 5:45 pm

    I worked in a Toyota subsidiary company in South East Asia. We were encouraged to nemawashi. I have a recent incident where I nemawashi with 4 members of a Committee and got their OK. I prepared the papers for the Committee meeting (5 members present and 1 absence) and my proposal was shot down. I got only 25% of what I proposed after a hard fought that left a bitter taste in my mouth.
    I received comments that if I nemawashi with each member separately, the decision making is individual and information flow is disjointed. I was told it is best to round all the Committee Members to the table to discuss at length and decide.

  3. Jon Miller

    October 21, 2007 - 9:30 pm

    Well, maybe 25% was as much of the proposal that could feasibly achieve consensus and be implemented? Better to get 100% implementation of a 25% plan than 25% implementation of a 100% plan. The bigger the plan, and more nodding of heads, the more resources are applied and potentially wasted through lack of commitment or execution. Better a small success and continuation than a perfect plan stalled.
    I am sure there are cultural differences to how well nemawashi works, individually or in groups. Cultures are different in different parts of the world, and people rely on facts, consensus and personal opinion to differing degrees.
    Nemawashi is not a tool used to win a “hard fought” proposal. After all, you want people to tell you what will NOT work and what they will NOT support so that whatever you are left with WILL be implemented.
    That might be counterintuitive.