During my recent travels through Japan I was paying close attention to the words and actions of the Japanese leaders we met.
One of my trip goals was to gain a better understanding of how the Japanese practiced the concept of “respect for people” we hear so much about in the lean world. Let me summarize some of the things I learned.
Don’t Disturb Harmony
As we learned on day 1 of our visit, Japan is the land of big harmony. The Japanese seem to enjoy a sense of flow in all they do.
Take an escalator for example. When Japanese people ride on an escalator everyone, and I do mean everyone, seems to know that the right side of the path is to remain clear so people in a hurry can pass on by.
Being the unknowing American in the crowd I made the mistake of messing with this harmony a few times (by standing on the right side with my big old back pack). And let me just say, my error was brought to my attention immediately by those around me. Were they rude about it? No. But they were definitely, let’s say, blunt.
As it relates to the factories we visited… I sensed a similar thing. If an employee (or American visitor) is disturbing harmony in any way they will be made aware of it immediately.
The Cold Shoulder
If an employee continues to disturb the harmony, even after being made aware of it, the next step may very well be the cold shoulder.
It didn’t seem like “firing the problem employee” was a popular method of dealing with issues like this in Japan. Instead, this problem employee would more likely be ignored and given the cold shoulder as we would say in America.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, and what’s so bad about that?” Apparently, in Japan, this is very bad.
In fact, we heard a story of one man who was not invited to meetings and was essentially left alone after he was identified as a harmony disruptor. This man felt so bad about the situation that he actually fell into depression.
Practice What They Preach
While the cold shoulder method did seem a bit disrespectful to me I will say it was more than countered by how willing these leaders were to walk the talk.
At HOKS, for example, the managing director single handedly launched their “3S” program. How did he do this? By arriving 30 minutes early to work to clean the parking lot and any other area that needed it. He explained that the only way he could ever expect his employees to buy into this new way of thinking and working was to first do it himself.
Again and again, we saw managers and leaders practicing genchi genbutsu. In other words, they went to the floor to see what was happening. Actually, they didn’t “go” to the floor… they were almost always “on” the floor in the midst of the action.
So, while there were glimpses of things that seemed a bit harsh, they were dwarfed by all the positive examples of respecting people I witnessed. Following the excellent advice of our guide, Brad, it’s these positive aspects I am burning into my long term memory.
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