Respect for People: Japanese Style

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

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

escalator.jpgAs 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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  1. pete abilla

    March 18, 2008 - 8:16 pm

    There is also the other side of the “cold shoulder” — sometimes, if one is offended, then the person can act “extra-nice” or “extra-courteous” to the offender.

    For example, as the American who disrupts harmony, others around might act extra-nice, but are truly very bothered with you.

    Cultural anthropology is very interesting as it relates to Asian cultures.

  2. Ron Pereira

    March 18, 2008 - 10:30 pm

    So that’s why everyone was so nice to me… kidding (I hope).

  3. Jon Kenney

    April 4, 2008 - 11:03 am

    Ron, If I remember correctly, didn’t you disturb the harmony by stepping off the side walk before the little red man turned green?……. I know I did!

  4. Ron Pereira

    April 5, 2008 - 6:36 am

    Jon… what happens in Japan stays in Japan, man! Ha! Great to hear from you my friend. I hope all is well.

  5. John Santomer

    November 1, 2011 - 12:53 am

    As was noted by Pete (Abilla) and experienced by Ron (Pereira), considering cultural backgrounds and all…how can we differentiate this from “Passive Resistancce” or just being treated with a “Cold shoulder”?

    For the Japanese, this is a depressing situation already. One that warrants major consideration. For Lean Agitators like yourselves, how do you address and go over this kind of situation? Kaizen and Continuous Improvements most often would go out of the the existing process or accepted practice in order to realize better results. Yet new, value added changes would also expose additional hurdles and improvement opportunities. To acheive this, one has to disrupt harmony to establish a “higher level” of “RI”. (From the Hu-Wa-Ri principle.)

  6. R.Dhamotharan

    May 25, 2013 - 7:06 pm

    Respecting others is effective mantra & good to follow.Also gemba visit to have first hand feeling too is need of the hour if we want to really improve any process or eliminate any problem .
    I enjoy reading these articles as I am having similar experience during my day to day activities.

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