“Who is responsible?” This is a phrase I used to translate all of the time when walking around with one of my Japanese sensei during a consultation. Other interpreters would use the English phrase “Who’s in charge?” or “Who is the manager of this area?” to communicate this question but these are not only misleading translations, they are harmful.
Asking who is in charge immediately brings to mind the power relationships, fear of being scolded by the Japanese man (rightly so) and usually resulted in some puzzled “responsible person” being summoned from the depth of the office for a lashing. This was not all bad, in hindsight. Asking who is the manager of the area could be less fruitful since these were often hard to find or summon to the floor. In either case, they were not the person that the sensei was looking for.
The word “responsibility” means to bear a duty. When one is responsible, it is because one has taken on a burden or duty. In keeping with lean principles this should not be overburden, or unreasonable duties, but it is critically important that individuals take responsibility for the role they have accepted. During the past year I have learned some expensive lessons about the difference between not assigning blame to people and not holding people responsible. One can take “blame the process, not the person” too far. Within a lean culture, within any healthy and functioning culture, mutual trust and respect must exist and this can only be built on each bearing their duties and upholding individual responsibilities. We need systems and processes for this but ultimately it is people who do or do not follow the standards, who take or do not take responsibility.
Culturally there are big differences in the notion of responsibility and the weight it is given within a community. In Japan to be labeled “irresponsible” is quite damning. Taking personal responsibility and being seen as a responsible member of society is essential to being a valued and respected member of society. In the USA individual rights trump individual responsibilities any day. This is a product of the history of rugged individualism, the frontier and the American Dream. In China it is again quite different. In other countries the value placed on responsibility, at what level and to what degree it is assigned all vary. These variations have their historical and cultural reasons. In order to succeed with lean management is important to understand what “Who is responsible?” means in each culture.
When the Japanese sensei would ask, “Who is responsible?” and I was fortunate enough to be the person there to ask it for them in English, my insistence on using that exact phrase would often puzzle people. They had heard the “Where’s the manager?” question before and knew what to do. They knew “Who was in charge” and which way to point the finger before ducking out. But we did not want them to summon anyone in charge, any manager. Often the dogged question of who was responsible for some specific item, area, process or result of the process was the very person we were questioning. When this realization hit them, the moment was gold and the learning could begin.