Change ManagementLeanOff Topic

There’s More to Nemawashi than Consensus

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2020

Nemawashi failure with fatal consequences

A local grocery store has been doing some major remodeling. This summer they redesigned their parking lot, including new landscaping. A number of young oak trees were planted in the soil beds dividing the parking area into sections. This is a great idea. Previously the parking lot was quite bare and without trees to provide shade or touch of nature. However, due to a critical lack of forethought, these young trees sadly suffered the same fate as improvement initiatives have in many organizations.

The general contractor who is otherwise doing what seems to be good work failed to take certain risks into account when planting these trees. I observed the trees being moved into the parking lot towards the end of the week in mid-July. They were placed with the root balls resting on top of the soil for some period of time – perhaps hours, perhaps overnight. By the time I saw them again on Sunday afternoon, the trees were already too far gone. The western part of Washington State has been in a drought condition for the past few months.

Summers are normally dry here, especially in late July and into August. But the rains return in force after October so at the moment there is no real sense of urgency. We have also been experiencing temperatures in the high 80F or even 90F range for weeks at a time, which is not typical. The particular weekend when the oak trees were transplanted was one of the hottest so far this year. These trees newly planted in the narrow islands of soil in a sea of hot asphalt under the direct sun did not survive the weekend. When I touched the dry-looking leaves on the tree, they crumbled into small fragments.

Simply put, the trees died due to a lack of proper nemawashi. This lean term means “preparing the roots for transplanting” in Japanese. The purpose of nemawashi is to make sure that the tree moved from one location to another, lives. Logically then, nemawashi extends also to preparing the soil where the tree will be planted, as well as care and monitoring of the tree after transplant.

My local grocery needed a lesson in nemawashi, or at least a general contractor who considered the weather forecast, and made arrangements to ensure that the trees were watered to prevent them baking in the sun. As it was the weekend, the construction crew was not on site, but the grocery store staff could easily have watered the trees had they known and taken initiative. It is a gardening term adopted to describe the consensus building process of Japanese organizations, and via lean thinking to the West.

So what’s the parallel we can draw from these unfortunate oak trees to the failures or successes of or organizations to embedding a culture of continuous improvement? Or, for that matter, embedding any good process, system, policy or idea among any group of people? In lean management terms, nemawashi is preparing the minds of people for the transplant of new ideas. At the most basic level this is communication based on mutual respect, building consensus in advance of the new software system, management practice or improvement initiative going in. One could call it change management, but there is more to it than tnat. Unlike trees, when people experience bad nemawashi, they very seldom die. But the transplanted good ideas do.

Think about what killed the oak trees in the grocery store parking lot, and ask yourself whether your organization is guilty of similar neglect. What questions are asked and what information is shared during your nemawashi process? How does the “weather forecast” look? Did you check whether conditions might be particularly poor right now for transplanting the idea? The forecast might be financial, due to workload, seasonality or other business factors. Who is on “weekend duty” to provide care after the planting, should there be a heat wave? Did management transplant the idea and then go on a weekend, holiday or management retreat?

Nemawashi is more than consensus-building, or preparing people’s minds for something new. We must also prepare our minds to watch, think and respond to conditions around us that will kill the idea. We must examine what conditions may have killed a good ideas in the past, and plan to counter similar conditions. While it is not always possible to predict the future, and over-analysis can lead to inaction, to avoid the fate of the oak trees we must take a few moments in nemawashi discussion on the topic of, “What might kill our new idea in early days after transplanting?” This will surely help identify at least the most obvious risk factors and simple countermeasures.

  1. Caillaud

    August 6, 2015 - 3:25 pm

    Thanks very much for this story. As a Bonsaïka (Bonsaï raiser), I have often battled around such situation, but never made the connection so far. Thanks for this wakening.

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