Note: Links to all of four Japan factory tour posts and the various lessons from those tours can be found here.
I recently returned from a week in Japan, where I toured four world-class companies as part of Gemba's Japan Kaikaku Experience. The company tour reports are here: Toyota, Saishunkan, TOTO, and an electronics company. Although each company was radically different, there were also some commonalities that can provide important lessons. Some are perhaps a little superficial, but still powerful, and others reach to the heart of lean. As part of my attempt to process and record what I've seen, and to create some plans for future action, I thought I'd try to write about some of the common themes.
Todays subject: harmony, chaos, and ruthlessness
The Gemba Research team did a great job of providing an initial orientation to Japanese history, culture, and key phrases. I won't go into the details as some of the cultural side activities are very unique and are what makes their Japan Kaikaku Experience the best tour available, but the blend of factory tours and cultural awareness was perfect.
One of the major cultural points was the concept of "big harmony" or yamato. To achieve such balance, Japanese society has refined a plethora of cultural traits: humility, loyalty, respect and consensus. Maintaining harmony can be more important than success or even truth. How to greet a coworker politely is one of the first topics in a new employee orientation, and not following those expectations is a reason for dismissal. It is truly that important.
This is why there can be significant misunderstanding and miscommunication between Japanese and western cultures. The Japanese will forgive major transgressions if a simple apology is offered, but will hold a major grudge on even minor issues if there is no apology. Similarly Japanese will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation, while their western counterparts prefer to vociferously discuss issues and will become agitated if they can't make their point.
In the field of business, however, this often results in a lack of leaders who are willing to stand out from the crowd, promote themselves and act decisively. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is a common Japanese refrain; “the hawk with talent hides his talons” is another. Whereas American and European bosses like to appear on the covers of global business magazines, their Japanese counterparts are comfortable in their obscurity. Business in Japan is generally run as a group endeavour.
This is why, counter to popular perception, lean is not grounded in or even compatible with traditional Japanese culture. Lean requires taking unpopular stands on concepts that can be decidedly counterintuitive. Lean is often not ordered, instead it thrives on leveraging a certain level of chaos.
Part of our Japanese history lesson tied directly to this phenomenom. During the 1500's Japan was fragmented and at war with itself. Three leaders came along, the first being Oda Nobunaga, who is known for being ruthless. He showed no mercy to his adversaries, but this heavy-handed approach helped end the wars and create a foundation for peace. Vying for control and assuming the leadership after Nobunaga was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was known for his smarts. He helped build social structure, and people saw him as a true leader. And waiting all along and finally assuming control after Hideyoshi was Tokugawa Iyeyasu. He had been waiting for his turn all along, and was very patient. The rewards finally came.
Think about the lesson, or metaphor, that history provides to the lean transformation:
The initial stages of a lean transformation are tough, with many counterintuitive concepts such as one piece flow instead of batch. There needs to be some ruthlessness by a leader to get the process started. One of the companies we visited called those types of things the "non-negotiables"… the leader had edicted that they would be implemented. Period, end of discussion. That saved the company from years of discussion. 5S was one of those non-negotiables, as was a requirement that everyone be open to change.
After the initial framework is in place, then it pays to be smart. Educate the workforce, implement new tools and methods, and work on the key metrics. Drive change. Create the solid structure for lean to thrive.
Finally, on an ongoing basis, be patient. Many of the rewards of lean take time, which is why public companies with their short-term outlook driven by the stock investor community have such a hard time implementing real lean. Solid lean companies know that time is on their side. This is one reason why Toyota has formal 50 year plans, 10 times greater than that of most companies.
One key lesson is that it doesn't pay to skip the ruthless stage. Many of us prefer to lead via consensus and guiding a collective knowledge, but that can be counterproductive. Leaders need to be willing to lay down the law and make those tough calls in order for the organization to move forward.