Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foreign manager in Japan

I had the opportunity to work on a large-scale project in the Japanese subsidiary of an Anglo-Saxon multinational. Things did not turn out according to plan, and the project soon became a huge power struggle between the western managers and the Japanese employees. Being a “latine” European, and almost the only foreigner speaking Japanese, I was somehow considered “neutral”, and alternatively the confident of westerners and Japanese alike. This was the ideal position to ”make sense of it all”. I have tried to boil-down my thoughts into a few key lessons that will help me next time and may be of interest to other western managers assigned to Japan.
Lesson 1: Have realistic expectations

You may be a very efficient manager in the west. However, the odds are you will spend much time here convincing Japanese people that your ideas are right, and then, things may work-out much slower than what you are used to, if they progress at all. Unless the situation is critical, Japanese people are very unlikely to accept radical change in their way of working. They may also consider that your assignment is only for a few years, and they will stay longer, so they would better please their Japanese colleagues and customers than yourself. Those are reasons why you should you take as a baseline for your assignment objectives what your predecessor in Japan has achieved, not what you have achieved in another country. In most situations, it is probably safer to promise that you will implement consensual and incremental change, correct obvious flows, and give visibility to your management.
Lesson 2: Only accept a position with power attached

Western and Japanese people seldom work together efficiently, as the way of thinking and background are quite different. Also, communication is usually poor due to translation. Quite rationally, most Japanese employees would rather leave you idle on the side, and continue managing the day to day business themselves. They believe they will lose more time engaging you than they will gain, and they sometimes fear you will break all the relationships and organization they put in place. You may enjoy a two years holiday in Japan with all the perks of an expat. However, if your idea is to get real work done, you should make sure your position is designed so that you stay in the loop of most decisions: a good idea would be to have control over the budget, or to have strategic technical knowledge that is positively necessary for your Japanese colleagues. By doing so, you will not have to convince your Japanese colleagues to keep you in the loop, as they anyways need you.
Lesson 3: Do not expect to be trusted just because you are a westerner

Anglo-saxon companies are amongst the most efficient and well-organized. As a result, western managers, especially American ones, often think their way of working is the best, and expect Japanese people just to admit it, listen and adopt their way. This feeling is especially true as most Japanese employees may not master well the English language, and will not be able to explain eloquently their ideas in English. If you hear about the other side, Japanese people are justly proud of their achievements: they have built the second world economy on a narrow piece of land (thirty times smaller than the USA), managed the most efficient and fastest transition from the feudal world to a modern country. Japanese people also often think that their society is more harmonious. We could spend hours comparing Japan and the West, but there are for sure areas where Japan is very competitive with the west, the most obvious example being the automobile industry. Your subordinates will not take your statement as face value and always challenge them. So, to succeed, you will have to listen to your employees, prove them that your ideas are right, and, especially, that they are suited to the Japanese environment.

Lesson 4: Adapt to the Japanese environment

While local people tend to exaggerate the specificities of Japan, there are some objective differences between the “West” and Japan that usually boil down to the following ones:
  • Houses are small and land is scarce, so the people have an adapted lifestyle. Obvious examples are that people buy food on a daily basis, as they do not have room to store a week’s worth of supply, and buy small cars to adapt to the narrow roads.
  • Japanese people are very sophisticated in their taste and lifestyle: Tokyo compares well with the most elegant cities in the west such as Milan, Paris, New-York or London, for fashion, food and nightlife. You may not find a market here for second-rate products.
  • Standards of service are also very high in Japan. While expats often take the example of the ATM closed on Sunday to show Japan has poor service, this is in my opinion more the rule than the exception. I had the chance to live in several countries in Europe, the USA, and Japan, and I found service consistently better in Japan. This is true as an individual customer to restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, moving companies, phone companies, real estate agents. But it also applies to internal services in most companies I worked with. I regret every single day the extremely efficient Japanese assistant that helped me sort small issues on the project. The dark side is of course that processes and products often have to be over-engineered to provide the required quality of service. This may not be always cost effective, but it may be the only way to do business in Japan.
Lesson 5: Work hard

There is a general feeling in the west, especially in Anglo-Saxon culture, that spending long nights in the office is a proof of poor personal productivity, as brilliant people will organize themselves better and finish their work early. This is certainly often true, but there is also a dark side. Dig a little bit, and behind a self-declared productive person leaving the office at 5pm, there is often a hard-working subordinate or subcontractor making long days to compensate, or a fine-tuned rhetoric to push difficult work to other people. Japanese people generally respect hard work and long hours. During my experience in Japan, I could observe the relative success of two dozen western executives, and the hardest working people were consistently and significantly the most successful, even if they were not always the most knowledgeable or experienced. By spending long hours at work, they gained respect from their colleagues, they had time to put attention to details, and they were in the office when decisions were taken late at night. The most effective meeting I experienced was an infamous 14 hours session that started at 4pm and finished at 6 am the following morning having worked through all the details of a complex contract. This is somehow extreme, but you should expect to finish work regularly between 9 and 11pm. To be successful, you would be wise to forget about evenings in the American club and regular dates with your wife on weekdays. A good compromise is probably to work intensely on weekdays, but keep your week-end to yourself and your family.
In a following story, I will share with you other lessons I got out of my experience in Japan.
Note: the buildings appearing on the pictures of this story have been chosen for esthetic reasons only. I did not conduct business with companies located in those buildings, and none of my stories is based on them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good list. But what I really want to hear are some stories that contextualize these rules.

Give us the juice! ;-)