Sunday, April 20, 2008

More tips for a manager in Japan

Most forums and stories about Japan focus on the practicalities of getting a visa, and on areas accessible to foreigners, the most obvious being English conversation teacher. Expat Managers in Japan have a smoother way into the country. The paperwork is taken care of. A nice apartment is already booked for them in downtown Tokyo, and they have a position waiting in the Japanese subsidiary of their company. This does not mean they have it easy, and Japan can be a career graveyard, especially for very bright and successful people in the west. I published last month a few tips about working in Japan. This story gives more of them.
Lesson 6: Leverage on your expertise areas
Once in Japan, you will probably lose some of the strengths you leverage at home. You may be an eloquent and convincing speaker, but this will be lost through translations. Japanese people are also more likely to want to review the details than to buy a brilliant theory. Obviously, your carefully crafted network in the company will be of almost no use in Japan. You may be brilliant in motivating your team, but this will also not translate well in Japanese due to language and way of working. One of the only leverage you can still use in Japan is your expertise. A well-written computer program is well-written in all languages. A precise planning also stays a precise planning. Stress Calculation for Mechanical parts is the same in the west and Japan. A skilled chef remains a skilled chef whatever the country. My experience is that Japanese people respect expertise far more than they do of important, but harder to define, ‘managerial skills’. If your position in Japan is in line with your expertise and experience, it will be a powerful base you can build your position on.
Lesson 7: Forget about abstraction and concepts
The most brilliant, or supposedly brilliant, managers in the West love abstraction and concepts. Every year, business schools and consulting companies produce new concepts that are supposed to provide answers to company issues. Communication around those concepts is usually very sophisticated, as the organizations producing them have to justify their high fee. Hours of meetings can be wasted by rival managers fighting over their favourite ideas. Sceptics will say that most of those concepts are useless or even dangerous, and those that are not usually boil down to a two-line sentence when the hot air is removed. Whatever your opinion on this topic, you are likely to have a hard time using your favourite concepts in Japan, as they probably are not so popular here. Your Japanese employees, customers and suppliers are also likely to be very sceptical about abstract reasoning. My personal opinion is that there may be deep cultural reasons for that, but this is off-topic. You will have no choice but to elaborate your favourite idea down to concrete things like productivity improvement, better sales, reduced cost and better quality. For each of those topics, you will then be able to discuss productively with your Japanese counterparts about concrete improvements. This is actually a way of working that you may want to bring back home as most people find it more efficient.
Lesson 8: Do not play with the truth
Many managers, not to mention politicians, have the temptation to play with the truth. There may be good intentions behind. Making a good dossier even better can speed-up decisions. Hiding the pain in a change can help make it accept, sometimes for the own interest of the people “cheated”. However, the decision cycle is going to be very long in Japan, and your propositions will be explored in detail by all your Japanese colleagues and partners. You may find yourself in a very delicate situation explaining them the points where you “massaged” the truth. At worst, you will lose your credibility, and the goodwill you started to build with your counterparts. By being honest, you will build trust with your colleagues. You may also be better prepared to address the risks in the plan you present. As a common example, moving offshore or outsourcing looks nice to reduce cost, but how do you address quality issues and make sure the experience of the in-house employees is not lost? Did you account for the full cost of firing the people concerned, including loss of morale for the employees remaining? In the end, considering everything, is it really worth it? Would not you be better starting on a small scale and see how it goes? I believe you may also want to bring this habit back home.
Lesson 9: Negociate in the backroom
In theory, the most important meetings should be the ones where decisions are taken, as all the stakeholders in the company are present, and a lively debate can take place. In the end, one opinion, or a compromise, is agreed as the company decision. This decision may be in contradiction with the suggestion of one or several stake-holders. It means the company thinks those people were wrong, or their concern were not the most pressing ones for the company. This can be understood as the normal course of business in anglo-saxon culture. However, in many other cultures, this can be resented as a public humiliation for the people whose opinion was disregarded, and the different opinions expressed may just be seen as a “mess”. Of course, there are very different opinions in a company in Japan as everywhere else, but Japanese people think it is worth reaching a consensus before the “big meeting” by conducting bilateral discussions between all stake-holders to reach the best decision for the company. By doing this, everybody saves face, and the harmony inside the company is preserved. Of course, this has a drawback, as it is extremely time consuming. But it is probably better than the alternative. If you do not take time to build consensus, you will hold the big meeting and tell your opinion. Most likely, the Japanese guys will politely say “yes” to express the fact they have understood your opinion, not that they agree. They may not realize the decision has been taken. When they do, they will fight by all possible means to have the decision reversed, or to make it meaningless. One example is a company that set an amount (let’s say $1M) above which projects need to be approved centrally, in order to control spending. Most Japanese people just ended-up splitting their projects into $995K packages that they could continue as before.
To conclude this short series, I would like to point to a quite interesting book telling the story of the Nissan take-over by Renault, and how his president, Carlos Gohn, managed it. While the magic has worn off a little bit, he still managed to transform a struggling traditional Japanese company into a profitable one. I wished all my colleagues in Japan read the book.
Turnaround: How Carlos Gohn rescued Nissan, from David Magee. Edited by Collins, ISBN 978-0060514853
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.

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