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IBM Japan had been struggling for some years when Martin Jetter was appointed President in 2012. The previous Japanese nationality President had been somewhat unceremoniously booted out, I assume for being perceived to be part of the common problem that many long standing Japanese subsidiaries of foreign companies have – namely of being even more staid in their traditional Japanese ways than their native Japanese competitors.
There was much concern that Jetter came with a reputation for being a fierce cost cutter. He is an IBM veteran, having joined the company in Germany in 1986 but holding some key positions in IBM’s US headquarters previous to his arrival in Japan. He did indeed heavily restructure IBM Japan, with the result that it posted its first revenue growth in twelve years, after only a year and a half into his reign.
In a recent interview with Nikkei Business, Jetter is keen to stress the positive steps he took to achieve this. Firstly he set up 4 regions, with their own sales forces. He also made a point of visiting customers personally in those regions, holding regional forums.
Secondly he made sure that time was spent on understanding exactly what customer needs were, and thirdly IBM Japan has embarked up a major training programme for employees.
Asked what needs he identified and what he did about it, the most striking initiative, for which his backers in IBM HQ must have provided strong support, was to meet Japanese customer needs for global IT provision by setting up IBM Japan offices in Singapore and Bangkok and ensuring that there were Japanese speaking consultants outside of Japan for Japanese clients to talk to – including in Europe and North America.
IBM’s particular strengths are the security and stability that its long history promises, for new technology services such as cloud and big data analytics, says Jetter, clearly recognising Japanese corporate risk aversion. He also asserts that IBM will be able to provide as high a standard of customer service, digitally, as Japanese companies have provided face to face.
He also points out that IBM has a clear strategy, despite recent dips in profitability – and has got rid of businesses in which it cannot differentiate itself, such as networks, printers, PCs and low end servers.
His reward for his success in turning around IBM Japan and faith in the IBM line is to be appointed as the head of the “troubled” Global Technology Services division from January 2015. As the Nikkei comments, he is a soft spoken, gentlemanly type in person, but it’s probably his reputation as a hard nosed cost cutter with HQ backing that has won him this promotion.
When I started working at Mitsubishi Corporation in London, I was intrigued by the fact that Mitsubishi had first opened the office there as early as 1915. Most British people, if they have thought about it at all, would assume Japanese companies did not establish themselves in the UK until well after World War Two. In fact it turned out Mitsubishi Corporation was a relative late comer to London amongst the sogo shosha (Japanese trading companies), although the Iwasaki founding family had links with the UK from long before 1915.
I was reminded of these links thanks to a recent talk by Dr Ohnuma Shinichi, professor of Experimental Ophthalmology at University College London (UCL) to Japanese business people in London, where he showed slide after slide of the names of the Japanese future elite who studied at UCL in the Meiji era, starting with the 14 students from the Satsuma clan in 1865, through to Iwasaki Toshiya, who studied Chemistry at UCL in 1901.
Dr Ohnuma was showing us these slides to remind us of how the founders of the modern Japanese state and business had fearlessly travelled and lived abroad, and there was a keen discussion afterwards as to how this spirit of adventure could be revived amongst young Japanese people now.
One of Dr Ohnuma’s suggestions was that Japanese companies should demonstrate that there is a positive advantage to have worked abroad, and to ensure there are proper roles for their employees with overseas experience to fulfil when they return.
At Mitsubishi Corporation it was an unwritten rule that top executives have overseas experience, and as a consequence, most new graduates join Mitsubishi Corporation and other trading companies in the expectation that they will be posted abroad. I realise however, that for other major Japanese companies, whose origins are more domestically oriented, it would be rather hard to implement this rule straight away, when in most cases hardly any of their current executives have overseas experience.
Smaller companies may have more scope to put such criteria in place however. The leaders of such companies can set the tone themselves, just as Sony’s Morita Akio did in 1963, when he controversially relocated himself and his family to New York, in order to understand the US market better.
It is surely no coincidence that the current President of Sony, Hirai Kazuo, lived abroad as a child and worked for Sony overseas. Despite Naruke Makoto (ex President of Microsoft Japan)’s assertion that nobody has ever succeeded who went to international school, Hirai did indeed go to the American School in Tokyo.
Sony may be having its problems right now, but I truly hope it succeeds in its revival plans, and proves that the spirit of entrepreneurism, openness to the world outside Japan and adaptability to change of its founder can live on, if the founder himself has set the tone correctly by his own actions.
(This article was originally published in Japanese, for the Teikoku Databank News)
My book on the history of Mitsubishi Corporation in London since 1915 is now available in digital Kindle format (link to amazon.co.uk)
- Pourquoi les Japonais mettent-ils si longtemp à prendre des décisions?
- Pourquoi les Japonais ne-donnent-ils pas d’instructions précises?
- Comment dire à un Japonais que l’on n’est pas d’accord sans l’offenser?
- Quelle est la meilleure approche pour obtenir le soutien de mes collègues au Japon?
- Comment présenter un projet à une équipe de direction Japonaise?
- Pourquoi les Japonais font-ils autant d’heures suppléementaires?
- Comment interpréter les signes lors de réunions avec des Japonais?
Les Européens qui travaillent avec des collègues et partenaires japonais se posent souvent ces questions. Les séminaires de Japan Intercultural Consulting sont l’occasion de discuter et d’analyser les différences culturelles que vous rencontrez au quotidien. En utilisant des études de cas et des discussions en groupe, nous vous offrons des solutions concrètes pour développer de meilleures relations avec vos collègues et partenaires japonais.
Pour toute information supplémentaire, n’hésitez pas à joindre Liza Maronese au +33 6 58 10 15 85 ou lizamaronesejapaninterculturalcom (lizamaronesejapaninterculturalcom) .
Animateur: Liza Maronese
Tarif par personne: 460 euros
Tarif réduit pour l’inscription d’au moins deux participants travaillant pour la même organisation : 400 euros
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I have to admit that I always suffer from reverse culture shock when I return to the UK after business trips to Japan. Arriving at Heathrow Airport I find my shoulders hunching up, ready to face the fact the inevitable headaches and the fact that at best I may get some cheery but incompetent service – and at worst, downright hostility – from the people delivering my “transportation experience”.
I know from the training seminars I do for Japanese expatriates who are working in Europe that they too put “bad customer service” near the top of the list of things they find most challenging about living here. In Japan you become used to a consistently high level of competence in customer service, delivered politely and gently, with immediate and unreserved apology should things go wrong. Most British people, even if they have never visited Japan, will agree that customer service standards are poor in the UK. Other Europeans, on hearing our criticisms, will usually add, “Try my country – it’s even worse!” European service is uneven in quality, often delivered with a bad attitude and when things go wrong, you get excuses rather than a straightforward apology.
The question Japanese expatriates ask – and the question I often ask myself, is – “why?” Why is customer service so bad in Europe, and if most people agree it is not satisfactory, why isn’t anything done about it?
I have been doing some research on the differences in Japanese and British corporate cultures recently, and I’ve realised that the key features I have identified can also be used to explain the different customer service outcomes. For example the corporate mission of British and Japanese companies and their historical roots has led to more “stakeholder” companies in Japan compared to more “shareholder” type of companies in the UK. This in turn has had an impact on the employees’ sense of belonging to a corporate group and collective responsibility.
Some of the more traditional – some might say “outdated” – aspects of Japanese companies also impact customer service. These would include seniority based promotion, with its roots in Confucian acceptance of unequal power in society and the obligations that go with different ranks, alongside respect for elders and higher ranked people. And although status is unequal, Japanese companies do not have a huge differential between the pay of the senior executives compared to the junior ranks, unlike British service companies where the junior person is notoriously badly paid and chief executives earn millions of pounds.
Finally, even in service sector companies in Japan there is the gembashugi factor or a focus on the actual place where the work is done. Senior managers should have worked their way up the organisation and be prepared to go out onto the shopfloor. There is even a kind of monozukuri or craftsmanship – pride in the physical aspects of delivering service well.
Perhaps, if the key elements in Japanese service excellence can be identified and made explicit, customer service can be Japan’s next big export industry?
This article originally appeared in the November 30th 2009 edition of the Nikkei Weekly
9:30 to 16:30
This public seminar from Japan Intercultural Consulting (represented in Europe by Rudlin Consulting) will be conducted in English by Chie Misumi. Chie has an MA in Intercultural Communications from California State University, Fullerton, USA and worked in the European Headquarters of Canon and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in the Netherlands. She is currently a lecturer in International Business School at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.
- Why Japanese tend to be vague and indirect – and how to interpret what they mean
- Why Japanese people don’t give a lot of feedback
- How Japanese society and companies have been changing
- How decisions are made in Japanese organisations
- Why Japanese avoid risk
- How to get your ideas accepted by a Japanese organisation
- How to make meetings with Japanese people more effective
- How to build strong working relationships with Japanese
- How to behave appropriately at meals and other social situations
- What to keep in mind if you travel to Japan for business
- What most bothers Japanese about the Europeans they work with
Individual fee: 460 euros
Discounted fee for more than two delegates from the same organisation: 400 euros
Please see Japan Intercultural Consulting events page for payment online by credit card.
For payment by bank transfer or for an invoice – please contact pernillerudlinjapaninterculturalcom
Or post a cheque for the full amount including VAT, made payable to “Rudlin Consulting Ltd” to St Georges House, 26 Princes Street, Norwich NR3 1AE, UK.
Following on from her article on why Germans work less hours than Japanese employees, Professor Ulrike Schaede takes a look in a second article at the need for a German “golden middle path” in Japanese management style. She describes how Germans who know that the Bauhaus minimalist architectural style was influenced by Japanese minimalism are surprised by how Japanese presentations are so overcomplicated, or there are so many Japanese people on a team, who don’t seem to have clear roles and responsibilities, and how many meetings seem to be needed to make a decision.
In terms of the right balance on team numbers she cites Amazon’s 2 pizza rule – that team members should be no greater than 5 or 6, the number that can be fed adequately by 2 (American size) pizzas. Individual responsibilities should be made clear, in order to improve a sense of ownership and motivation. It has certainly been our experience at Japan Intercultural Consulting in facilitating cross cultural sessions for teams which are multi-site (eg the Netherlands, Japan and USA) that the Europeans in particular know that teams are not going to function effectively if roles are not clearly defined. The American “just do it” attitude and the Japanese “all pull together” approach do not work across borders.
As for too many meetings, she jokes that Japanese salarymen eat too much spinach – horenso in Japanese. We often talk about horenso in our Japan Intercultural Consulting training sessions – it’s a mnemonic for HOkoku-RENraku-SOdan – reporting, updating and discussing, meaning “keep everyone in the loop”. It’s true that it can lead to a lot of meetings – but in my opinion is also a basis for thinking about the kind of processes that might be needed to keep risk averse Japanese colleagues and customers happy. Often the hokoku/report is not done via a meeting but as a one pager of bullet points about what happened once a week, for example.
But as Schaede points out, Japanese want to feel that everyone has been involved in a decision – she recommends that it is made more explicit which discussions everyone needs to be involved in and which decisions could be settled in smaller meetings. A detailed agenda is also helpful, to keep meetings short and to the point.
She also makes a plea, as a university professor, for ‘less is more’ in terms of lecture load. Japanese students are notorious for not studying very hard once they get to university, but as she points out, they are expected to attend many more seminars and lectures than their Western counterparts. As a result, lecturers have a lot of their time taken up with preparing lectures, when in fact they could be spending that time on individual student needs, thereby perhaps encouraging more self study.
Schede has also noticed something that many foreigners new to Japan find it hard to get used to – “overcommunication” – the way there are constant announcements tor remind you not to leave things on trains or that the end of the escalator is coming, or that a lift is going up. She claims not to mind this herself, saying it is a legacy of Japan’s wonderful customer service, to make customers feel looked after.
Her final contrast on “less is more” is between the minimalist business cards of Japan’s traditional elite – often showing the name only, and an increasing trend amongst the newer elite in Japan of having multiple cards, with different websites, email addresses and job titles.
So how many meetings, slides, lectures, team members and reports are enough, if cutting completely is going too far? Professor Schaede says she often says to her students that their work could easily be cut by 10% and up to 20% if they try, and that this would sharpen their point, without losing much.
Europeans often ask me if it is worth trying to learn Japanese. I usually say yes, but that it is important to have realistic expectations. One lesson a week, if you are not living in Japan, is not going to lead to anything like fluency. However it will be intellectually interesting, because Japanese is a beautiful language, is quite unlike any Greek or Latin based language and learning it may teach you a bit about Japanese culture.
I was very lucky to have lived in Japan at the ideal point to become fluent in another language – in early childhood. Once you hit your teenage years, learning another language becomes increasingly difficult, because your brain has become hard wired with your mother tongue. I have known some people become fluent in Japanese in adulthood, but this was usually because they took the total immersion route – living in Japan for a year or so and minimising contact with other English speaking foreigners.
Recent research has shown that in fact our brains can be “rewired”. This idea is known as “neuroplasticity” and can be observed in people who recover from brain injury – unconsciously or through training, they rewire their neural circuits in order to reacquire the functions lost by the damage. Rewiring their brain is what the adults who became fluent in Japanese were doing by totally immersing themselves in the Japanese language.
Neuroplasticity also has major implications for our national cultural identities. It used to be thought that your cultural values were immutably set in early childhood. In my training sessions I point out to people that this is not racism – I am not saying people are born with a particular set of values.
However it does seem that our brains are sculpted during childhood so that we do end up with different brains from culture to culture. Scientists have found that East Asian brains respond differently from the brains of Westerners to visual stimuli and that native English speakers and native Chinese speakers use different parts of the brain to do the same simple arithmetic.
Far from reinforcing racism, neuroplasticity implies that our brains can be reshaped, regardless of where we were brought up as children. So prolonged exposure to another culture may actually reshape the way a brain learns, thinks, decides and decodes. It may also explain the phenomenon I described in a previous article, that British or Japanese people who have lived abroad for a long time feel like foreigners when they return to their countries of birth, even if they spent their entire childhood in their mother country.
The society you are living in does have the power to reshape the way you think. So if you are not British by nationality, but have lived in the UK for a while, and find that you tut to yourself when people jump queues, or say sorry when someone else has bumped into you or find yourself giving long, complicated explanations for why you are late, it may be that you have lived long enough in the UK to have rewired your brain!
Many of our Japanese client companies are embarking on global initiatives, in marketing or human resources, and consciously involving overseas employees in them. It’s great to see positive, forward thinking even in these difficult times, but comments I have been getting from the Europeans involved in these initiatives have been puzzling me.
Normally, discussions in our European training sessions about decision making in Japanese companies revolve around nemawashi (literally, going around the roots of a tree) a consensus based, largely bottom up, decision making system common in Japanese companies. This decision making process may be an entirely bottom up initiative, or triggered by a vague top down directive.
Consensus based decision making is not uniquely Japanese of course. In Europe, plenty of national and corporate cultures prefer some kind of consensus based approach, instead of top down imposition. However, when the Europeans involved in the global initiatives have tried to get a consensus based dialogue going with Japan, they instead been met with passivity from their Japanese counterparts.
One British director told me that he had suggested to his Japanese team that they come up with a proposal for a new workflow. Because they looked puzzled, he scribbled on a whiteboard very roughly what he had in mind. To his concern, the final proposal simply replicated his rough sketch. “When I put ideas to teams in Europe that I have led, I expect them to push back. After all, they often know far better than I do what can or can’t be done”.
Another British manager proposed a series of discussion sessions with Japanese marketing staff, to give feedback into a new brand strategy, only to be met with a request that the European team “just tell us what to put in the advertising”.
This could of course be due to a reluctance to have open confrontation, particularly in English. But I also sense an attitude that because the initiatives are “global” and come dressed in English “marketing” and “strategy” terminology unfamiliar to Japanese people, the Japanese employees feel it is not their area of expertise, so they should just let the “Western” side of the team take the lead.
Yet this is precisely what these European managers are trying to avoid. They want to take an approach to creating strategy which is culturally sensitive. After all, “global” these days does not mean just the West, but China, India and elsewhere. The European managers were rather hoping their Japanese colleagues would have a better cultural understanding of how to incorporate the Asian operations into the initiatives than they did.
How then could the Japanese employees engage in a dialogue in a way that does not make them feel uncomfortable? I would suggest the “coaching” style, which comes naturally to many Japanese people I have worked with. This means that instead of openly stating a disagreement, the listener asks questions which help the presenter to see the problems in their proposal themselves, rather than be told what is wrong.
Overall though, Japanese managers should have more confidence in themselves as leaders of a Japanese style globalization, which may, let us hope, work rather better than Western style globalization has so far.
(This article originally appeared in the 26th October 2009 edition of the Nikkei Weekly)