“Everyone has responsibility, but nobody can take responsibility” – the roots of nemawashi

One of the most practised concepts in Japanese business is nemawashi, often described as “Japanese style consensus building”. Sometimes explanations go further, getting into the word’s literal meaning- to dig around the roots of a tree in preparation for transplantation. When I talk about nemawashi in my training sessions, I try to create a more vivid image by pointing out that if you want to transplant a mature tree, just yanking the tree out of the ground by the trunk will kill it. The metaphor holds if the goal is to transplant a new idea in a Japanese company. If you were approach whoever you think has the decision making authority (‘the trunk’) and obtain only their approval, it is likely the decision would die in implementation, because you did not get the understanding or agreement of all the other people likely to be affected or interested (the roots).

Europeans do consensus too…

Europeans from consensus oriented national cultures like those of the Netherlands and Sweden, respond to this lesson by saying “well of course, we would always do this kind of consensus building anyway, it’s common sense.” In the Netherlands, consensus-based decision making is known as the polder model. Polders are low lying tracts of reclaimed land protected from the sea by dykes. In the past, all Dutch, regardless of whether they were peasants or noblemen, whether they lived on or near the polders, had to reach a consensus on how to protect them, and everyone had to be involved in carrying out the plan, otherwise all would suffer. Nowadays the word describes the kind of political consensus reached between government, the unions and business to adjust wages or social benefits or environmental protection.

…but it’s differently interpreted

Both Dutch and Japanese would therefore say they have a long history of consensus based decision making, but a study published in the Journal of Management Studies* concludes that “the concept of consensus is interpreted quite differently by Japanese and Dutch managers.” In Japanese companies, nemawashi is carried out through a series of informal, often one-on-one discussions, so that there is already a consensus when the meeting to discuss the “transplantation” is held. The meeting, then, is more about formally recognising the decision. In Dutch companies, the consensus is reached during a meeting, often through quite heated debate. Also, the Japanese managers demand a more complete consensus, whereby all agree, including other departments, whereas Dutch “appreciate the process of trying to reach consensus, but when a difference of opinion persists, the decision is taken by someone”.

This someone would therefore be expected to take responsibility for the decision, if things were to go wrong. In Japan, the view is that a comprehensive consensus is necessary to avoid putting the decision maker and the company at risk, and to preserve harmony and the employee loyalty. Given the time and care taken to get such a comprehensive consensus in Japan, once a decision is made, there is no turning back. To the Dutch, this is symptomatic of Japanese companies, where “everyone has responsibility, but nobody can take responsibility”.

*Comprehensiveness versus Pragmatism: Consensus at the Japanese-Dutch Interface, Niels G. Noorderhaven, Jos Benders and Arjan B. Keizer, Journal of Management Studies, 2007

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This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly.  This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”

 

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