“We had three ‘first priorities'” says Kozo Takahashi, President of Sharp, in an interview in the Nikkei Business on how he changed Sharp’s corporate culture. “I know you’re only supposed to have one first priority, but we had three – firstly to meet the commitments of the three year plan to March 2016, secondly to create businesses which will see Sharp through the next 5 or 10 years, and finally to bed in a corporate culture and way of thinking, ie DNA, that will ensure Sharp survives the next 100, 200 or even a 1000 years. The embedding of the DNA is the number one priority amongst the three first priorities.”
According to Takahashi, Sharp’s corporate culture was “kettai” “weird” – “like something from the Edo period” (1603-1868). Senior managers were addressed in emails by their title and with the honorific suffix “dono“, rather like addressing someone as Mr General Manager in English. Sharp is an Osaka company, in the Kansai region, supposedly the home of “keigo” – polite Japanese, but this does seem excessive, especially as Osaka these days prides itself on hard headed business sense and rough and ready humour. This has been changed to addressing all employees, regardless of age or rank as “surname-san”.
Nemawashi (consensus building) was rampant and meetings had become ceremonial, simply for hearing the President’s directions. Now meetings are meant to be for the equal sharing of information, where actual discussions take place.
Sharp had introduced a performance based system in the 1990s, to reform the seniority based system. However it was based on deduction of points for every target not met, resulting in a highly risk averse, short termist culture. This has now been replaced with bonus points for employees who take up challenges.
There was a lot of “make work” going on, with even simple reports becoming highly formatted and stylised. Actions are now being taken to reduce the generation of unnecessary work.
Now all employees have been handed cards which read “moving from changing the culture to building a good culture” – aimed at being a 50,000 strong, first division company with Y3 trillion turnover. The emphasis on turnover, numbers of employees and the survival of the company for centuries to come suggest to me that Sharp has not strayed very far from traditional Japanese views of what companies are for. If they can make the reforms work, then it will prove that Japanese companies can throw off fossilised ways, without losing their soul.
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