Hitachi is seen as inward looking, conservative and lacking in commercial sense by business people in Japan, but outside Japan it is seen as a motivating place to work, exciting and cool by employees of Hitachi’s overseas subsidiaries such as Hitachi Rail Europe and Hitachi Data Systems, according to Nikkei Business magazine.
Could this help change Hitachi domestically? Currently Hitachi has over 1000 employees with PhDs working for them in Japan, generating many patents, but this technical strength does not seem to be translating into sales. The improvement in profits is largely due to withdrawing from unprofitable businesses such as mobile phones and LCD screens and also the contributions from social innovation business overseas. It is not due to any ground breaking innovation in products or services. It is also seen as being self centred, and not often forming alliances with other companies.
In the rail business however, Hitachi has taken the biggest share of rolling stock orders through to 2019 in the UK. Hitachi first opened an office in the UK for its rail business in 1999, with just one expatriate staffing it. It is now seen as the most powerful train supplier in Europe, according to an executive from Virgin Trains. It has had to completely overhaul its designs however, to cope with the UK’s old fragile railway bridges. Procurement specs for everything from engines, radiators and pumps were reviewed and the body used as much aluminium as possible to lighten the weight. “We were able to use all the expertise we had developed in Japan” says Koji Wagatsuma of Hitachi Rail Europe. “Hitachi’s strength is not just IT, but that we know the operational side of various industries really well”, says Shinya Mitsudomi, CSO of Hitachi Rail Europe.
The other secret of Hitachi Rail’s success is “true delegation”, says the Nikkei. Instead of relying on history and performance within the company, Hitachi has given responsibility to those who know the market best. There is a big difference between the UK and Japanese rail markets, in that the risks taken by the supplier in bids are much greater. It is necessary to guarantee how many people would be needed to run the system per year, and what the lifecycle cost will be.
Alistair Dormer, the CEO, has clearly been a driving force in Hitachi Rail’s success. He likes to hold regular town hall meetings, where he consistently promotes the company’s mission and vision. Ted Yamada, head of HR at Hitachi Rail Europe says “to hire the best people, it’s not just about the remuneration, but to make sure they can get a feel of the kind of company they are working for.” Not only the CEO but also the chairman of Hitachi in Japan, Hiroaki Nakanishi, is a good story teller. As I repeatedly point out in my training sessions, because most Japanese companies are the “family” type, storytelling and parent figures are far more important in giving direction than targets or strategies or policies or structures.
A further feature that Nikkei Business picks up on, is that Hitachi is beginning to pull together virtual company structures, most notably for Hitachi Data Systems. We were moving towards that when I was at Fujitsu – I think IT companies are probably best suited to this kind of organisation – where services have to be provided globally so it makes sense to have teams and hierarchies which span several regions. It does mean a lot of travel to work well – one Hitachi Data Systems director says he has 56 Japan entry stamps on his American passport. Conversely, Japanese engineers travel regularly to the UK and the US.
The feature finishes with an interview with Hiroaki Nakanishi, who comes up with a few punchy quotes. Asked about the impact of Hitachi putting non-Japanese at the top of various regions, he says it has an instant effect on the mindset of the Japanese employees, who now realise that they have to persuade a foreigner of their ideas, so all the “Japanese only” methods they have used in the past will not work. Consequently, decision making and execution have speeded up. Everything in the value chain from marketing to sales, development to production and after sales service have to be overseas. So it’s not possible for Japanese to be seconded abroad and manage everything. Most of the executives are local, non-Japanese. “Before now, Japanese companies would build a factory overseas, but just transfer manufacturing knowhow, and then when it was completed, the head of manufacturing in Japan would fly over and play lots of golf. That’s just no longer feasible.” Since Jack Domme took over at HDS, objectives have been set for individual employees and decision making has become more transparent. HDS is now well regarded by others as a company which would be an enjoyable challenge to work for. “Starting small and growing big is just fooling yourself – there are no dreams or hope in that. People with ambitions will not join such a company” says Nakanishi. “We are still a Japanese company, and so there will be some parts which are difficult for non-Japanese to understand, so not being Japanese might be a bit of a handicap” but maybe no more than Siemens is a German company, or GE is American, Nakanishi adds.
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