Tokyo Electron originally sold car radios when it was founded in the 1960s, but reinvented itself as a manufacturer of semi conductor making equipment in the 1980s. A failed merger (following objections from anti trust regulators in the US) has led it to reinvent itself again. This time, the reinvention is just as much around management as it is product lines.
In 2013 Tokyo Electron spent a year planning a merger with the US’s Applied Materials. They even had a new name and were planning to put their global headquarters in the Netherlands.
To prepare for the merger, Tokyo Electron reduced its stake in an affiliated trading company, Tokyo Electron Device, and withdrew from the solar cell business. This renewed focus on the core business has led to increased profits and turnover.
Role not potential
One area on which it proved difficult to reach agreement with Applied Materials was how the HR system should be configured. Tokyo Electron was still focused on having lifetime employment and salary boundaries based on potential (the untranslatable Japanese word nouryoku) with actual performance influencing take home pay upwards or downwards each year. This was very different from Applied Materials system of having a transparent relationship between actual job roles and compensation and ensuring the appropriate person was assigned to that role, without much thought for maintaining long term employment.
Howevever when younger Tokyo Electron employees heard about the Applied Materials HR system they had high expectations as they felt frustrated by the traditional Japanese system. Tokyo Electron realised it would have to change its HR system to motivate its younger staff. They recognised, however, that there was a big difference between Japan and the USA, where people job hop frequently in their career.
The new system was introduced worldwide in 2017-8. 6 role categories which were applicable globally were introduced – operations, engineering, sales and marketing, business support, management and executive management – up from three previously: the untranslatable sougoushoku (generalist management), ippanshoku (generalist administration – usually for women) and technical. The number of levels increased from 7 to 20 and they applied to all categories (apart from executive). So someone in a senior business support role at level 8 could be considered to be “doing a highly complex job, with a strong influence over the results of their department” just as much as someone in engineering or sales and marketing.
This might seem vague, but Tsuchii Nobuhito, HR General Manager, justifies it by saying that as the semi conductor business is fast changing, roles need to be kept flexible.
Further changes included making it possible to be promoted in consecutive years. Previously Tokyo Electron employees had to stay in one grade for three years before being considered for the next promotion. Before, the criteria for a job role were evaluated relatively but now there are evaluated by an absolute standard. This is intended to make it more transparent to people where their job role and grade sit within the whole organisation and what their future career path might be.
Inevitable changes as the semiconductor industry globalizes
These changes were inevitable, says Nikkei Business. Japan’s semi conductor industry has hollowed out and most of the customers are overseas. 80% of Tokyo Electron’s sales are outside of Japan and 40% of its employees are overseas. Only around 500 employees in Europe and the Middle East out of 12,500 total. Unsurprisingly, Asia has the largest number – around 2,800. Japan headquarters also has more Asian employees. Nikkei Business interviews one Korean employee in Japan who says she was surprised to have stayed so long. She started as a Chinese/Japanese translator but enjoyed the challenges in her job and stayed on.
Higher than average salaries probably also helped. Tokyo Electron pays an average Y12.7m a year (around US$115K) compared to the industry average of around US$60K. As a result of the new HR system 90% of staff had a pay rise – mainly the younger and middle ranking employees.
Global employee communication
President Kawai has been careful to communicate company strategy and objectives as clearly as possible around the world. He has held 35 employee meetings around the world and also holds smaller discussion meetings with staff to talk about the direction of the semi conductor industry, or whether to continue with M&A activities. He asks them whether the strategic direction is getting through to people, and if it is appropriate for their workplaces.
There are still some issues – how far it is possible to be objective in evaluations, for example. “It will take another 3-5 years before the system really beds in” says Tsuchii. Kawai has set some ambitious targets and is confident there is room for further growth. Whether Tokyo Electron can continue to motivate its staff will be key, says Nikkei Business.
Their website certainly reflects the brand values they aspire to – clear and transparent, with an emphasis on “people, technology, commitment” – although just like every other Japanese technology company, their mission pretty much boils down to “contributing to society through innovative technology”, with added “reliable service and support”.
One of the puzzles of Japanese HR is how employee engagement is so low and yet the employees seem so dedicated and diligent. Kawai at least seems to have found a solution – transparent career paths.
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