Many Japanese companies have a Medium Term Plan, usually covering three years, announced by incoming Presidents, with a second one issued half way through their 6 year term. It is sometimes translated into English, but often in a way that does not resonate with employees outside Japan. This lack of awareness or sense of connection to the MTP outside of Japan HQ is a problem for Japanese companies who want to be truly global.
The difference between a world class company and Japanese companies is reflected in the way the Medium Term Plan is developed, says Hioki Keisuke, a partner at Boston Consulting Group Japan, in a recent series in Diamond business magazine on “Reasons why Japanese companies cannot compete globally”.
He looks at various definitions of global, world class companies and notes that only two Japanese companies can be seen as global – Canon and Sony – by Alan Rugman’s definition of having less than half of their sales in their home region with two other regions representing 20% or more of sales.
Three tests of global maturity
Hioki adds three tests of being truly global:
- Can your company count its global cash holdings? How much, in what currency and where, by subsidiary?
- Is global talent visible? Is the information needed for discovering, training and promoting talented employees globally available, showing their experience and skills?
- Is the direction of the company clear? Are management aware of the environment in which it operates, the strengths, the uniqueness and the businesses to focus on?
He points out that many Japanese multinationals still operate on the old international model, where there is a headquarters, which sits above the business divisions, who in turn control the domestic and international subsidiaries. He calls this the “Group company” model, operating on an “entity base” where there is “a castle in every domain” – a reference to the Edo feudal era in Japan.
The transnational model
World class companies are “one company” operating on a function base. There is a corporate function, but not specifically located in any one geographic region. The business units report into it, and the finance, HR, Legal, R&D, marketing and IT functions supply services across the subsidiaries, and also report into the corporate function.
When I was at Mitsubishi Corporation in the 1990s, I remember getting excited about the transnational model which Sumantra Ghoshal and Christopher Bartlett had outlined in their “Managing Across Borders” book of 1989. Hioki points out that although that seemed a far away ideal then, it is the reality now for most world class global companies.
As well as trying to promote that model internally as an organisational structure for Mitsubishi Corporation, I became involved in helping the Corporate Planning Office turn the Medium Term Plan into something that made sense in English. It was then that I realised that there was something about the Japanese language itself, as well as the way the Medium Term Plan was compiled that meant it was both extremely vague, and yet based on a huge amount of detail, gathered “bottom up”. What was lacking was what a Western company would recognise as a strategy, to link the detailed plans to the vision for the future.
Scenario planning vs vague vision
According to Hioki, the Medium Term Plan in a world class company should be seen as “guidance” across 2-3 years, and a link between the megatrends or scenarios and the annual commitment plans. It should be revised every year and then a commitment plan and forecast for the year and each quarter developed from it.
I remember about 10 years’ ago the bafflement expressed by a group of senior managers working at a German automotive company when their counterparts in a Japanese automotive company said they had never heard of scenario planning. Hioki says many Japanese companies are now working on scenarios and megatrends, but the long term, medium term and short term plans are still independent events. This was not quite the case at Mitsubishi Corporation, but certainly the Corporate Planning Office had an unenviable task in trying to tie what they were told was the plan by each business unit into something that cohered with the vision that the President had.
The origins of the Medium Term Plan
Hioki says the Medium Term Plan has its origins in 1956 when Panasonic’s founder, Matsushita Konosuke first introduced the Matsushita Electric 5 Year plan. “More than 60 years have passed since then. It’s not that a medium term plan is bad, but I think it’s time to adopt a way that suits the present times.”
The transnational model was meant to provide a way to trade off globally efficient integration and regional localisation and optimisation. Production is decentralised, and each region develops its own specialities and differentiated value add, but global management is integrated, knowledge is centralised but R&D and development is done through collaboration and shared around the world.
Functions first, not as an afterthought
Hioki also argues that accounting & finance, HR and legal functions should be actively involved in planning and strategy, rather than coming after the business divisions, cleaning and tidying up. Hashimoto Katsunori, former CFO of DuPont Japan and now professor at Tokyo Metropolitan Business School points out that another difference between world class and Japanese companies is “cash awareness”. The response to the coronavirus crisis should be to stash as much cash as possible to ride it out, but Japanese companies were not quick to do this. Japanese companies tend to be cash rich anyway, but also they do not see their cash reserves as belonging to the shareholders, the way world class companies do. And as a consequence, they prioritise sales over profits. They do not understand that cash flow contributes to corporate value.
Hioki describes traditional HR in Japanese companies as behaving like teachers with a grade book, pulling people up for mistakes and spending their whole time creating systems. In a world class company, HR should be about ensuring that the vision, mission and values of the company permeate throughout the organisation, as well as contributing to the development and growth of the company and its employees.
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