“Without competition, people will not develop”
Japanese construction materials and sanitary fittings manufacturer LIXIL is an example of a Japanese company that has deliberately tried to introduce a spirit of competitiveness into the company, following its acquisition of American Standard and Grohe. A German now runs a division, and many Japanese now have foreign bosses. LIXIL’s CEO Yoshiaki Fujimori says in a recent Nikkei Business article “There is no real competition inside Japanese companies. The benchmarks for evaluating employees are vague, and people are assessed on whether they are good relationship builders or come from the same background. At the very least, with a foreigner as a leader, baseless evaluation criteria will no longer be accepted.”
Fujimori is himself unusual in that he started out at Nissho Iwai (now Sojitz) and then became the first Japanese to be an EVP at General Electric, before joining LIXIL in 2011. He underwent a typical egalitarian Japanese education, graduating from Tokyo University in 1975, but even at Nissho Iwai he thought he could beat most people in terms of performance. However when he studied for an MBA he found out what real competition was like. He found it painful that other students could express their opinions so easily when he could not say anything. So he devised a study routine of making himself review the day in 1 minute every day, and then listen to himself, 30 times a day. It was even worse at GE, he claims, where you always have to win every battle. “If you lose once, you lose your job.” At LIXIL he has tried to quantify job roles in order to set performance evaluation standards and introduced Executive Leadership Training.
Another executive in the same mould as Fujimori is Yoshiaki Itoh. Born in Thailand, and a graduate of Thunderbird Business School, he has worked at Dell, Lenovo, Adidas Japan and Sony Pictures Entertainment, before becoming CEO of Haier Asia. At Haier he was shocked to find that the Sanyo (their white goods business in Asia was acquired by Haier) ‘super egalitarian’ legacy lived on – there were 14 grade levels, and everyone took an exam every two years in order to be promoted. It was not possible to jump a grade, so to get to a management position would take nearly 20 years, no matter how good you were.
Itoh cut the 14 levels to 5 and made it possible to become a team leader without any reference to age. He also went round South East Asia, and sent 20 of the 40 Japanese expatriates back to Japan. He also intends to make the R&D centre stand on its own two feet. “Japanese companies have not grasped the fact that competitiveness is necessary to win on the global stage” Itoh says. He is intending to further clear out remaining notions of “competition avoidance” and “everyone the same”.
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