One of the German consultants on our team in Europe is a Toyota Production System expert. I asked her what she recommends to mixed Japanese and European teams in the companies she advises, if they are not communicating well. To my surprise, instead of talking about concepts and processes such as gembashugi (going to the place where the work is happening) or visualisation, she replied that first of all she gets them to agree on a vision for the team.
I discussed in previous articles in this series that in order for Japan headquarters to coordinate effectively with their European subsidiaries, they need first of all to look at the people concerned, and make sure there are clearly understood counterparts, madoguchi (window into an organisation) and tantousha (person in charge).
It may seem that the obvious next step is to set up communication processes between these people, but I think my German colleague is right, that without a vision for the end goal of this communication, many of these processes will become ineffective or die out.
For example, a British company I advise, who have a subsidiary in Japan, told me that they hold regular global teleconferences for certain business and research areas. However they recently discovered that the representative from one of the teams in Japan merely attends the teleconference and does not share what was learned with the rest of their team members. Clearly the Japanese representative does not see the value in cascading further what they heard.
Similarly, the Japanese expatriates at a Japanese manufacturer in the UK told me they all send weekly hokoku (1 pager reports) back to Japan (in Japanese of course), but when in the past they tried to get the British managers involved, the British soon lost interest, seeing it as an additional bureaucratic burden. “It’s a black hole”, one of the British managers told me. “We send information to Japan but never get anything back”. Again, they could not see the benefit to being involved in the communication process. In both this case and the previous case, employees need to feel they are getting information back in return for their input, which is relevant to their jobs.
Many Japanese companies say they have a vision, but in my experience these are often too vague to be actionable. By actionable, I mean that the vision has enough substance that you can make decisions based on it. Most visions for Japanese B2B manufacturers can be summarised as “contributing to society through innovation” which is actionable to some extent, but means that the company cannot really differentiate itself from its competitors who are saying the same thing. So customers also cannot see the benefit of choosing one supplier over another.
The vision that the company, and the teams within the company have should be differentiated from its competitors, and be actionable. The benefit to behaving in accordance with the vision has to be clear and understood by employees. Once that is in place, the processes for communication and compliance between the headquarters and its subsidiaries will almost take care of themselves.
This article originally appeared in Japanese in the Teikoku Databank News
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