Diamond Business magazine has decided to take another pop at the Mitsubishi group of companies, with a special series titled “The Fall of Mitsubishi“.
It kicks off with looking at trading company Mitsubishi Corporation and the fall out from its most recent employee survey. Apparently the survey showed an increasing mistrust of management by the employees and a higher negative rating for the changes that had been made including the new personnel system and improvements in productivity than in previous surveys. President Kakiuchi sent out an email to all employees explaning that he wanted there to be no “us and them” distinction and that everyone should feel free to discuss and challenge, without deference. He announced the establishment of a company wide culture reform task force, appointing Murakoshi Akira, EVP charge of HR, Sakakida Masakazu EVP in charge of compliance and corporate communications, Hirano Hajime, formerly of the Energy division and Uchino Shuma, formerly from the accounting division – both audit and supervisory board members – to head it up. However many employees were not convinced. It does seem like a lot of old guys, many of whom are rumoured to be retiring next year, who are likely to be part of the problem, being made to sort it out.
What had caused such dissatisfaction in a company renowned for high pay and benefits, perennially popular as a destination for Japan’s top graduates? Mitsubishi Corporation is always contrasted with Mitsui as being about “organisation” (knowing how to get the organisation on board to support ideas) with Mitsui being about “people” (convincing the influential people to get things done). Kakiuchi, since he took office in 2016, has made changes to that organisation, by centralizing what has historically been (as in many Japanese conglomerates) a highly vertical power structure. He abolished the Vice President post which traditionally had been the the next layer down from President. This layer ensured that the business groups had the ear of the president and also included a “Chief Secretary” who came from the corporate functions and relayed any dissatisfactions felt in the organisation to the President. There had been 5 such Vice Presidents under Kakiuchi’s predecessor.
The aim was to speed up decision making and bring on younger staff into management with a new HR policy. However younger employees say nothing has changed and deference to the President is still the norm.
Itochu, another trading house, had carried out a similar reform 10 years’ previously. Itochu has always been seen as the more progressive and radical of the five big trading houses, true to its Kansai textile merchant roots rather than dominated by heavy machinery, commodities and energy businesses as with the other trading groups. The CEO of Itochu in 2010, Okafuji Masahiro, purged the board of 13 officers and sent some of his textile division buddies to the food division, the power base of the former chairman Niwa Uichiro, to ensure his own power base was secure. Dissatisfaction was silenced by the fact that he produced results. The reason Diamond magazine feels moved to headline its feature as the “fall” of Mitsubishi is because for the first time in history, Itochu’s market capitalisation exceeded Mitsubishi’s earlier this year, while Mitsubishi made a loss in 2016, declared it would move away from the resources trading and was then promptly rescued by a V shaped recovery in its resources business. It is expected only to make half the profit of Itochu this year and is also badly impacted by its investment in Mitsubishi Motors.
Mitsubishi Corp executives are taking the “no pain, no gain” approach to change management. Diamond magazine wonders whether the organisation will collapse if it cannot bring its employees with it, however, and concludes gloomily that the suffering faced by the Mitsubishi Group is a symbol of the suffering of Japanese companies as a whole.
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