Quality Processes from Japan have been on the top of any of the Q departments list over last decade or so. Concepts such as Six Sigma, Kanban, Kaizen and Total Quality Management have been thrown around a lot during these times. In the companies, I had the opportunity to work, the Q departments emphasized on these processes and the value that can be unlocked by these processes.
The processes all sounded fine, but then the practicality or the lack of it would always puzzle me. The amount of effort and paper work involved in some of these processes is staggering and expecting teams to put in these amounts of work really seemed to be puzzling to me.
Luckily, I had a chance to move to Japan and experience the quality standards first hand and boy was I shocked to see the reality. I mean the quality of Japanese products is really high, no doubt about it. But the reality of how it is achieved is something that is not really envisaged by these Q departments outside Japan.
Legendary Japanese Work Ethic
For starters, one thing that the Q Departments worldwide do not understand is the Japanese Work Ethic. I have worked with teams around the world and have firsthand experience working with Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Australians, Chinese and of course, Indians. It is safe to say that the Japanese win the hard working competition hands down. If some process requires them to spend extra hours in the office so be it. A lazy Japanese can be defined as a person who spends around 10-12 hours working hard in the office and then goes back home and decides not to go to the gym!! You can imagine what the non-lazy Japanese would be like!! Now this means that the Japanese work force can be called upon to put in place highly effort oriented processes that requires a lot of paperwork. In my personal experience in Japan, for the smallest and flimsiest of things, you need to fill loads of paper and most of the content would just be repetitive of what has already been filled in one of the other forms. That is the Japanese way of life and that works for them.
Trying to adopt these in Europe and USA where people have limited time for red tape and paper work, one can understand the troubles which the organizations that try to implement these concepts face. Countries such as India and China where the people tend to think themselves “smart” start to find loopholes or shortcuts to circumvent parts render the whole process ineffective. So the first main litmus test for any organization that tries to adopt these concepts is a mapping of this with their workforce. Can we get the workforce to spend the extra effort? Will this lead to overtime costs etc. especially for countries where such regulations exist? Will this really be compatible with our workforce?
Ruling by Rules
Secondly, Japanese follow the rules to the dot. So if there is a rule that says something then they will follow it all the time and will not look to go around it in any case. This approach has its pros and cons. The biggest pros for the companies are that if they set rules, they will get followed. The biggest cons of this approach is that if the rule is made without taking into consideration any possible scenario that can arise, it will cause a lot of inconvenience.
Here is an example of an inconvenience:
I went to a mall and ordered some stuff. The mall had a policy that they would do free home delivery for any product above a particular amount say 10000 yen. So I ended up buying two things that were 20000 yen each and one product that was 9999 yen. So I asked them if they can home delivery all three as my total ended up 49999. The shopkeeper duly pointed out that he cannot deliver the third item as it was 1 yen lesser than the limit set for it. I inquired whether his vehicle does not have the space to accommodate all three items at the same item in a single trip. He said the space was not the problem, it was just the one yen that is missing that is the problem. The rule says nothing under 10000 can be home delivered. I told him that I will pay the additional 1 yen and buy the item for 10000 yen, but he said that cannot be done as that is not the advertised price of the product. In the end they simply did not agree to home deliver the product.
The moral of the story is that if there is a rule, expect the Japanese to follow it to the “.”. This means that if the company actually sets up a complicated Quality process, the employees would go ahead and follow it both in letter and spirit even if personally they feel that it serves no purpose.
Can such an expectation be set with other workforce around the world? Can this be the reason why these quality processes yield so much benefit in Japan? This basically means that the process itself does not matter so much; just the fact that people follow it religiously makes it so good. In my humble opinion, many of the proponents of these quality processes in the rest of the world do not understand this basic essence and hence face a lot of problems in rolling out such processes. Other companies have decent success for a limited time before it starts to impinge heavily on the productivity of the team. So this is the second major hurdle for the Q departments to figure out.
The last point related to the Quality processes is that the Japanese have evolved their own practical ways to circumvent a lot of paperwork. For e.g. most companies have distinct R&D cycles and production cycles. Most of the development and new idea implementation happens during the R&D cycles which are not weighed down heavily by these quality processes. The production cycles is basically putting the R&D through a quality process. So basically during the production cycle, the development team will pick up a completely working product and document it as Requirements, then do a thorough code review of the items and put it through a through round of testing. There is no question of requirements being out of sync with the product as the requirements have been extracted from the product itself. So essentially they have turned around the complete concept of a development cycle and removed the overheads such as Gap Analysis, Tracing the Requirements, Tracking the changes to the requirements and so on and so forth!! Innovation or Practicality, either way that works fine and more importantly does not violate any regulation or quality standard requirement!!
So the next time someone tells you about a Japanese Quality concept, you know what they are missing to tell you!!