Can a traditional strength turn to a weakness? – The Japan Story

One of the biggest nightmares for any individual or organization is when something that is touted as a traditional strength becomes a weakness. Though the initial response to this is how a traditional strength can become a weakness, the fact is that this happens more often that people realize.

For most of the decade of 2000s, Sachin Tendulkar was at the peak of his career. One of the highlights of his play was his off-side play with his cover drives simply taking the breath away from the audiences. But in 2003-2004 series, the Aussies decided to take advantage of this strength of his to bring him down. They re-enforced the offside and peppered him with a line outside off that induced him to play one of his favorite shot with disastrous effect. He repeatedly fell caught on the offside so much so that his strength had become his failure.

What’s more as this was his strength, he had worked both mentally and in practice to make it almost an instinctive response to deliveries outside the off. But, now this instinctive response meant that he could not contain himself from falling in the trap!! Of course, the genius that Sachin was he managed to work very hard in the practice and then come back with an heroic innings where he cut down all shots on the offside for an entire innings of 241 not out.

I see similar aspects in the Japanese industry. Japan has been the gold standard for
manufacturing in the world for pretty much the last 3 to 4 decades. And this has been powered by a work ethic that is built on sheer hard work and discipline. Very little is left to interpretation as most things are rule driven powered by policies and detailed guidebooks. Each of these policies and guidebooks have been tempered by a long thought process which is consensus driven ensuring maximum compliance. This work ethic has powered such a small nation to become one of the top 5 economies in the world.

But, since the turn of the century, there is silent software and data driven revolution going around the world and the Japanese economy is currently struggling to come to terms with it. The IT revolution has been pretty much driven by entrepreneurial thinking, swift execution and rapid decision making. This revolution has pretty much powered the growth of economies such as India and China while also helping bigger economies like the US turn around their recessionary trends. Japan on the other hand seems to be still engaged in a steady downward trend and has slipped into deflation multiple times in the past few years with minor recoveries assisted by Abenomics.

So what is ailing Japan? For one, the legendary work ethic of hard work meant that over years the companies relied more and more on the hard work of employees rather than invest in automation and software like the rest of the world. So on the one hand, while most of the developed countries witnessed reduction in working hours for employees with automation, Japan on the other hand has seen workers continue to work longer hours.

This has led to a dreaded downward spiral over the ages. The overworked employees hardly have time to learn new skills and keep up with the quickly changing technology map. Also, the heavy workload undermines initiatives and innovations and the focus is firmly on incremental changes which sees the competitiveness of the Japanese companies eroding fast viz a viz other fleet footed competitors around the world.

Of course, this also has a major social impact, with the overworked employees not really interested in family life and more and more youth not wanting to get involved in a long term relationship or marriage. Giving the aging population and reducing workforce, this seems to be the killer blow that Japan can least afford. Companies have tried to respond by trying to promote internal marriages between employees which have had some measure of success, but are still woefully short of expectations.

Having worked with engineers from many different parts of the world, the attitude of Japanese Engineers to technology is surprising and often baffling. While engineers in most part of the world want to try new technologies and work on the latest trends, the Japanese engineers on the other hand want to be rooted in old technologies which they have learnt at the start of their careers and are reluctant to move forward. It usually requires a major failure or being pushed into the corner that gets them going to take up a new technology. This is one of the biggest challenges for management and project managers in Japan.

The other aspect of going by consensual decisions which has also worked so well in the past is beginning to hurt a bit. Given the already long working hours, more and more workers are looking for quick decisions, but are unable to work out ways to speed-en up decision makings. So meetings often meander a long way from the topic and this is leading to some snap decisions being made by people who are not used to it and hence the long term view is being replaced by very short term view of somehow getting the job done. Also, as the technology is changing so fast, and the local workers not being able to keep pace with it, Japanese companies are beginning to turn towards an increasing number of global experts. But these experts come from different work cultures and do not really have the energy to try to build consensus with the Japanese colleagues especially also with the language barrier which makes it a bigger challenge.

Finally, coming to the application of the rule book, again as the workforce has got used to working to well defined rules, today’s changing times create problems. With the product lifecycle being disrupted with concepts such as Agile and Lean processes where the rules are generally thinner and it is more situational management, the Japanese workforce is finding it very difficult to cope with this. Also, most of the rules were framed at a time when manufacturing processes were more hardware focused and manual, changing to today’s software focused and automated processes is a big challenge. If you talk to most Japanese managers they will be candid about this problem, but sadly as they have too many things in their plate, they hardly have time to start ringing in the changes in the rule book.

Thus, over a period of about a decade, a real strength is starting to turn into a liability for the Japanese industry. It is leading to longer working hours for the employees, lesser and lesser initiative and innovativeness, and finally loss of competitiveness in the global market. While the Japanese Government is trying to fight the fiscal aspects of the recessionary trend, the Japanese industry needs to start to look at this aspect that could seriously derail any of the attempts by the government. For Project Managers working in Japan, this is going to be one of the key challenges they will need to address over the next decade or so.


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