This weekend I returned from my second long work-project in Tokyo. I’ve worked in most countries in Asia and no other country has made work feel surreal the way Japan does. It’s some kind of mix between constantly asking yourself ‘what is going on?’ and the pleasant sensation (more a feeling than a thought) of realizing that work doesn’t happen the same way everywhere and that figuring out the difference(s) can be fun.

For a foreigner, getting stuff done in Japan depends on understanding how the people involved will interact with each other. People seem to stick closely to implicit norms of professional behavior and rules of conduct. Perhaps it’s just that in other places people seem more comfortable ‘breaking’ the rules. Since they don’t seem so willing to break them in Japan, understanding the rules correctly in the first place seems a lot more important. But since nearly everything happens in Japanese it’s difficult to identify the norms and rules or how they apply.

Last month I read The Intel Trinity and during this last trip a passage from it on the semiconductor industry in Japan in the 1970s kept coming to mind. The passage quotes heavily from a former vice president of AMD:

“Back in the 1960s, we used to laugh at the Japanese… Usually several hundred technical papers were delivered [at US semiconductor industry technical conferences of the era]. Of these, the Japanese electronics companies might contribute only one or two, and even these were invariably of minimal importance. Not only was the technical content of these papers of little significance, but the limited English of the presenters made them all but unintelligible. It wasn’t until years later, when our smugness gave way to fear and awe, that we realized that the Japanese hadn’t come to talk, they came to listen, and to photograph. Every time a slide would go up all of the Japanese cameras in the room would go off all at once. We supercilious Americans even had a joke about it: “You know what that sound is every time a new slide goes up? It’s the Japanese cameras going crick, crick.” That was more than a decade ago. We don’t laugh anymore.”

There’s nothing like extremely formal deference and having to speak very slowly and clearly for generating a completely undeserved boost to your ego. As in the above instance, the ego eventually gets its comeuppance.

I also like this passage:

“Their only competitive advantage against the Japanese was in chip innovation, but the Japanese chip companies had perfected their system of copying US designs, implementing them as products, manufacturing them at the highest levels of quality, and delivering them quickly so they could eat up most of the all-important high early-stage profits from these new designs…while the US chip makers were single-mindedly focused upon beating each other to a pulp, their Japanese counterparts at NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and other companies had embarked on a systematic program to duplicate the US technology.”

In Japan it’s a lot harder to get by on the back of creativity and innovation. If you’re sketching out the design for a data product, they want to know who else has done it and exactly how it was done. Without that kind of proven case-study, they’re not going to pay much attention. The teams I’ve worked with are incredible at implementing a plan, they just don’t seem so great at deviating from it. Which sometimes, well really most of the time, needs to happen.

The consistency of effort is impressive. It also strikes me as a different way of dealing with uncertainty and ‘getting it wrong’. I hear a lot of people say that professionals in Japan hate uncertainty. Japanese businesses simply won’t allow a process to emerge, they want a very precise plan. Which means they’re not down with the whole adaptive planning and ‘agile’ approach to development. Instead they want everything planned out precisely and then the plan followed exactly. This gets interpreted as the Japanese being uncomfortable with uncertainty and at a deeper level, as the Japanese being unwilling to ‘fail’.

In another way of looking at it, it’s not so much that they’re uncomfortable with uncertainty as that they just aren’t willing to let uncertainty affect their decisions. They’re willing to be wrong, they’re just not willing to wait to find out before they make a decision or to try to adapt if circumstances change or new information is introduced. The process is to develop a plan and then stick to it. In a lot of cases this way of doing things prevents a team from adjusting and potentially saving a project that early events indicate will fail. But in a lot of other cases simply deciding early on a plan despite any remaining uncertainty and then stopping at nothing to implement it ensures a partial solution is achieved - which doesn’t always happen for teams that are constantly shifting and resetting objectives in order to be adaptive.

Figuring this stuff out seems pretty key for a whole lot of non-Japanese companies (especially in the IT sector) operating extensively in Japan. The topic has been around for a long time - any intro anthropology class will cover The Chrysanthymum and the Sword, and Drucker’s “What Can We Learn from Japanese Management” from 1971 is another well-known example. So it’s fascinating that I can come across a piece like this one about IBM in Japan from 1991 that aside from the details seems like it could have been written earlier this year. Japan is kind of terrible for vegetarians, but I’m still looking forward to working there a whole lot more next year and hopefully learning a lot more about how things get done.

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