Steven's Blog

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Not Invented Here

“Not invented here” syndrome is not unique to Japan and is one of the most common forms of passive resistance to any reasonable organizational improvement or change in organizations everywhere in the world. Make no mistake, those who warn of the dangers of “not invented here” pretend to be doing so in the best interest of the business. Yet, it is only their individual self-interest about which they care.

The head of the largest sales division of a European company in Japan told me that before he took over the position, his predecessor had rejected implementing the sales methodology that the company uses worldwide. The reason, he was told, was because Japanese staff claimed, “Japanese culture is unique and the method won’t work in Japan.” So the company hired a Japanese consulting firm to help them implement a sales methodology for Japan, and the sales staff accepted that one much more readily—albeit for no good reason.

Now, I know the Japanese consulting firm pretty well. They have offices around the Asia-Pacific, and their clients consist mostly of non-Japanese companies served by non-Japanese local staff overseas. I can say with near certainty that the sales methodology they proposed for their client in Japan was developed in Australia by Australian staff for companies located in Australia. The only thing that makes the methodology particularly Japanese is that they translated all the material into Japanese. None of the Japanese sales staff appear to be aware of this.

I see no appreciable differences between the sales methodology the company uses worldwide and the one they “purchased” for exceptional use in Japan. Yet now, the company has to deal with the exception in Japan whenever changing or improving sales methodology globally for absolutely no good reason. The company in Japan is also now subject to restrictions in the use of the methodology as the company does not own the intellectual property. I don’t blame the Japanese staff of the Japan office for causing this state of affairs. I do, however, blame the managers in the Japan office who should have known better and never allowed this to happen.

Years ago when I was in my mid-twenties, I ran my own import trading company in Japan, which I had established and bootstrapped. I did everything myself without the help of staff for a period. After making my first sale to a Japanese customer, I realized I had no standard form with which to issue my invoice, and I was certainly not going to delay issuing the invoice. So, I invented an invoice form fast to serve the purpose, which I continued to use for about a year.

Later, I hired staff to handle the admin of my company. I showed them the templates for invoicing among other things and taught them the processes I had invented—and they used them. They did not know that I was the one who had invented everything and had assumed that some Japanese expert had done so for me.

Later, I worked automating many tedious manual processes including invoicing—for which I developed a modified Japanese invoice form based largely on the original one I had invented. One of my staff did not like the automated system, did not want to learn to use it, and could not understand why we couldn’t just continue using the manual system that she liked. She told me the problem was that the new invoice form “was not Japanese enough.” She explained to me that the old manual invoice form was the way “Japanese make invoices,” and that perhaps as an American I could not understand that. She lectured me about all of the various attributes of the old invoice form and their “Japaneseness” virtues. In reality, the new invoice form was not appreciably different from the old one.

“Only a Japanese person could make a form like that!” She proclaimed with all the authority of an expert on Japan, pointing to a printout of the old form. You can imagine her shock when I explained to her that I, an American ignoramus, was the inventor of the company’s original Japanese invoice form, which she had deemed a paradigm of Japanese perfection. I thanked her for the compliment.

“Not invented here” arguments can come in a variety of forms, but the core theme is always the same: it won’t work here because we’re different. Click To Tweet “Not invented here” exploits your fear of a possible misstep because of your ignorance of the provincial and the local, whereas, in reality, the “not invented here” argument merely enables the ignorance outside the world of those who make it. Never allow their ignorance to become yours.


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