Achieving Change in a Recalcitrant Japanese Organization

There are many keys to achieving organizational change. Below, I discuss four of the most important ones that are particularly relevant to achieving change in a Japanese organization, whether a foreign operation in Japan or a purely Japanese company.

1. Make counter space.

I like to cook, and seems whenever I do, I never have enough counter space, particularly as a move from preparing one dish to the next. I cannot move on to the next dish with ease if the workings of the last one are still on the counter. I need to clear at least some space to do my gastronomical magic.

Organizational change is much the same. Japanese organizations tend to have more counter clutter than their western counterparts due to quasi lifetime employment systems, a tendency to over emphasize the value of consensus compromise, and excessive conservatism.

Before you can start work on the new change, you need to clear some counter space. In an organization, ,that means deciding what you are going to clear out and doing so without hesitation—for example, business lines that are no longer growing, an outdated company identity,  beliefs and assumptions that no longer hold up to scrutiny, or leaders in the organization who think they are beyond having to learn anything new. Clear your clutter.

2. Push thinking-driven process down through the organization.

Most organizations are increasingly dominated by process-driven thinking as you move down through the organizational layers. In process-driven thinking, people view their work in terms of sets of tasks. Working well means adhering to a process regardless of outcome, an acute problem in Japanese companies.

Thinking-driven process are the opposite. People are empowered to decide what to do to achieve a desired outcome. To do well means self-initiated action toward the desired business outcome. For example, following a customer service protocol when a customer lodges a complaint is process-driven. Empowering an employee to action at his or her discretion within a budget to resolve a claim is thinking-driven.

The more thinking-driven an organization is at increasingly lower levels, the more dynamic and responsive to change it will be,. See my blog post on this at

3. Apply values in the non-strategic, not just the strategic.

I know the CEO of elevator manufacturer in Japan. Safety is core to their culture, as you would expect, particularly in the testing and inspections of elevators. That’s strategic to their business. However, that attitude carries over. Even in routine internal meetings, they start of with a safety review, and are now considering doing the same in meetings with visitors to the company. It takes only a minute to make sure that everyone knows where the emergency exits are and what to do in case of a fire or serious earthquake.

Some may find this excessive. However, if you really want your staff to apply the core value of safety in all instances—no exceptions—this is how you do it. It also sends a strong message to customers and suppliers that you are serious about the values you espouse—particularly in Japan.

4. Embrace past failures.

This is likely on of the hardest things to do for Japanese people because of the highly emotional and social connotations attached to failure. Remember, Japan is the country that invented hara-kiri, and the expression to “take responsibility” in Japanese has a heaviness unparalleled in other languages.

Nonetheless, the truth remains in Japan and elsewhere, if you intend to succeed, you have to endure failure. It is only those who view failure as learning, as opposed to a permanent state, are the people who grow.

This holds true for organizations as well. For example, I know a company in Japan that had some serious, high-profile mishaps with their product. Those “failures” now define the identity of the company to many staff who were there when they happened. They are uncomfortable to talk about it, and staff avoid the subject. Nevertheless, it is still the elephant in the room. Not talking about it is not going to make it go away, and is holding the company back from growth through a collective lack of confidence and a mindset of mea culpa.

This company however is now beginning to embrace the failure. It is transitioning to using its experience to become an unrivaled safety advocate in the industry, pushing beyond current standards and practices. They have nothing to lose by doing so, and can leapfrog their competitors as thought-leaders on the subject, restoring a sense of corporate pride to those who have lost it.

I have found these keys helpful to clients in finding their own new success. Think about how they might apply to your organization, which ones you might implement now, and how you would you go about doing so. Even the most recalcitrant of Japanese companies can change.