The Japanese government has lately been working in partnership with industry more than usual to promote white collar work reform to address perennial issues of low productivity, habitual overtime, and health issues related to overwork including death from overwork, known as karoshi. Reforms under discussion address mostly policy around regulating how people work and are paid, such as overtime limits and remuneration. However, these fail to address underlying cause, which is not about how people work, but rather is how managers with staff lead, or rather fail to lead.
It is a leadership capability deficit issue for companies.
When I observe low productivity in a company and excessive overtime, these are nearly always accompanied by certain practices of mid-level managers. Some of these include the following:
- Vague strategy and objectives for their staff. For example, a sales manager may simply set a sales quota, rather than being specific about which kind of customers to target with what products, which to avoid, and who in the company should be you counterpart and who should not.
- Failure to hold staff accountable for achievement of specific goals, or adhering to specific behaviors. This is of course natural when the strategy is vague.
- There is process orientation rather than goal orientation. For example, a manager says about a staff person, “He doesn’t get results but makes a real sincere effort!”
- Excessive meetings for things like reporting and information exchange. The number one complaint I hear from managers and staff alike around low productivity is too many meetings that go on for too long and accomplish little. The only reason to hold a meeting is to make decisions. All others are superfluous.
- There is excessive fear of failure, or a blame culture inside the company that causes people to be tentative. High productivity comes from rapid action, rapid failure, and rapid learning.
- People are promoted into management positions based on seniority rather than leadership and management capability. They are given little support like mentoring and coaching, and expected gain capability from leadership training seminars, if offered at all, which are the least effective way to develop leaders.
- There are no document processes or principles of work, or they exist but no one follows them. Instead, everything is expected to be learned on the job from one’s seniors. If the person before you did not know what he was doing, no one after him or her will, and there is no basis for continuous improvement.
- Refusing to fire managers who simply don’t work out. This is often due to a practice of lifetime employment. Known as madogiwazoku, these managers are given limited responsibility to be kept busy. In the worst cases, sometimes they are given staff, poisoning more junior people in the company. This kind of deadwood takes up company resources, weighs down other staff, and prevents new blood that may be more productive from coming into the company.
- Tacitly endorsing overtime by staying late.
- Creating financial dependency on overtime with unchecked overtime pay.
These are just some of the more common phenomena I have observed associated with low-productivity, overtime, and overwork. All of these are a result of deficits mid-level management and leadership capability. None of these phenomena can be corrected by changing policy or regulation around overtime and overtime pay, or any other labor-related policy. The only way to address these issues is by strengthening leadership and management capability of managers who have staff. Below are a few ways mid-level leaders can up their game and improve productivity for the organization they lead.
- Set clear strategy, strategic objectives, specific tactics, measures of progress, and targets that indicate success. Review these regularly with staff in a scheduled, formal process.
- Hold staff accountable both for specific behaviors, such as staff must identify an economic buyer before submitting a proposal, as well as results. Follow up on actions decided or promises made during a previous meeting when meeting with staff.
- End “Gambarimasu!” acceptance culture, or what might be translated as, “I’ll try my best!” Seek commitment. As Yoda said, “There is no try. Only do or do not.”
- Treat failure as learning, not something to be avoided or punished for. If people fear failure, they will never try anything remotely risky. However, business success requires trying new things that will often fail. Show me someone who never fails and I’ll show you someone who never learns. Institute an award for the best idea that didn’t work. Encourage the behavior of taking on reasonable risk, not just rewarding the result.
- Eliminate all meetings during which there is no decision to be made. Insist that the decision to be made is explicit and agenda are stated in advance when meetings are called. Let staff know that attendance of any meetings without these is not required. Information exchange is not a purpose for a general meeting unless there is a decision to be made. Staff reporting is not a purpose for a general meeting. Reporting should be done separately by other means. Meetings are used to resolve specific issues and leverage collective experience and wisdom of the group.
- Provide coaching and mentoring for all managers with staff. Coaches may be internal or external. I recommend a combination of both.
- Document process, methods and techniques. Use these as a baseline for improvement, a standard against which to evaluate performance, and basis for educating new staff. Review and modify the process regularly to keep it fresh and useful. I recommend yearly.
- Fire managers who simply don’t work out. If you have tried by providing support and there is no other work in the business to which the manager might be suited, let him or her go. Do it humanely with a reasonable severance package. After all, the company is partly to blame for having hired the wrong person in the first place.
- Go home early. Tell your staff to go home. Accompany them out the door.
- Reward people financially for results, not for time put in.
All of the above suggestions are things that any manager in any company can do now, and get immediate results. There is no need to wait for the government to act. If you are leading a large organization with multiple layers of management below you, you must start with the team that reports to you. Once they have reformed, you can coach them into doing the same with the teams below them, so on and so forth. Much low productivity is a leadership issue, not a work issue. As a leader, you can resolve it.