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Assertion and Assumptions


Great Harmony Produces Great Success (Part 2)


I remember having dinner with a client from a large, somewhat conservative computer components supplier in Kyoto. There were eight of us there, and many had overseas work experience. One man, who had lived in the U.S. for a number of years and was reportedly fond of American business style, complemented me on my necktie but added that he could never wear a necktie like it at the office. The others all agreed that it simply stood out too much. Standing out as an individual is clearly not valued in business. Success is measured by the success of the group.

Typical Japanese business organizations support group success by promoting shūdan ishiki, collective group consciousness. One way that this is done is by not separating work desks using partitions. Most commonly, desks are arranged to form an island that allows members to easily communicate and share information. This continuous organic flow of information creates harmony in the department and helps avoid individual actions that are unsanctioned.

Harmony means doing the same things again and again and Japanese shokunin, or highly skilled workers, are a good example of this. To become a shokunin, you must be an apprentice first. The apprentice system in Japan is called “minarai” and is a long process of learning by watching. By watching carefully, one can learn and internalize the way to do something before actually doing it.

The sushi chef is one type of shokunin, engaging in the tradition art form of serving vinegared rice, usually with fish. While that combination of two main ingredients may sound simple, perfecting this craft takes years of patience and perseverance to repeat the same process again and again so that the shokunin can carry out this task instinctively. From this perspective, it is not surprising that sushi in Japan today has not changed so much from sushi fifty years ago. Sushi outside of Japan is quite different, however. The wide variety of new creations abroad is not due to a lack of respect to traditional craftsmanship, but rather is the result of more assertive individuals trying to do something completely different.

For industry, Japan’s economic miracle was a success story, particularly in manufacturing. The Toyota Production System is only one example, but it is one well worth looking at. Through kaizen, Toyota continues to make improvements to a production system and processes that have long been recognized for their excellence. Workers are shokunin who know their craft at a gut level. Introduction of ISO checklists in this type of environment runs the risk of reducing efficiency because workers lose the ability to act instinctively based on years of training and internalization.

The Spirit of Great Harmony means doing the same thing again and again in the relentless pursuit of perfection. A collective way of thinking and acting, Yamato Damashi, was always at the base of Japan’s economic miracle.












Graham Lenz