Things Work in Japan

The Designing Leaders team is in Japan for the next week, with stops in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. It’s been over a year since we last sent people here, and nearly 10 years since one of us first visited, and so as you can imagine there are plenty of things that have changed.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: things work in Japan.

Whether it is traffic signals at an intersection, the on-time arrival of a train, the quality of service from the staff at a retail or food outlet, or the reliability of wifi and other data connections, people in Japan seem to be committed to making things work. We say “people” rather than “companies” because ultimately it comes down to the people creating a product or providing a service deciding they will put in the effort to make sure it gets done right.

In a way, this makes a lot of sense; why would you put up with things not working right? Why would you tolerate unreliability in your technology or your people? Why would you put in the work to do only a half-assed job, rather than doing it to the best of your abilities? There seems to be a national ethic here that things are going to work right; everyone wants to be on the receiving end of good work, so they do good work themselves, too.

You cannot say the same for every country. You cannot even say the same for most countries.

Why not? Some point to Maslow’s hierarchy, pointing out that if you don’t know where your food is coming from next week, you don’t spend much time worrying about taking pride in your work. But this isn’t just about pride, it’s about putting up with unnecessary inconveniences yourself. Too many people in too many places seem to be ok with receiving poor service, and then give poor service in return. Whether it’s unreliable wifi in Thailand or the poor performance of the postal service in the Philippines, many people seem to accept that as the norm.

Obviously, some of this costs money, and poorer countries cannot necessarily follow Japan’s lead in those areas. A reliable power grid, for example, costs more than a broken down one with regular brownouts. But very often, poor performance is driven by poorly-designed policies and work processes, and it does not cost more to do things well than it does to do them poorly. Customers in these places should not tolerate poor performance, and employees should not provide it.

Imagine if you are in one of those places, and you could capture the Japanese mindset and instill it in your employees. That could put you pretty far ahead of your competitors, and could really raise the bar for everyone, leading to improvements in different aspects of your society. Something to consider.