On Innovation & Japan
Japan’s innovation history is a lesson about impermanence. While the large size and longer history often undermine the innovation process, somehow Japan’s established corporations not only managed to but perfected the innovation process. Kaizen, the Toyota method, the Honda way were so successful that they have been imported into the lexicon of the economies in the West. Fast forward to the present, the innovation process for Japan is sluggish at best. The establishment is so desperate and its economy in dire need, Japan (both its corporations and government) is getting out of its comfort zone by sending its own people to Silicon Valley and elsewhere to collect innovation methods that would work in the global scene.
How did Sony manage to bring us the Walkman (the iPod of its time) in a structured company from a company steeped in tradition? How is it that the companies in its class can no longer innovate as they used to? What changed?
Speaking with others who have also interacted with Japanese companies, government officials and trade associations, here are some observations and possible conclusions:
- Japan fears failure: the stakes are high when you are hired by a company for life, because the way to “take responsibility” for your failure is often resignation. It comes from failure being shameful. Why did it not matter before? Immediately after World War II, Japan’s landscape was disrupted economically and with industrial advancements, and in that chaos, anything would have been an improvement, and failed projects were less obvious and perhaps more tolerated because everything was new.
- Japan’s workforce continues to be male dominated and homogeneous: despite more women entering into the workforce, they are often not part of the decision making team. When you have a country of mostly similar looking people (Japan’s immigration laws are still very protectionist, and had not imported labor in the past from abroad to significantly affect the ethnicity of its population) with similar backgrounds (the education system is managed nationally with the same standards for all), with deep traditions still very much alive going back thousands of years. Even if the process is innovative, same input leads to same output void of variations. Compared to other countries where women’s career advancement is slow but improving, the gap between the innovation process and output of Japan vs. the rest of the world is widening.
- The Japanese business language is formal and not conducive to entertaining disruptive ideas: language does shape how we think. While the Japanese are studious and have explored innovation systems of other countries, importing it back to Japan has not yielded the success that matches their efforts. When we brainstorm and follow the Stanford Design Thinking methods, the structure not only requires a flat organization or minimum hierarchy of power of the participants but the language be direct, and almost childlike in its crudeness and honesty at first, until the ideas can be refined. Formal Japanese used in the business setting is indirect at best, but also vague in places that matter (e.g., it’s customary to drop the subject in a sentence), so it is easy to misunderstand who was going to do what). I felt strongly about this point that when considering conducting an innovation workshop for the Japanese audience in Silicon Valley, to do so in English with a facilitator who is bicultural and bilingual (but not necessarily with an interpreter offering simultaneous translations).
The situation is challenging because many of the elements like the ones above (culture, language) are intrinsic to the problem. Take the lack of diversity issue. The fix isn’t to flood the workforce with more women and foreigners or Japanese folks educated elsewhere, but to build an environment where women and folks with minority (to them) perspectives feel welcomed. That type of transition takes time, or requires an immense event that a society so deep rooted in its traditions can accept, nay, embrace the kind of paradigm shift witnessed in the late 40s. Let’s hope this time that it doesn’t need another war for the transformation.
Photo: Bread from Andersen Bakery in Hiroshima, Japan, where, the founder learned his skills abroad and brought them back to Japan successfully.