Cultural aspects of bringing Lean, Kanban, TPS, Scrum and other Japanese based management systems to the west

As most of us are aware, techniques such as Kanban, Lean, TPS, and Scrum are based on Japanese project management techniques.

In this post, I am going to talk about the cultural aspects of business in Japan, and how that relates to business in the west.

In a later post, I will cover what these techniques have to do with software development in general.

Now, to simplify the concepts overall before we dive into them, I want to share a little story, which will hopefully become more clear as we continue through this discussion.

As a multi-instrumentalist, I play both keyboards and guitar, and, as a result, I read books related to both of those instruments.

Interestingly, if one is a piano/keyboard player, one will invariably read, that piano players should play the piano “like a guitar.” Similarly, if one reads guitar literature, one will be exhorted to play the guitar like a piano.

This always amused me. So when I’m playing guitar, I should play it like a piano, but when I’m playing piano I should play it like a guitar? What if I play both? Can’t I just play piano on the piano and guitar on the guitar?

Similarly, if one reads the various management theories, the japanese basically say, you should run projects like the americans, and the american theorists say you should run projects like the japanese!

So lets look at this more in depth.

To understand what the japanese are trying to accomplish with their theories, you have to understand japanese business and culture in general first!

So here we go:

1) Japan is very much of a “group think” type of culture. There is generally, very little, individual thought or people standing up to say what they believe in.

There is a famous quote in Japan to the effect of, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Identifying with a group is a fundamental part of japanese culture; individuals are ALWAYS attached to some group.

Individuals are always addressed by their last name in a business setting when there is more than one listener. Their family is their primary group. If that doesn’t disambiguate the person, then they can be “Last-name from [CITY]”, or “Last-name from Toyota” or “Last-name from the brake division”… They are always attached to a group.

Now, in the japanese language, there are different verbs, pronouns, etc, you use to refer to your “in group” versus your “out group”.

Eg, in japan, everyone in the brake division would be part of the “in group” and everyone else would not.

So, a big part of this “cross functional” team aspect is merely to get everyone to refer to each other as part of the “in group”.

This is great for JAPANESE culture, but western types are not saddled with these types of language or conceptual barriers to begin with.

2) In relation to “No titles”, and “no management” on the team; First of all, management is part of the team in the Japanese way, it’s just that they are not allowed to micromanage.

They tend to manage in a way that is not directly hands on, but they still are available to correct team imbalances, etc, make suggestions.

The reason managers are kept at arms length in Japan is because, most japanese are not willing to speak up and say anything their manager would disagree with. It just is too impolitic.

This is once again not a factor in the west; here people are more likely to disagree with their managers.

Similarly with titles; in Japan if someone was a “PhD” or had some lofty title, no underling would ever disagree with them openly. It is just not possible to do so. That is also not a problem in the west; I disagree with PhDs all the time. There is no particular need to get rid of titles merely to have an honest conversation in the west.

3) Creating Chaos — The japanese type management practices are designed to shake up the status quo. That is because in japan there are rafts of middle level management (“salary men”), employment for life, and a heavy, silo’ed off beauracracy.

One only has to look at the recent Fukushima crisis to understand how paralyzing the beauracracy is over there.

Over there, they need to “create chaos” to get people to stop being complacent at their giant MNC. But few startups and software divisions are so complacent in the west. There is already plenty of chaos and instability to go around.

Also, Japan is a very polite society. While languages such as English, Spanish, German, etc, have many colorful insults, there are basically only a couple in Japanese. It is just not a conflict oriented culture.

So the Japanese methods try to increase conflict, knowing that people will still be polite.

However, in the west, people battle at work, there is conflict already, and increasing this can cause more harm than good — americans need to learn to work BETTER together, Japanese need to learn to work BETTER apart.

4) If you look at what “cross functional” teams in Japan look like, it has to do more at the macro, “Scrum of Scrum” levels, (see Nanoka et al), NOT at the individual team level.

The “new Japanese management style” basically advocates that giant companies such as Toyota etc create internal “startups” to do projects, and have cross functional teams lead such projects (at the high level).

That doesn’t mean that at the team level everyone is cross functional. People working on the brakes are not designing the radios. Sure there will be a higher level team that IS cross functional, but here in the west we see cross functional teams as the entire team. That is a mistake.

The Japanese suggest running a project like a western startup — which most western startups already are.

Yet the Kanban/Lean/Scrum folks suggest you run your american startup like a Japanese conglomerate!

Now that we’ve got that all sorted out — Japanese companies try to run like american startups and American startups try to run like Japanese companies.

When it comes to developing Software (innovation), the US is by far the leader.

When it comes to manufacturing cars (incremental improvement), the Japanese are the leader.

Which are you doing, what is your culture? Find the fit from there.

Full disclosure: I love Japan and the Japanese people. I speak a little (“chotto”) Japanese. I am married to a native born Japanese.


About postagilist

Architect, Manager, Developer, Musician, Post-Agile thought leader
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2 Responses to Cultural aspects of bringing Lean, Kanban, TPS, Scrum and other Japanese based management systems to the west

  1. Dave Gordon says:

    As a fellow guitarist / pianist, married to a native-born Taiwanese woman, great insights! Thanks for sharing.

    The larger challenge for all of us trying to manage the mix of creative, administrative, and production activities is still delivering at a single point in time, while optimizing for value. I believe we can use mixed metaphors for managing different activities, but the recent trend of Agilistas bashing “traditional” critical path methods is making it harder to keep the conversation centered on results. We need to avoid making a specific framework or methodology the source of our group identity. They are all tools; only a fool sees a nail and reaches for his favorite screwdriver.

  2. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of May 16 – 22 « The Practicing IT Project Manager

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