How Japanese organizations have overcome ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture – Toyota

by Anna
Published on: October 21, 2012
Categories: Japan
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The previous post outlined the problems of ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture and how it can work against the conditions necessary to create a learning organization that can adapt quickly to change. This post provides an example of one Japanese company in which a psychologically safe environment is fostered through a disciplined approach to a process that facilitates clear communication.

How Toyota has overcome ambiguity in traditional Japanese culture
Toyota is the Japanese company on which there is probably the most literature relevant to the learning organization question and is also a Japanese company that non-Japanese companies have tried to emulate.  While perhaps seen as an exception to the usual Japanese approach to learning and innovation, they serve as an interesting, large-scale example of learning within a Japanese cultural context.

Making it safe to bring bad news or concerns to the boss
Toyota is seen as having successfully created a learning organization culture that fosters a supportive learning environment within teams.  Specific examples that demonstrate that Toyota has developed a culture that reflects that of the supportive learning environment is the emphasis on open communication regardless of status or rank: “Employees feel safe, even empowered, to voice contrary opinions and contradict superiors…Confronting your boss is acceptable; bringing bad news to the boss is encouraged” (*1)

“Mieruka” (見える化) : Making tacit knowledge available to everyone
Another aspect that addresses the problems created by a culture of ambiguous communication is the way in which Toyota has made tacit knowledge explicit by documenting knowledge.  Toyota was able to improve communication by making a conscious effort to embed the “practice of converting experiential or tacit knowledge into an explicit form to be shared through out the organization” (*1)

Making tacit knowledge explicit through documentation is one way to overcome ambiguous communication and increase clarity of thought.  “Mieruka” (見える化) has become a  buzzword in Japan for various concepts and one definition of “mieruka” is this process of changing tacit information into explicit knowledge so that can be more easily communicated and shared.

Taking a disciplined approach to problem solving: Five Whys and A3 Reports
I had the opportunity to talk with a Japanese manager at Toyota in 2011 – when asked how he thought Toyota had managed to be so successful at creating the culture of a learning organization and fostering psychological safety to support clear communication, he mentioned the thorough embedding of Toyota’s problem solving process of the Five Whys and the eight step A3 Reports, also known as A3 Thinking (*2).

The considerable work that the founders of Toyota had done in ensuring that the company’s method of problem-solving was documented enabled the company to set up a training and development approach that ensures all staff are thoroughly trained in this approach and that all managers reinforce this training with their direct reports on the job on an ongoing basis.

One could say that, in this case, the process-driven approach of documenting and embedding a fact-based problem-solving approach has helped foster a supportive learning environment and increase psychological safety.

What examples have you seen where a simple process is employed to make easier to share knowledge or overcome ineffective cultural communication styles?

The next post on this topic of ambiguity in Japanese communication will be about a small Japanese company with only eighteen employees that has managed to achieve
eighty percent global market share with some of its products.  This company also has some simple approaches to address the problems of ambiguity in a traditional Japanese cultural context.

(*1) (Quotes from page 103 of) Takeuchi, H. Osono, E. & Shimizu, N. (2008). The contradictions that drive Toyota’s success. Harvard Business Review 86 (6), 96-104.
(*2) A thorough explanation of these methods with examples can be found in the following book: Liker, J. K. & Meier, D. (2006). The Toyota Way Fieldbook: A practical guide for implementing Toyota’s 4Ps. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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