In past decades the Japanese economy had expanded rapidly and the country’s annual gross national product became one of the largest in the world. A contribution to this growth is said to have been the cold war threat, during which the former leading countries mostly the United States and the Soviet Union were putting a tremendous amount of money to their armament, while Japan under peace Constitution was able to concentrate its efforts on the economy. During this period managers and renowned university professors were trying to find the key to the Japanese success and the “Japanese challenge” became a buzzword for nearly thirty years. Many comparisons between Japanese and American management practices were made, many books related to this topic were written, much research took place and the Japanese management theory soon became an object of wide admiration. This period is already gone. The Japanese economy showed steady growth till the late 80’s, when Japan entered a prolonged period of relative stagnation so-called “bubble economy”, and started experiencing a serious recession. By the beginning of the millennium, the Japanese model once held up as an example to the world is clearly running its course and now is badly in need of complete restructuring. Despite this fact, the Japanese management has become an essential part of the integrated management theory and is still considered to be one of the most significant and noteworthy approaches to this area.
To gain a deeper understanding of the Japanese management, we have to describe some of the many cultural differences of this nation, which yield high influence on Japanese society and as a result also on the Japanese business.
First and foremost to be mentioned is a strong sense of belonging to a group. The reason for the Japanese group behavior and collective values sharing is definitely the basic unit of society in Japanese minds – “house”, meaning group that bind people together, such as families, companies, schools, unlike the West, where emphasis tends more on individuals. This is the basis for the lifetime employment system in most companies, where the belonging feeling is basically required and employees identify themselves with the organization, which in fact means loyalty and devotion for common corporate goals. This system requires recruitment right after finishing the school and retirement at the age of fifty-five ; the graduate comes to a low position, his career path is non-specialized (he rotates through almost all jobs in the company) and is promoted and evaluated according to the length service, unlike in Western companies, which employ workers on annual basis and the promotion and evaluation is based on one’s performance. The group principle can be also found in the collective decision making based on consensus of everyone involved, and its result – collective responsibility.
Another specific feature of the Japanese society is its high emphasis on the human factor (in fact the only resource Japan has), which stems from both historical concept and underlying social and cultural process, and results in the companies’ holistic concern for their employees. This implies that the Japanese organization forms an inclusive relationship with the worker, provides a social, emotional, and economical support and takes part of the responsibility for the employee; to say it clearly: becomes his second family. In order to achieve this, the maintaining of healthy social and working relationships does not allow for any conflicts and refusals, which would disturb the harmony of the working process, and that is why the Japanese are known for not expressing their opinions, non-committance, and for having double standards, which is in this kind of society considered to be a necessity in order to solve problems without hurting anyone.
A specific characteristic of the Japanese approach is also a leadership by influence, which means a leading process without formal authority involved. The manager has to know how to motivate people, how to win them for his idea and intention, which he achieves by using his charisma and personal qualities instead of his formal designation.
A last but not least Japanese management practice, which I would like to mention is more technical in nature: the Japanese quality control and lean production also known as “just-in-time” or Kanban, the main goal of which is the cost reduction. The quality control is a process, which never allows defective units to flow into and disrupt a subsequent process by making every employee a quality checker, responsible for spotting errors as they happen and correcting them immediately or stopping the production line completely. The “just-in-time” method is used to obtain needed parts in needed quantities when they are required, which eliminates unnecessary large quantities of inventory hanging around for months.
This was a short list of some of the Japanese management practices, which contributed to the magnificent reconstruction and development of the post-war country. Now a question may appear: which of these could be applied somewhere else in the world? Can we adopt something to our business and organizational environment? The answer is both yes and no. First we have to fully comprehend that the Japanese management stems from a unique historical and cultural tradition, which cannot be simply copied, and trying to imply any of the practices which are strongly based on cultural principles would be inefficient and probably also dangerous. Secondly, we should be aware of the fact, that the Japanese management is an object of a reasonable (justified) criticism since the slowdown in the economy has appeared and some of the practices were proved not to be effective any longer even in the Japanese business environment.
Now, I will try to briefly describe some of the advantages and disadvantages of the above mentioned practices and the possibility of their use in Slovakia.
The lifetime employment system is a permanent guarantee of loyalty to the organization and job security for the employee, it also generates a strong organizational culture at the meantime, but on the other hand means a practical impossibility of changing companies. To the Slovak environment this system seems to be inapplicable because of a high unemployment rate and a high level of fluctuation, but we could probably try the use of a short-term employment instead.
The evaluation according to the length service is, in my opinion, a barrier for initiative and qualified young people to build up their carrier, so I definitely would not apply this one in my own company.
The collective decision making brings on one hand a higher expertness achieved by a team, but on the other hand is a bit inefficient and slow, so I would probably recommend the Japanese system only on the strategic and tactical level of decision making process.
The holistic concern for people is only possible in combination with the lifetime employment system in big companies, so in most Slovak organizations, it would have no foundation.
And finally, the quality control is basically used with mass production, and is definitely one of the best contributions to the management theory from the Japanese side. It has already been used in the United States and proved to be very efficient , so it is only a question of time, and this practice will be applied almost everywhere in the world.
In conclusion: “If there is one major lesson to be learned from the Japanese business structure, it is how to manage…” Washington Post 1981. Is this still true? After reading this work, the decision is up to you…
Ms. Prochazkova, I would like to apologize that I have written a bit more than was required, but since I was in Japan and my several works were dedicated to this topic, I just couldn’t stop myself.
- Athos, A. – Pascale, R.: The Art of Japanese Management. Warner Books. New
- Ouchi, W.: Theory Z. How the American Business can meet the Japanese Challenge. New York, 1981.- Vodacek, L.: Manažment v USA. Praha, 1989.