The need to reinvent is universal, as suggested by
this report from Robert Russman Halperin. Under the auspices of the 21st
Century Initiative, he and Professor Michael Scott Morton met with several
senior executives in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.
One of the first and largest signs you see on arrival at Narita International
Airport in Tokyo cautions: "Enjoy your stay, but please follow the rules."
The average tourist has no trouble complying, but shaken by one of the
worst economic downturns since World War II, executives and managers are
reexamining even the most basic tenets of the Japanese business model.
Many are now asking questions such as the following:
Even those executives for whom all of this rule changing and reinvention
is too much to bear can be relieved, at least for a few minutes! A major
electronics vendor I visited will ship a virtual reality-equipped "relax
and refresh" recliner chair later this year, complete with built-in massager
and synchronized to the soothing images and sounds of waterfalls and soaring
birds. Based on a personal trial, I recommend some time in the chair for
all managers trying to chart a course towards the 21st Century.
Can we preserve the letter and spirit of kokomin kanjo (taking care of
one's employees), while at the same time reducing high fixed costs, government
regulation, and bureaucratic inefficiencies? Or is a Darwinian struggle
on the horizon, with some companies left no choice but to abandon the system
of lifetime employment?
How can both small and large companies attract and retain creative people,
when singling out individuals for special rewards or incentives will threaten
one of our key strengths, the ability to work as a team towards a common
Will our elaborate, but effective practices of otsukiai (building and maintaining
business and social relationships) and nemawashi (laying the groundwork
and building consensus) translate into other languages and work across
electronic networks, or will they result in risk averse and sluggish decision
Should we "push back" our borders, taking our management style and our
exports abroad, while remaining Japanese at heart? Or can and should we
become truly global and borderless, overcoming differences of language,
and decentralizing both production and management? Given the high value
of the yen, do we have any choice?
Is the practice of extensive cross-ownership which allows weaker companies
the time and flexibility to recover rather than be gobbled up by predators
still the right path, or do we need to operate in a more open and riskier
market, with a stronger venture fund network, employee stock ownership
plans, and opportunities for R&D-focused companies to go public even
before they show a profit?
Are our top executives prepared to consider new forms of corporate governance,
even though they primarily rose through sales and manufacturing, and have
tended to focus on operational, not strategic questions?
Ironically, the very success of many large Japanese companies over
the last several decades may make them more reluctant to reinvent themselves
than troubled Western companies. But these questions are being raised and
debated, and experiments in organizational innovation are evident, if not
yet plentiful. A few examples:
The presidents of two relatively small companies are making stock ownership
available to key employees by diverting their own personal holdings for
An electronics company is combining the best of its intensely collaborative
open office environment with western-style electronic mail to reduce meeting
frequency and increase productivity.
A large automotive supplier has not only moved production offshore, but
is also transforming its domestic organization to relate more effectively
to its now remote manufacturing facilities.
With the aid of global telecommunications vendors based in Japan and elsewhere,
financial services organizations are creating seamless, round-the-clock
operations connecting Tokyo with other major financial centers.