Japan Study Mission – A Learning Intensive Model

In the late 1980s I had the good fortune to participate in a Japan Study Mission while at Digital Equipment Corporation (now Compaq which became HP).  This activity was a great example in several areas of process innovation and adult learning:

  • A new way to provide experiential learning in a collaborative community
  • Direct observation and benchmarking of the world’s best at Just In Time (JIT) Manufacturing and Total Quality Control (TQC)
  • Implementation of learning and the virtuous learning cycle

The VAX systems manufacturing group had just finished a long five years of implementing MRP II and DRP II throughout fifteen manufacturing plants located throughout the world.  The leaders of that effort were asked to take on the challenge of implementing JIT and TQC.  They knew they couldn’t do the same process because it took too long and didn’t achieve the results that they had hoped for.  So in desperation they turned to a consultant for help who recommended going to benchmark the best of the best.

A group of 20 professionals from the manufacturing, sales, information services, and software services organizations were selected for the first trip.  In the two months prior to the three week visit to Japan, the individuals were loaded up with 10 books and about 50 articles to read and absorb.  In parallel, the leaders and consultants developed an outline of topics to benchmark and observe on the trip.  All of the participants met in Seattle for a day and a half to review the study materials, get to know each other, and develop study teams to augment the study guide and further develop the questions to ask to get to the information that was sought.

The group then traveled to Japan for an intense three weeks of plant visits and cultural experiences.  A typical day would involve two plant visits of manufacturers that ranged from a sewing machine manufacturer to Sony, Canon, Ricoh, Toshiba, Matsushita, Honda, and Nissan.  Each day would start with an overview of the plants we were to visit and specific learning objectives for those plants.  On the bus to the plants we would break into study groups that focused on topics ranging from plant finances to information systems to quality processes and inventory control processes.  We would review and capture what we learned the previous day and would develop questions that we would want answered on the visits for that day.

At each plant site we would have a set of formal presentations where we would present what we were there to learn and the plant personnel would give an overview of their operation and the products that they produced.  We then would take a walking tour of the facility where we could gain informal access to our hosts.  At the conclusion of the walking tour we would then gather back in the conference room for additional Q&A and our formal goodbyes.  We all quickly learned that the best sources of information came from the guides on our walk throughs of the plants.  The guides were typically educated in the US, spoke excellent English and were very forthcoming about what we were seeing.  When we were in the conference room however, these same people were so low on the totem pole that they were the ones serving coffee and refreshments.

On the bus at the end of each plant visit, we would pass a microphone around and each of us would give a short summary of what we saw that day that we expected to see and what we didn’t see that we expected to see.  Most of us learned the most from what we didn’t see that we expected to see.

Gregory Bateson – The difference that makes a difference

In his many contributions to the field of cybernetics, Bateson introduced the notion of “the difference that makes a meaningful difference.”  So much of the previous work in cybernetics focused on just noticeable differences and Bateson always wanted to get at the essence of what makes each “system” unique and operate as a system.  When used in a facilitated way, the “difference that makes a difference” is a powerful way to prioritize what is the one thing to do that if we get it right will move us the farthest in the direction of our intentions.

A powerful example of the Bateson question occurred on a Japan Study Mission I participated in while at Digital equipment.

From my own personal experience, the most powerful example of the difference that makes a difference can be summed up in the following story that summarized the end of a three week study mission by 20 manufacturing professionals touring the best Japanese corporations that had implemented Just-In-Time Manufacturing and Total Quality Control:

At the end of the three weeks, we gathered for a day long seminar to summarize the learning of the previous three weeks and all the reading we did before the trip.   We must have come up with over 500 ways that we could improve our plants back in the US.  Then the consultant really earned his keep.   He asked us to reflect on all that we’d seen and then to pick the single difference that would make the biggest difference back in our own plant.  He went on to explain that the typical US manager will come up with 100 ideas and try and implement them all at once, accomplishing very little.   The Japanese manager will select one idea, implement it, achieve significant results and then move to the second item on the list.

The Burlington Vermont management team whose plant produced the largest VAX computers took this advice to heart and realized that the single biggest difference between their plant and all the plants that we’d viewed on this visit was cleanliness.   Their plant was a relative pig pen compared to the Japanese facilities.  So they came back to the US and gave a presentation to all three shifts at the plant about the Japan Study Mission and set a goal to get the plant cleaned up.    It took a week on all three shifts to get the plant cleaned up.  Then they ran into their first big surprise.   It took them an additional three weeks to figure out how to keep the plant clean.  They had to back into every process and work with some of their suppliers to keep the plant clean.

No one was prepared for the second surprise.  As a result of getting AND keeping the plant clean, the operation generated a one time $150 million benefit to DEC’s bottom line by increasing their inventory turns from 5 to over 12.   Many internal consultants tried for years to increase throughput as evidenced by inventory turns and had not had any positive effect. These efforts included large amounts of Artificial Intelligence technology.   Then they hit their third surprise – their quality improved by over 300%.  They were no longer damaging parts by moving things to find work in process inventory and every part stayed in the plant for only a short period of time.

A three week study mission which cost the company less than $300,000 had returned more than $150 million.  Now that’s process innovation.

All of this improvement was a result of asking the simple question “What is the single difference that will make the biggest difference?”

Communicating the Value of the Japan Study Mission

At the end of the mission, we gathered in a Tokyo hotel for two days of analyzing and synthesizing what we had learned.  One of the challenges was to figure out how to communicate to other professionals in our organizations what we had learned.  After a wonderful celebratory dinner, we got up the next morning to summarize and put together a communication summary of our learnings.  The following is from my journal of the three week study mission.

The Last Day

It was real tough to get up this morning. The dinner last night was a gracious finale. The drinks afterwards in Mike’s room were a letting down of our hair after the formality of the dinner. But I gotta get up early to get the damn bags packed and to do my presentation.

I had run my mouth yesterday afternoon in a conversation with Steve and Susan. Somebody needed to give a summary presentation on what we had learned about Human Relations in the two weeks. Since Susan wasn’t going to be there in the morning, she asked if Steve or I would give it. I volunteered by saying “I’ll be happy to. Somebody has got to do a right brain presentation sooner or later. I’m tired of these bulletted lists of facts.”

Those were fighting words for Steve, “What do you mean right brain presentation?”

“Pictures. Man. Pictures,” I rattled back. “I am so tired of these two weeks with this crew of twenty terminal analytics doing nothing but provide lists and lists and lists of facts. A picture is worth 50,000 of those kinds of words.”

Steve wasn’t buying it.  “Look I’ll make you a bet,” I proposed. “You go back and put together a summary presentation for the two weeks however you would normally do it. And I’ll do the same.  I’ll bet you whatever you want to bet, that my presentation will be remembered and yours won’t. ”

Looking at Steve I had clearly stepped over the lines of decency. I was in one of my seldom right, but never in doubt modes.   So I changed the proposition, “Look I’ve watched you the last several weeks and you are superb at sifting through a lot of data and getting at what is relevant and then listing it out. I’m terrible at that. But what I am really good at is taking a sifted list and putting it into a picture that will be remembered. If you are willing, let’s work together on the presentation. You do the sifting, and I’ll do the picture.”

“Now, you’ve got a deal,” replied Steve quite eagerly. “I’ll get the list to you tonite.”

I wasn’t quite sure what form the picture would take but I knew that it had something to do with the triangle, circle and square theme. So I suggested to Steve, “I still don’t have a good picture in mind, but I’m pretty sure it is going to be organized in threes. See if there is a natural breakdown of the material into threes.”

Off he went. I then turned to Susan and did a little brainstorming with her on what the picture might look like. She suggested that somehow the picture should reflect the uncertainty of the new generation of Japanese who didn’t seem to be conforming as well to the old.  Click.  I know just the thing. I’ll relate it back to our Japan cultural consultant showing us the crack in the piece of China. I had gotten as far as my creative juices were going to take me. I had also backed myself into a creative corner.

At dinner Steve gave me a one sheet summary of the last two weeks of human resources observations.  His work was impeccable.  Now all I needed was the picture. After sleeping on it, the last puzzle piece fell into place. Mt. Fuji would be the triangle. Talk about symbolism all over the place. Now my only concern was had I outsmarted myself by being clever too far.

After scrambling to get all my packing done and get a call in to the States, it was time to go to the annex for our last official study group meeting. It was a little sad this morning because all three of the Burlington contingent, John, Zach, and Susan had already left. We started the session off by going around the room with each of us relating what the trip had meant to us personally. Emotions were pretty strong this morning; none of us really wanted this learning experience to end. But most importantly, we didn’t want to lose the close associations that had formed over the three weeks. Tears were the order of the day for several of us, and tight chests made it real difficult for each of us to speak when it was our turn.

I wanted so badly to let each study mission participant know how much I had grown and learned on the trip. For me most of that learning was the result of the interactions with the group surrounding me. The exposure to the Japanese companies provided the screen on which the movie we created could play, but it was this group and their willingness to share that was the heart of the experiential learning.

Steve was up first with his summary of what we could bring back to the states and apply directly, that is, what were the advantages that we had that we need to ensure that we keep.

Finally it was my turn. I was the last one. Somehow I think Steve managed to make sure that I was last, hoping that I could summarize all of the trip not just the Human Relations.

No matter how much I tried to take deep breaths to calm myself down, I was shaking like a leaf. You would think that after all these years of public speaking that I could control my nerves a lot better. No such luck. Today was especially difficult because I wanted to touch to the core of what the visit to Japan had meant to me and to be able to share with these new friends something other than words.

I looked out: paused for a few seconds; took a deep breath and started tentatively. “Whenever I take a trip, I always take several books with me. I never conciously stop to think whether the books have something to do with the trip. I just need something to occupy the plane flights and those hours in the hotel room when I can’t sleep.  I’d like to share with you a short excerpt from one of those books. I couldn’t believe how apropos it is to this group, at this time and in this place.”

I then read this excerpt from Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language:

“Culture hides much more than it reveals, and#.strangely enough what It hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand our own. I am also convinced that all that one ever gets from studying foreign culture is a token understanding.”

“The ultimate reason for such study is to learn more about how one’s own system works. The best reason for exposing oneself to foreign ways is to generate a sense of
vitality and awareness – an interest in life which can come only when one lives through
the shock of contrast and difference.”

I tried to look up several times during the reading, but I couldn’t. I was shaking and so hoping that it would be accepted. After finishing, I looked out and the expressions were so heartwarming I wanted to just sit there and bask in the reflections. Several people started at once, “Read that again so we can copy it down!” “That summarizes so well what we have just been through, where did you get it?”

I waited and then said “I’ll finish up with this at the end and I’ll make sure I include it in the journal.”

I then put up the first overhead. Starting from the center and working outward, “Just as Mt. Fuji is the center and focal point for the Japanese geography, employee relations are at the center of Japanese corporations. Surrounding this focus is the workgroup itself sometimes called Quality Circles and sometimes called SGIA. Yet, just as people are important, so is the environment that exists within the plant, and within the Japanese homeland.”

“But I think the key word for me as I reflected on the last several weeks was one that Ken mentioned when we first met – ‘sometimes’.”  I added: “As I think about the plants that we have visited, the geographies that we have toured, I see a lot of contradictions and differences. There is certainly nothing black and white like I expected before I came over.”

I then positioned an overlay on top of the previous transparency. “If we look at the next level of observations,” I went on, “we see some very appropriate summary statements. At the heart of Employee Relations is ‘the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.’ We saw that everywhere we went, that the individual is subservient to the group. But what wasn’t so obvious until after the weekend at the Shinto Shrine and then seeing Brother Industries is that for each individual worker there is a clear relationship between God and man, between employer and employee, and between parent and child. What really struck me with full force is the congruence between these three relationships, that they are all viewed as the same and that the relationship is buried deep in the cultural belief system.”

“As we move outward to the role of the group within the corporation we see the symbols for long term investment for long term growth – the seed, sprout, trunk, flower, and fruit. The Japanese have brought the mentality of the citrus farmer to the corporate world – what I plant today will be harvested in ten years. The Hop, Step and Jump of the Quality Circles at Brother were correlated with the physical life, lifetrend, and life mission of the Shinto value system. Finally, we see the reward system and how it intertwines with the focus on the team, on visible recognition, and the need for self-development to help one’s team members, a self-development that will lead to greater group glory.”

“Where does this path and journey to self-development lead?” I asked rhetorically. “To Wa, to group harmony. Harmony between the workplace and nature. Harmony between people, machines and software. This harmony starts with a value system that embraces cleanliness and tidiness as a symbol of purity. This value leads to the simplification of work flows. to the attention to detail, to an orderliness.”

“Yet, within this vision and embracement of cultural values also lies a firm grip on current reality,” I continued. “‘Brother Industries expressed it quite well. A period of steady equilibrium has replaced the era of high growth. Quality over quantity. The New Realism.”

As I got ready to turn off the overhead projector, someone asked what the jagged line was running through the right side of the picture. Now I knew I was losing it. How could I possibly forget that? “Thanks for the prompt,” I acknowledged. “The jagged line is symbolic of a rent in the fabric of the Japanese culture. We have heard from several sources these last several weeks of the discontent amongst the current generation of merely accepting previous ways. Work may not be the dominant drive of the future, like the past. Concern with family is becoming very important to young Japanese. And this culture really hasn’t embraced a meaningful role for women. Also as the pressures mount from the outside world to open up what is perceived as a closed culture and market, we don’t know what effects that will have.”

One of our study books had an observation about this situation: “It was entirely obvious that Father Pittau deplored this cast of mind and that he attributed it at least in part to the changed atmosphere of the Japanese home. ‘So far,’ he said a bit grimly, “companies and government agencies have been able to take these youngsters and reshape them, giving them the traditional social formation in which loyalty to one’s company or ministry is paramount. But already it’s not so easy as it used to be to instill a spirit of service in young people in this country. And it could get harder and harder.” The Japanese Mind p. 137.

“So the jagged line represents the crack that I see in the superb Japanese economic machine,” I observed. “The question is will the machine break apart or will it be like the piece of china that Jean Pearce showed us two weeks ago and the crack will be covered in gold as the Japanese adapt to this New Reality.”

“It is easy to create a cultural change when there is a crisis, but how do you keep it going when affluence or the overriding vision is achieved? Since the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan has used the industrial countries in the West as a model for its vision. It has now reached that vision. What does Japan do now to create a new vision to carry forward? Will Japan focus on quality of life with a unique combination of eastern and western philosophies or will Japan slide backwards?” I finished.

If communications are the results that you get, all I had to do was look at the faces in the room to know that I had shared a piece of me with a group of the greatest professionals in the world. Thanks for letting me share this journey with all of you.

As a final gift, I offer a summary of the trip in the form of a brief poem:

Impressions of Japan

Sameness. It’s OK. I can survive.
Difference. I’m not alike. I will thrive.
Spread out. Flat. Hazy.
Grace to graciousness.
Chopsticks – a silent, gentle, natural dinner companion.
Clean. Slow. Fast.
Wa – the synergistic harmony.
The nail that sticks uP
God and Man
Parent and Child
Company and Employee
Here and Now
Nature. The garden – holistic view, narrow focus.
Elegance through simplicity:
By movement
By set menu
By flowing production
Triangle. Circle. Square.
Just in Timeliness
“Herro, cutie pie.”
“Been in Japan long?”
Rhythm. Incense. Water to smoke to purify.
Form and function integrated.
Both – And: not Either – Or. Together.
We need each other!

This entry was posted in Knowledge Management, Learning, organizing, social networking, Value Capture, Working in teams, WUKID. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Japan Study Mission – A Learning Intensive Model

  1. Pingback: The Cricket | On the Way to Somewhere Else

  2. Pingback: The Lost Power of Why | On the Way to Somewhere Else

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