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Avoid the dark cloud with Japanese customers

The following is based on a true story, only it has been generalized to make it more broadly applicable.

The scenario: a Japanese agency hired a foreign firm for a challenging assignment from its major Japanese client. One of the challenges was a short time frame to produce a prodigious amount of work. The foreign firm jumped in and got the project done with considerable flair and a high level of excellence. During the project, the agency guided the firm to be themselves with the client and be as aggressive as they normally would be, especially considering the short deadline. When the project was done, the firm was proud of their results and expected to receive accolades from the client.

At the point of having a review meeting with the client, the agency told them to be careful and at this one moment, to respect the Japanese way of doing things. They didn’t listen and here is what happened: the client pointed out a number of minor errors, and the foreign firm “poo-pooed” them, taking the stance that the errors didn’t matter in the big picture. The foreign firm was disappointed with the lack of positive feedback, and the client went away with a bad taste in their mouth.

Subsequent to this, the agency noticed that the client started viewing the foreign firm in a somewhat negative light, as if there was a dark cloud hanging over the firm. To the client, it was inconceivable that a company would not view perfection as the natural goal. The solution to this discomfort was to impose more of their normal process on future work with the foreign firm, which would involve detailed plans and schedules and full deliberation of all decisions.

Let’s look at this case study as a simple lesson in understanding how Japanese companies view the strengths and weaknesses of foreign companies. At the end, we can draw a simple conclusion about how the final result could have been avoided.

STRENGTHS of foreign companies:
– the ability to act quickly
– a high level of creativity and innovation
– a focus on results

WEAKNESSES of foreign companies:
– acting without full deliberation
– not being mindful of precise details
– not having a clear process or complete explanations at each step

A simple framework for viewing the difference in perspectives is that Japanese companies emphasize process and foreign companies emphasize results. However, there is a great appeal in the foreign way of doing things within Japanese companies. After all, there is a competitive edge in having innovation and fast action. Often, a Japanese company will realize that their internal resources are simply not up to the task of certain projects or market trends.

Instead of looking to blindly imitate the Japanese way of doing things, foreign companies can focus on emphasizing their appeal and minimizing their weaknesses, from a Japanese perspective. In the story above, the foreign firm was doing a good job until the one critical moment when the Japanese company needed some reassurance of their fundamental stance.

To avoid the dark cloud, the foreign firm could have put away their pride at the review meeting and simply acknowledged the observations of the client. There was no need to grovel or apologize – more on this in “The Master-Servant Hierarchy” (coming soon) – but a simple acknowledgement would have given the client some affirmation of their fundamentally different perspective.

And then, the next project would not only be more likely to occur, but also it could potentially open up new ways of working together where both sides offer some acceptance of the other’s way of doing things.