Episode 6: Shikitari – Herd Instinct


One can say that to the Westerner eyes that Japan is the land of contradictions, everything good or positive about Japan always seems to have a flipside that is negative or unfavourable. Indeed you could say this about all societies, but here this contrast may appear to be much more pronounced.

One of these apparent contradictions that have been especially difficult for foreign businessman, particular Americans, to deal with is the Japanese management custom, in large companies, of rotating employees.

Virtually all administrative and technical employees in large Japanese firms are transferred every two or three years to different sections, departments, or divisions as a key part of their ongoing training.

I came across this phenomena at a very early point in my career here, when I joined a construction machinery rental and export firm as their export manager. Ready to go, and happy to fulfill one of my desires to be involved in import and export, I tackled the job in earnest. Imagine my total surprise, or should I say shock and dismay, when they said after only a few weeks on the job I would be accompanying a heavy duty mechanic to fix machinery as a part of my training.

I will confess right here and now, while I have a deep appreciation and the utter most respect for those who can fix machinery, my interest in such activity is, well zero

So off I went off for a few of weeks of observing the heavy duty mechanic, all the while wondering “wasn’t I supposed to be the export manager?” Anyway, the long and short of this was the two brothers that ran this small firm couldn’t get along at all and I took that opportunity to leave this company to re-start my journey elsewhere.

And indeed in hindsight, for all the success they had during the bubble economy of the 80’s and early 90’s, even truly stupid people could be “successful” during the bubble.

As you may have already guessed, the Japanese employees do not like the system as it takes them away from jobs just when they feel they have mastered them, and for other obvious reasons as well; they’re often in the middle of major projects of one kind or another that they would prefer to continue; therefore to leave coworkers with whom they have developed a good working relationship; and they are frequently required to transfer to a new site, sometimes in distance cities or in rural areas.

Again, I have seen this time and time while sub contracting to major Japanese corporation. I asked a high level scientist why he was moving to the sales department. He looked at me, with just a hint of melancholy in his eyes, and said “looks like it was a time for a transfer”.

Unfortunately, and to say the least this wonderful person was moving to an area where he were not naturally adept, like someone, for example, moving from the export department to the shop floor to participate in heavy mechanics.

In virtually every instant, Japanese employees who are transferred have to start over again in establishing a nurturing the kind of intimate personal relationships are essential to surviving and functioning effectively inside a Japanese company.

For foreign business people dealing with Japanese companies this rotation policy means they have to accommodate themselves to deal with new and inexperience people every two or three years, a predicament that is almost always frustrating and frequently a series handicap for the foreign side, because it is time consuming and expensive to re-create the necessary degree of awareness and trust with new and unfamiliar people.

The purpose of the rotation policy is to familiarize all management and technical employees with all of the functions of the company so that they can make better informed decisions and eventually contribute more to the success of the company. You can actually argue that this makes a lot of sense, despite the problems it causes. You could say that an engineer or designer can perform the job better if they knows something about manufacturing or about the problems encountered by the sales department.

You can look at this phenomena and perhaps attribute many of the successes so many Japanese companies indicate that the pluses of the rotation system has outweighed the minuses, at least as far as the Japanese are concerned.

One of the reasons why the rotation system works as well as it does in Japan is a cultural fact and known as shikitari, which is another word for kanrei, which means “custom” “convention”, or “how things are done”. These words are rooted in the much more ingrain indigenous DNA imprinted belief system which is now know as “Way of Japanese

Shikitari incorporates all the values, standards and rituals that make up the prevailing beliefs and behaviours in a particular Japanese company. These features differ to some degree from company to company because they are primarily a historical creation of the upper echelons running these companies; nevertheless, the features of shikitari of a company are all rooted in the culture of Japan and are therefore similar.

Generally speaking, shikitari of a company are not written down nor are they’re explicitly taught new employees. Shikitari are things that newcomers are expected to absorb by osmosis, by listening, watching, imitating, and only rarely by asking questions during the first few years with the company.

Because so many of the shikitari of a company are subtle and often invisible to outsiders, foreigners who work for Japanese company typically find them selves working blind. They often do not know what they are supposed to do, or how they are supposed to act. The results is that they tend to be in a constant state of uncertainty and frustration.

Within a company in which everyone knows and abide by shikitari, it is taking for granted that everyone understands and appreciates what everyone else is doing, and that there’s will be little or no disagreement because compromise and co-operation are built into the system.

Another aspect of the shikitari factor that plays havoc with the mentality and expectations of foreigners is that it does not tolerate difference of opinions or things to be done differently. It’s demands absolute conformity.

In a purely Japanese content shikitari binds the company into a highly directed, highly drilled team that is formidable when it plays against other teams, including foreigner companies which are not so tightly structured or focussed in their behaviour.

We will see how shikitari plays out over the next several years for the Japanese companies and their continuing role important in the world economy.

Shikitari - Herd Instinct - Land Of The Rising Son