2013.11.16 hard to make decisions

For foreign companies, one of the more frustrating aspects of doing business in Japan is the painfully slow process by decisions are made. Thanks to a complicated bureaucracy, a heavily ingrained hierarchical society and an overall tendency to avoid risk at all costs, sometimes it seems like Japanese workers are the most inefficient decision-makers in the world. But what is behind this habit of everyone taking their sweet time to make up their minds? We have compiled a list of eight reasons behind this seemingly common Japanese practice of being incredibly indecisive.

While certain Japanese industries, like electronics, are struggling to hold their own in an increasingly globalized world, many people on the outside are looking at why Japan has been losing business to overseas competitors. Everyone seems to be searching for the magic answer and many think that a lot of the blame lies within the commonly held belief that Japanese businesses are so slow to come to any kind of decision in the workplace. 

1. Japan avoids risk, shuns challenges

It is said that Japanese culture has a “strong psychological resistance” to anything new. When making decisions at work, many workers want to avoid anything deemed a risk or a challenge to the company. This often means delaying a decision until you are 100 percent sure you have your superiors approval.

2. “Making changes to the organization is great, but just don’t make me change.”

We are probably all guilty of this double standard, but many workers in Japan are very much in favor of changes to their company….just not when it affects them. And since no individual is willing to try something new, any plan to implement a new business practice quickly reverts back to the old ways when everyone ignores the new plan.

3. Go with what you know

The hardest part of making a decision, regardless of culture, is the ultimate responsibility the decision-maker holds if it fails. But if you are afraid of taking responsibility in the case of a bad idea, it is probably safer to just go with the old ideas that seem to have been working for the past however many years. This is the pattern that many Japanese workers find themselves in, making it very hard for new ideas to take hold.

4. Students are taught to “solve the easily solvable problem first.”

Most children in Japan are taught to take tests by tackling the easiest problems first, then if they have time, follow-up with the more difficult ones. Adults then translate that skill to their workplace. The Western way to look at these problems may be to see which issues are worth the most to the company in the long-term, solve those, then go back and address the easier ones, which are typically worth less “points.”

5. Lack of “high risk, high return” culture

Arguments about the morality of their actions aside, Wall Street bankers would have gotten nowhere had they not been prepared to take on extraordinary risk. Betting on that small startup or speculating on volatile commodity prices is incredibly risky, but that is where the big money is…if you make the right move. Foreign companies often complain that Japanese businesses are unwilling to even consider something that is “high risk, high return.” For example, instead of forging into the relatively unknown area of MP3 players like Apple did with the iPod, Sony seemed quite content to keep on trucking with the MiniDisc format.

Interestingly, although the MiniDisc format was quickly forgotten about in the West, even three or four years ago many Japanese-made home music systems came with MiniDisc players built into them, and the discs themselves can still be bought all over the country today. Clearly something appeals to the Japanese mindset about this altogether more traditional, relatively risk-free, format.

6. No authority at the lower levels

When low-level workers have to constantly check back with their superiors about every little detail, it can take what seems like a lifetime to come to any conclusion. With Japan’s strong hierarchy, employees have to take everything up with their supervisor or boss, which can bring the decision-making processing to a mind-numbing pace. This can affect everything from international business deals to resolving a problem with payment plan at your local cellphone store, where staff often reply that they do not have the power to make certain decisions and that the customer’s complaint must be passed up the chain of command.

7. HQ is number one

Much like how low-level employees have to answer to their superiors before making any decision, the branch offices of companies have little to no authority to make any judgements on their own. Company headquarters have the final say, no matter what. And when companies have offices all around the world, trying to coordinate with Tokyo’s time zone is just another way they fall behind.

8. Meetings: always large, never personal

We have seen this before, but a lot of foreign companies are confused when they see that Japanese custom of large business meetings where no new ideas are discussed. While overseas, meeting to brainstorm a discuss a new business plan calls for a smaller group of employees to ensure that everyone can input their ideas, Japanese meetings appear to just be an excuse for management to declare the new business plan and that is it. The large number of employees at the meeting discourages anyone from speaking out or throwing out a new idea.

Japanese netizens were not very surprised at this “news.” A lot of them agreed wholeheartedly that Japanese society creates a business environment hostile to new ideas and swift decision-making. But many were cynical that anything could change soon:

Changing the eduction system to teach a new way will take a lot of time and money, and doing that in our generation is just impossible.

We’ve been hearing this kind of criticism for a while since globalization started…

Ouch…hearing something so correct is a bit painful to hear.

Do you think this is a legitimate reason why Japanese businesses are struggling in the world markets or is this just stereotyping all of Japan unfairly? We would love to hear your experiences with trying to make decisions with a Japanese business or as part of a Japanese workforce!

Source: Naver Matome
Image: Flickr (oerendhard1)