KANBrief 4/18

Impressions of Japanese work culture

For some years, the Südwestmetall employers' association has organized study trips to Japan for interested parties. The aim of these trips is to open participants' horizons and to present the innovative corporate systems of leading Japanese companies. A member of staff from the KAN Secretariat joined such a trip, and now reports back with answers to questions such as: How does Japanese work culture differ from that in Germany? What importance is attached to occupational safety and health in Japan?

Japanese culture is strongly hierarchical. Friendliness and politeness are very important, both at home and at work. Japanese companies distinguish between "direct" employees, who are assured employment in the company through to retirement age, and "indirect" employees, who do not enjoy this privilege. The proportion of indirect employees may reach 50%. As in other countries, demographic change is making it difficult for companies in Japan to recruit new staff. Head-hunting from other companies is increasingly the norm, and companies seek to score with attractive employment packages.

The Toyota Production System (TPS)

Leading Japanese companies follow the philos­ophy of the Toyota Production System (TPS). All employees, whether university-educated or not, begin their careers in production. As a result, they become familiar with company processes and the corporate culture, and internalize them.

For many companies, TPS is not merely a production system, but a philosophy that is followed every day. The aim is to manufacture a product not only to individual customer requirements, but also free of faults, in the required quality, and within seconds. Until this goal has been met, efforts are made continually to improve the process step by step. An important element in this process is the KAIZEN philosophy ("change for the better"). Creative energy and motivation are generated by it being made clear to the employees each day that although the process has been improved, the ideal state has not yet been reached.

Superiors promote creative energy and motivation by praising employees – and by thanking employees who for example inform them of deviations in a process, thereby enabling the causes to be sought and a permanent solution found. Superiors are intimately familiar with the process, and ensure that the defined standards are adhered to. They thus have a crucial function in setting an example, and are able to provide help at any time.

Digitalization, everywhere?

The digital form is not viewed in Japan as being particularly conducive to learning. Physical elements such as "kanban" (cards) can frequently be found in production. These cards are used to control the supply of new material and to keep warehouse stocks low.

The concept of "Industry 4.0" is familiar to the Japanese. However, data security is considered a problem that has not yet been solved, and fears exist of an unwanted drain of expertise. Human beings have an essential role to play in the TPS, since they alone can improve the process on a daily basis within the KAIZEN concept and are sufficiently flexible to implement changes swiftly. For Japanese companies following the TPS philosophy, eliminating human beings from processes is not therefore an option.

The role of occupational safety and health

Managers in Japanese companies have a crucial role with respect to occupational safety and health. They are responsible for ensuring that employees reach retirement age in good health, and they set an example in behaving appropriately. Depending upon the company or part of it, further measures are also taken. At Toyota for example, the entrance to the production area is marked by a symbolic green gate. The gate is intended to instil an alertness in employees for possible hazards once they have passed it. Drivers of logistical vehicles not only sound the horn before driving off, but also make hand signals in appropriate directions and ensure that no one is present and at risk in their radius of action.

Finally, attention must also be drawn to the downsides of Japanese work culture: countless overtime hours are one reason among many why pressure in the world of work is extremely high in Japan and leads to high suicide rates. Nevertheless, we can be inspired by Japan to improve our processes continually – in all sectors.

Sebastian Korfmacher