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'Three idiocies' that are ruining Japan: Obsession with numbers, rules and meetings

18 Comments

Any number of explanations have surfaced over the past 20 years concerning why Japan’s economic stagnation has been so stubbornly protracted. Shukan Asahi (July 14) lists “three idiocies” it says are “crushing Japan” – to wit: meetings, numbers and rules, all valuable as means to an end, but idiotic indeed as ends in themselves, which is what they tend to become in organizations unable to shake off the dead weight of old, outmoded thinking.

The principal end of business activity, when not the exalted one of universal wellbeing, is, presumably, profitability. A meeting in which issues are aired and ideas canvassed is an excellent thing. A “meeting for the sake of having a meeting” is “idiotic” – and yet all too common, Shukan Asahi finds. It introduces a certain food products maker in Tokyo whose employees dread the return to the office, from wherever he was, of one particular executive in his 50s. They dread it because they know what’s coming. “Let’s have a meeting!” It’s 2 p.m., the busiest time of the day. Never mind. The boss wants a meeting, he’ll have a meeting. Does he have anything to say? How about, he says, making the in-house email magazine public? Supposing, he says, we invite our customers to company picnics? Those intent on currying favor are volubly enthusiastic: “Good idea!” “Let’s do it!” – while the rest roll their eyes and think in anguish of the passing time and the work they could be getting done. It wouldn’t be so bad, Shukan Asahi hears from its source inside the company, if meetings like this broke up after an hour or so. But they never do. They drags on and on.

To psychiatrist Hiroaki Emoto, who specializes in office “human relations,” it sounds all too familiar. “Lack of self-confidence” is his general diagnosis of compulsive callers of meetings. A meeting becomes a pretext for projecting and protecting one’s authority. There’s a lot of that going on, he says.

Numbers, as all agree, are very useful devices. Neither civilization nor business could get very far without them. But they have their limits, and when managers rely on them to the exclusion of all other indicators, they become more of a problem than an asset. Shukan Asahi speaks to a young woman employed in the IT sector, whose boss insists that everything be quantified, forever demanding: “What’s the chance, in percentage terms, of landing this contract, of getting that client on board?” – and so on. This, too, says the magazine, is a not uncommon tendency. What is a harassed subordinate to do? Pressed for a percentage, she’ll cough up a percentage, though it’s more likely than not meaningless, if not damagingly misleading.

The problem has another aspect. “Increase sales 30 percent!” a department head will snap at his staff. It makes the department head feel he’s doing his job. Anyone daring to suggest that the numerical target is unrealistic will be reprimanded for lack of zeal. Therefore no one dares suggest it. Thus pressured, the staff goes out and pressures clients to buy. The result? Negative. Clients resent such pressure, and take their business elsewhere.

Rules, conceived for a purpose, take on a life of their own. It’s an organizational disease everyone is familiar with. A ceiling on business travel expenses is reasonable up to a point, but when it has employees spending hours on the Internet seeking the cheapest hotel, penny wisdom becomes pound foolishness.

In a different vein, Shukan Asahi offers this example: A certain university got its staff together one day to discuss how to revitalize the campus in the midst of a declining student-age population. One staffer suggested that the very meeting room they were in could be converted into a student recreation room. Administrators, one in particular, was horrified. “Rules! Discipline!” he cried. Everyone was struck dumb. The meeting lapsed into silence and finally broke up, nothing accomplished and staffers grumbling among themselves that without a relaxation of rules and discipline, there isn’t likely to be much revitalization.

© Japan Today

©2017 GPlusMedia Inc.

18 Comments
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Yup, the live and die by figures is awful here. They just look at numbers, and if you manage to hit them they just increase them year over year until it gets to the point where it's impossible.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Let's not forget pointless paperwork. There's a lot of that as well.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

In my wife's company they hold a "meeting" with all staff (all over Japan) on Skype everyday before work.

People are supposed to share their thoughts and build team spirit. They are supposed to take turns hosting it. She has heard PPAP being sung, rock scissors paper, and crying poets reading their nonsense.

Sounds like the worst idea of all time to me.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Well, at least she hs a job.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

"and the work they could be getting down." ???

Do you mean "and the work they could be getting DONE"

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Same is true in the US only the Japanese stick to the rules mAmericans bend them and if we have to,break them.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Very true.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The overwhelming problem is common sense is sorely lacking, get a bit of THAT happening & maybe some +ve results will emerge!

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Absolutely on the money. 100 percent. They know it too, but feel it is their lot in life. Such a shame, such a waste. You get the feeling sometimes that profitability or productivity is not even an actual goal. All about manufacturing an illusion of hard work! Every meeting I've been to is like a scene out of the Office, only worse. Has to be seen to be believed actually. The few meetings of smaller departments run by NON insane people are more bearable, but we have to make them long, drawn out ( what we decide in an hour could have been done in three minutes ) and make lists of what we talked about to be scrutinised later! Quite remarkable. Always were good manufacturers though. The grand architects of the lost decades .

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I agree with the whole article. It is actually a very honest and correct assessment of the Japanese workplace.

The question is, how does one go about fixing this? Some solutions would be nice.

Let's not forget pointless paperwork. There's a lot of that as well.

Excellent point! A lot of redundancy when it comes to paperwork.

The overwhelming problem is common sense is sorely lacking, get a bit of THAT happening & maybe some +ve results will emerge!

Another excellent point! Think about it, if there was common sense, there would no longer be useless meetings, meaningless numbers, stupid rules, and unneccessary paperwork. Nice one GW.

And good on JT for a soul-searching article that really is good.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It all starts earlier than the office environment. Anyone with experience of the teaching methods in Japanese high schools will know. Until Japan adopts modern and progressive education nothing will change.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I realised recently that when I worked in the UK making work easier or reducing work was a goal of most workers. Here it seems the opposite is true: making work as time-consuming as possible.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

All this is why so much effective change in Japan happens from the bottom and not from the top.

A bit more extreme but not too different from a lot of other societies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Mike L , Gaman!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Whoever wrote this article should get the Nobel Prize. Right on the money. Longest meeting I ever was in was scheduled for 2 hours and went 10 hours (involving a lawsuit). I have no idea how I survived it. I have PTSD now.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Meetings are fine, but the trick is to circulate an agenda prior to the meeting and to keep to time. Not hard to do but nobody in Japan seems to do it that way for some reason.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Would love a link to the original article in the Shukan Asahi in Japanese . Anyone?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

When I was driving yesterday i passed a gas company office and all the staff were out doing their morning stretches!!Haha I thought they had got rid of that years ago.No fun when its 32C

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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