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