Why I am in love with Japan ! (Part I)

My story starts in 2006, when I visited Japan for a week. It wasn’t a business trip neither was it a leisure trip, so why did I go to Japan and what did I do? My wife had been to Japan a year ago and it completely transformed her ‘way of living’. She wanted me to experience the same and insisted that I go with her to Japan on her next trip. So here I was, an Executive Trainee working at ICICI Bank trying to come with a ‘valid’ reason to take an 8 day holiday from work. I managed to get the leave approved (yes in those days getting a leave sanctioned for a fresher was a big achievement!)

We were part of MBA student delegation with a couple of corporate professionals visiting small, medium and some large Japanese companies over the period of next 7 days. Things were different the moment we landed at Tokyo airport. Despite the language barrier, we could easily buy local sim cards and get our Japan numbers activated (there was no Whatsapp then).

We then were greeted by our Japanese co-ordinator Saito San, from whom I learnt so many things over the next 7 days. Few qualities which I learnt by observing him were:

  1. Kaizen’ — the art of continuous improvement
  2. Kikubari’ — the art of paying attention to others
  3. “Poka Yoke’ — mistake proofing, zero defects
  4. Omotenashi’ — attention to detail and how to anticipate your guest/customers needs.

Saito san was never late for any meetings, not once. He would plan every minutest details thus avoiding any mistakes. He used all the above methods listed and it came very naturally to him.

You can learn so much just by observation while in Japan. Few things I learnt were:

  1. To solve any problem, first use common sense and come up with simpler solutions. If not solved, then use technology
  2. ‘Genin Tsuikyu’ - Spend time in identifying the root cause of the problem
  3. Wabi-Sabi’ — Live beautifully — beauty in the smallest of the task you do.
A typical konbeni

We visited a convenience store in Japan, popularly known as ‘Konbeni’. Every lesson in Retail Management can be learnt by just visiting these stores and the super-markets in Japan. ‘Place for everything and everything in place’ (PEEP) is absolutely visible here, service standards are world-class, supply chain, inventory management is efficient. You will be surprised at the number of SKUs stocked per sq.ft at these stores and yet it doesn’t look cluttered and is seldom out of stock ! It has changed over the years and added facilities demanded by customers. They ‘really’ listen to customers. They will also provide you change with a smile and acknowledge a customers presence in the store the moment he/she walks in.

Ask a Japanese some directions, I am sure that he/she will make sure that you understand and take the correct route (don’t be surprised if they walk with you for some time to make sure that you are in the right direction). Perfect example of Omotenashi.

Kikubari can be observed in the train, on the streets, in crowded markets everywhere ! People are mindful of others around. Trains are quiet (no cellphones noise), people take care of personal hygiene (so as to not make others in the train uncomfortable), people queue up on one side on escalators, strangers smile on eye contact and the only words you hear around are ‘Arigato’ (Thank you) and ‘Sumimasen’ (Sorry).

Another thing you will notice is how clean the country is. This is because Japanese have a sense of individual responsibility towards the beautification of the space they live in. They are brought up like this, as kids they clean their own schools (‘Souji time’) and sometimes neighborhood. ‘Leaving a space more beautiful than when you found it’ is part of their upbringing and culture. Japan passed laws regarding segregated waste collection and recycling way back in 1996!! We were asked to remove our shoes before entering a ‘waste recycling plant’ in Japan :) since we could bring outside dirt in the plant through our shoes !!

Japan is a ‘high trust’ society. One example of it is during peak hour traffic at metro stations, the sensor based entry check points are always in ‘open’ position. This lets all the passengers move fast with tickets in their pockets. Only if someone is not carrying a ticket it closes. This method saves a lot of time for everyone. And guess what if you are caught traveling without a ticket? It is assumed that you were in a hurry and so you just need to pay the price of the ticket and move on ! No penalties, no fines.

I will continue in Part II where I talk about other aspects of Japan which the world can learn and imbibe in their lives !!