quality

Quality as a Cultural Vision: My Week in Japan

japan-treesIn his July post, ASQ CEO Bill Troy reflects on the immense value of an ultra-clear organizational vision. After a trip to Sweden, where he attended a quality conference organized by the European Organization for Quality (EOQ), he was struck by IKEA’s starkly elegant focus on its customers’ needs, and Volvo’s BHAGgy(*) goal that no one will be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo by 2020.

This past June, I went to Japan for the first time. It wasn’t a work trip, so I didn’t visit any companies or do any plant tours. I didn’t intend to learn anything about quality, despite the obvious opportunities. And quite frankly, I wasn’t really sure I would enjoy Japan, or feel comfortable in that country, despite my profession’s obvious ties to that country’s insights and contributions to knowledge!

Why? Well, two reasons. The first is that I have some deep-seated emotional issues associated with Japan. It’s kind of like that time I was 16 and decided to experiment with too much vodka and Great Bluedini Kool-Aid. It was not a good idea. And I’ve never been able to eat or drink anything blue (or even drink Kool-Aid) since — that’s over 20 years completely inoculated to Kool-Aid, all because of a negative emotional association. I kind of had the same thing with Japan, prior to this summer.

My second reason for resisting Japan is more legitimate. I’ve worked with Japanese colleagues in the past, and it’s always been subtly disturbing. I always got the distinct sense of a lack of authenticity, and authenticity has always been a really important value of mine. I found that my Japanese colleagues could be very nice to my face, but then later, I’d realize that they completely disagreed with me (or in fact, disliked me completely). I didn’t like the (real or perceived) dichotomy. It made me nervous. If I can’t know you authentically, how can I work with you?

After spending a week in Japan, I’m not so bothered by this “lack of authenticity”. Even acknowledging this shift in my feelings is very surprising to me.

Being in Japan is an amazing, refreshing experience. Each person clearly has a sense of duty. Everyone I encountered was very respectful, genuinely interested in not bothering other people, and genuinely interested in providing a high level of service quality. There was no question about it: if you were in a service role, you were going to provide high quality. If you were responsible for providing products: they were going to be of high quality, regardless of how much you had paid for the privilege.

It would be shameful if you did not provide high quality.

This just seems to be part of their culture. I’m not advocating the threat of shame, or the threat of being ostracized by your community if you don’t meet their expectations — but there’s something very nice about having a socially-enforced baseline of high expectations. This  cultural vision, socialized into everyone since childhood, ensures that the entire country routinely meets high standards for quality just because how could it be any other way?

In fact, the cultural vision related to quality in Japan is so clear, I’m sure no one can even see it.

 

(*)BHAG = “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” or alternatively, a really crazy-out-there stretch goal, conceptualized and popularized by Collins and Porras (1994).

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