Does “Management” Exist in Corporate Japan?

March 8th, 2013By Category: Teaching in Japan, Work Tips


What’s the Japanese word for “Project Management”?

Well, if you say the English words with a Japanese accent, you are probably pretty close. Like so many technical words of foreign origin, the Japanese simply render an approximation of the term with their “loan word” writing system, katakana. So, “Project Management” is rendered thus: “プロジェクトマネジメント” (pu-ro-je-ku-to ma-ne-ji-me-n-to).

To a native English speaker “project management” can seem like quite a generic term, but in reality it describes a technical function with standardised industry competencies, specialist software and so on. So, in Japan, just like the rest of the world, a project manager’s job is fairly well defined, like that of an accountant, or a doctor. However, when we get down to straight-up “management” we start to run into a lot more difficulty.

If you ask a standard “Western” or English-speaking MBA class to define “management” you will get as many different answers as people in the room. Add to that both the language and cultural barriers that exist between Japan and the rest of the world, and things really start getting complicated.

There are three common words used as translations of “management”, but none of them exactly fit the wide range of functions and behaviours the word conveys in English.

管理 (kan.ri) – Perhaps the most common translation of “management”, this word is far closer to “administration” in meaning – this type of position is usually purely implementational. All about efficiency, with no thought towards effectiveness.

経営 (kei.ei) – Another very common translation of “management”, this one being the closest to the English term, as it also includes budgetary aspects of management. Those engaged in this kind of work will still mostly be implentational staff, but will generally have open communication channels with senior management levels if they do wish to discuss potential decisions and new ideas. Mostly efficiency focused, but have some input into decisions depending on their relationship with those to whom they report.

運営 (un’.ei) – The closest translation of this form of “management” is probably “operations management” – ie, process and efficiency-centred, and highly implementational. Again, lots of leeway to improve efficiency down the hierarchy, but little expectation of influence upward towards decision makers.

Managing Reality in Japan

One of the biggest difficulties, and it is not one uncommon in other cultures, is with our expectations of those named “Manager”. It can certainly be argued that there has been a certain devaluation of the title “manager” across the globe, but no matter where you go, a manager tends to be someone in an organisation who has some level of 1) decision-making authority and 2) budgetary and staff responsibility – someone who is trusted to act in favour of organisational goals.

In Japan however, it must be noted that organisations have long horded decision making power at the “head office”, leaving nothing but a blind implementational role for even the most senior “managers” within both domestic and foreign branches and subsidiaries. In Japan, managers get all the responsibility, but none of the authority.

This tendency towards large hierarchies of administrators-as-managers  (管理 – kan.ri) can explain why so many of Japan’s top companies’ innovative and energetic days are over – they tend to recruit from within, so the top echelons, those who would be decision makers, are now sourced almost exclusively from life-long implementers.

It is quite common for a branch or regional manager to respond to anything outside the expected norms by putting in a call to “Head Office” to gain the appropriate permissions. In more autonomy and independence based cultures, it is times like these when a manager would try to show their initiative. In Japan, however, it is often wiser to demonstrate caution and use the situation to strengthen the informational and personal bond with your direct superior by bringing it to their attention and discussing whether to a) pass it further up the chain for a decision, or b) default to implementing pre-assigned tasks and not acting on the new situation.

An unfortunate outcome of this organisational power structure is that if a more junior employee creates the new “walkman” or spots a new way to help the company’s customers get more out their products, things just aren’t set up for information to travel up the hierarchy, only down: too many people in between have to be convinced it is worth their while risking their in-group “face” to help get their idea/project noticed at the top. So while good ideas can be rapidly implemented, it is rare that ideas generated outwith the HQ will be heard by those with the power to do anything about it!

Bridging the Gap between Decision & Implementation

When the majority of “managers” in Japan have no decision making power and fulfill a solely implementational role, how are decisions made? How do companies interact with each other and with their customers?

Prolific intercultural guru, Rochelle Kopp, discusses one structural solution to Japan’s division of those with authority to decide from those who are responsible for carrying out those decisions. These are the “Madoguchi“. In brief, even when interfacing with other companies within or outwith Japan, a “madoguchi” exists to facilitate the relationship –  they collate all information from decision-makers and implementers within their company and act as the sole point of contact with the external party, ensuring uniformity of information.

Another solution is that of “omoiyari”, as UK-based Japanese-UK business facilitator, Pernille Rudlin, writes in her book. This involves the near requirement of trying to preempt the needs of your partner, be they a client, a boss, or an allied corporation.

Benefits of the Decision-Implementation Gap

The near-absence of anything a Westerner might call “Management” has a number of significant advantages, however.

  • EFFICIENCY – Once a decision has been made at the top, comparatively little effort is required to enable company wide roll-out of the new plan.
  • HARMONY – There is little-to-no tension between businesses and unions, as there is little-to-no difference between the role of management and other staff – they all implement goals received from the top.
  • EFFICIENCY – The lack of ability to communicate up to head office, although limiting feedback, also concentrates the efforts of staff as they know there is little that can be done to change their instructions. In other words, lower effectiveness, but incredible levels of efficiency.
  • HARMONY – Strong and good relations can grow between staff and their manager as the manager is not enacting their personal methods and projects through staff, and the staff know the manager can do nothing about it either.

Final Thoughts

A final thought when considering the different roles, behaviours and even the different purpose of “Management” we see in Japan’s businesses: it is important to consider how much of this is really uniquely Japanese. Many similar traits can be seen time and again in public sector organisations the world over, and of course administration focused businesses like banks, etc.

Perhaps the tendency towards hierarchy is more related to the longevity of Japan’s organisations, and a more “free-wheeling approach”, often seen as “Western” approach, is simply a function of the relatively short life-cycle of so many Western companies.

What’s your experience of Japan’s organisations? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.

Author of this article

David Sharp

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