A preface: This essay is only peripherally about the technical details of solving a particular problem. As I’d mentioned in my lead-in to Fix the Problem IV, anything I write about engineering work I have done for a past employer has to be generic to respect my ongoing confidentiality obligations. Those hoping for an inside scoop as to engineering details are bound to be disappointed.
In one of my engineering jobs, I had developed a custom test protocol to quantitatively evaluate – and thus prove anecdotal evidence – that a redesigned component was a step-change improvement in resisting erosion, dramatically reducing process drift during a production run.
Needless to say, with this data in hand there was a strong impetus to push plants globally use these new components. One plant, in Japan, resisted. They said they’d tried them and they didn’t work. Now this didn’t square with every other plant that had tried them – something was amiss. What I discovered was that the plant had not followed the correct procedure in installing these components, damaging them in the process of trialing them. Here’s where things get interesting.
Japan’s culture, like most Asian cultures, sets great store is person’s “face”, or reputation – how they are viewed by those around them. (Interestingly, the miniseries Shogun, based on the novel by James Clavell, accurately depicts many examples of this – I’ve been re-watching the miniseries; Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.)
As an American, directness and candor is part of my background; however… my first viewing of the miniseries gave me a life-long interest in Japan and Japanese culture. In graduate school I took a year of Japanese, though the rule “if you don’t use it, you lose it” sadly applies. (To those Japanese who compliment my ability, I always reply “Yappari Nihongo wa dekimasen.”*) So I understood that a “typical” American approach of broadcasting this finding to all involved would cost several people at the Japan plant face. I might solve the problem, but at the price of weakening my ability to interact with them in the future. (An important disclaimer: While I have some familiarity with Japanese culture and language, I am in no way an expert; in this case I just happened to get lucky with the intersection of an interest and a work situation.)
So I went to my boss and proposed an alternative. I would pass the information to our Technical Services person, who had a strong relationship with the plant manager. Then, one-on-one, he would communicate to that plant manager what the issue with the prior trial of the components had been. That plant manager could then “discover” the root cause of the previous attempt’s failure, and retry it using the correct procedure understanding how to do so based on his life-long background in Japan.
And this is what happened. The problem was solved. Did the “line” people know it was I who found the root cause of the problem? Probably not – but that didn’t matter. My boss – the most important person – knew. The Technical Services person knew. The plant manager knew. And the components were tried again, this time successfully; this improvement being the most important thing, of course.
By having had an understanding the culture of Japan, I avoided an incident where I could have cost multiple people face, and thus damaged their reputations and ability to continue to do business. I also avoided compromising my ability to interact with them in the future, as they would be exceedingly nervous about my costing them face again having experienced it once before.
Culture is important. Language and details of it are also important. When dealing with other countries and cultures, it’s critical to know things like this. (I remember after Shogun was on TV; people I knew went around saying “Hai!” (yes) and “Wakarimasu ka?” (Do you understand?). But as anyone who has dealt with the Japanese know, they’ll be in a business meeting repeatedly saying “Wakarimasu.” – I understand – but at the end say no. Because understanding is not agreeing, it’s just a way to acknowledge what you said. There is another word, if I recall correctly its “kashikomarimasu”; that’s “I understand and agree.”)
For a nice overview of some common blunders and things to avoid, across many nationalities, here’s a google search with a whole bunch of links showing up. This one looks quite good. And not only are there behavioral/cultural mores to consider, but gift-giving can also be tricky.
So until an asteroid hits, WW IV starts, or the world economy collapses we’re going to be doing business globally, and understanding how not to offend people of different cultures will be a critical part of that. Even a casual attempt to learn about different cultures and mores, even in passing, will give people – whether working or seeking work – a step up in this global economy.
Take that step up. Make sure to learn about different cultures on a continuous basis. You never know when some tidbit might be useful. And will put you a step up in your boss’ eyes, as your knowledge will make him look good.
* Loosely translated: “When everything is considered, I don’t speak Japanese.”
© 2014, David Hunt, PE