A Brief Contrast of Japanese v. American Workplace Training and Incentives

-By Kevin G. O’Leary

The most difficult aspect of the Japanese for many foreigners here in Japan to understand is the strong importance workers place on collective values or a collective sense of responsibility.  This is in contrast to American concept of individual achievement.   Some of personal observations I have picked up on the past 5 years.

In 2007 and 2008, I returned to the United States to take a hiatus from teaching in Japan.  I found work at the Lowes Home Centers.  Lowes, just several weeks prior had opened  a massive regional distribution center (RDC) in northern Illinois. I went through a very long intensive application process via computer and had a series of interviews.  Initially, I felt based on my supervisory background and post graduate education I should aim for a leadership position.   I was a little disappointed I failed to achieve a supervisory position and was instead invited to join the company as an entry level team member.  Only after getting my feet on the warehouse floor, I discovered there were dozens of college educated also working as entry level workers and mid-career professionals who once near the top of their former organizations experienced their jobs leaving the United States permanently .   They had more than three times what the relevent experience that I had.    I was certainly somewhat ashamed of myself for having an overly high opinion of my individual self-worth.  It was a humbling experience that I am grateful I learned from.  It is a result of today’s economic climate, that many professionals are literally living their careers in reverse.

The work at the Lowes Rockford RDC was extremely hot and physically tasking.  However, I was fortunate in that my tasks required minimal physical activity and were quite easy compared to the vast majority of the team members.    I have a great deal of respect for someone who spends 10 hours a day in a 100 degree trailer.    At Lowes, I was a production planner and prior to that spent 6 months running the nearly 7 kilometers of conveyer system that snaked through the facility.    It was one of the finest companies I have ever known.  Lowes employee slogan is, “You Picked a Great Place to Work.”  I think they live up to their slogan. 

   The leadership skills of the management were excellent in my opinion and the nearly 800  and we were guided by  a strong sense of teamwork and our leaders were fair, consistent and nurtured motivation.  Truthfully, though every company has their flaws.  There were a few weirdos, several people that really should have spent more time learning basic leadership and people-skills and some that just were fish out of water.   I saw several of those later getting “walked out of the facility.”  I worked for two supervisors in succession  both named Chris.  The first Chris had excellent interpersonal skills and then second Chris who was just 28 lacked those skills, however knew his computers so I still learned plenty from both.  Okay, I am being too kind and inaccurate on the second guy , in fact he often acted like a totally arrogant, disrespectful piece of manure.   Once, I thought I made a serious computer input error.  He quickly put me at ease and told me that no I was not the person who made the mistake.  “No, Kevin.  Don’t worry.  I knew right away you did not have the computer knowledge to make that sort of error.”   Thanks a lot.  What an arse you are.    The only thing that impressed me about him was he shared the same last name as General Patton.

The way production, processing or distribution facilities differ quite a bit from what I found in Japan.   One area is the  respective methods supervisors and managers employ  to motivate their teams.    In Japan, Japanese managers almost never make use of individual incentives to work , such as a specific task or project or even performance evaluations resulting in higher monetary compensation.   Literally, in a Japanese environment, the concept of  individiuals are non-exisitent.    In America, ya just gotta get those points.  At Lowes I was quite successful racking up a lot of individually earned points quickly that I could exchange to buy Lowe’s novelties from the display case.  Within a year and a half, I had coffee mugs, a sports bag, a portable cooler, key chains and all kinds of neat goodies.   In addition to the stuff I could buy with my points, I had many T-shirts as a reward for not crashing the equipment for 60 days, injuring my coworkers or being part of a team who met their shipping targets.    On my individual point tally, What miracles did I perform to get all those points?  What earthshaking contribution to warehouse science did I make?  The answer, I simply arrived to work every day on time without fail.  I had zero absences, zero tardy arrivals.    Being rewarded for being at the right place at the time you promise to be is seldom rewarded to a single individual in Japan.  Managers in the land of the rising sun would say, A TARI MAE which means Dude, that is just common sense!    We as Americans tend to protect our very extreme form of individualism which is promoted by the highest level of management in organizations like Lowe’s and nearly every company in the United States.  Workers are very careful to ensure they have their points tallied in case management should error and not recognize earned individual achievements.  For instance, once, I noticed my posted points were not accurate at Lowes,  brought it to the attention of  an HR person on my tally that was in error and subsequently collected my treasure at once.   I think that is when I got my nice big portable nylon beer cooler on wheels.  My father, who retired from our main competitor Menards can often be seen nowadays pulling my Lowes logo emblazoned  drink cooler around wearing a Menards cap and T-shirt on his vacation adventures.

On the other side of the ocean,  at a Japanese company, workers and managers hold employee individualism in check and place the emphasis on cooperation of the entire group or company.    Some might even say star players are not welcome.  There is a saying in Japan, “The nail sticking up gets hammered down. ”  When a procedural error occurs or a safety violation is discovered, management will instruct everyone collectively. Individual critique on small mistakes are handled at the peer level and the team moves together progressing collectively.   In the United States, there is always an intensive search on to find out which individual was culpable for a mistake.  So focus on the invidual swings both ways.

After working for a year and half at Lowe’s, I reuturned back to Japan in 2008 to resume teaching.   Being absent for a period of time, I lost all my part time university lecturing gigs and took a lame dispatch teacher job in the public school system.  In 2010, I left teaching again and entered the Japanese mainstream employment system.  What I mean my mainstream is that instead of teaching, I went to work for a company to exercise some of my general work skills experience.    Foreigners are greatly underrepresented outside of English teaching and few can successfully transition out of traditional teaching jobs into production type work or secure a position of responsibility in a Japanese company .  It took many visits to the regional employment offices over the years with unsuccessful results in finding work.  I would constantly be handed introductions to teaching jobs because the job counselor felt that was what was common.  I explained patiently that I already had networks in place for seeking teaching work though education associations I was a member of and was not looking for that at the employment office.  Afterall, why should I limit myself to positions speaking my own English language.  I am bilingual and I can speak enough Japanese to perform in a non-English environment. 

By a quirk of fate, I found an advertisement on my own.  I was investigating work at the United States Navy  base in  Sasebo, Japan and ran across an ad on one of their forums for servicemen and their families .  It is a funny story, because the ad was incorrect in many ways and not clear.  I was having no success getting into a job on the base, so I replied to one at the nearby Dutch theme park known as Huis ten Bosch..  I would like to say I beat out 100 applicants for the job, but the truth is I was likely the only applicant.  Most English readers would not have understood what was being offered.  It was a garbled mess on the classified forum and there I was too.

GYROSCORP, LTD

I interviewed with the company president and after an assessment of my skills and what I said I could offer, I was hired as the project director for new area in the park known as the English Town.  My  Japanese title was Buchou Project Tantou which roughly translates to General Manager, Project Director.  In large companies, its an impressive title.  Gyroscorp  was a start-up company and in reality, I was simply the second person hired and would be the person on site most of the time.    This position afforded me ample opportunities to refine my management skills as well develop public restroom cleaning, refuse removal, heavy lifting, moving things around and leaf sweeping. 

This was an exciting job to have in many  ways.  The English Town was a start up from scratch and so was the company.  My first day of work, we had no office, no desk and were borrowing two unoccupied desks in the main administration building of Huis ten Bosch.  We of course had to bring our own office supplies with us and our own laptop.  The president, Mr. Katsura wanted to develop a company with an informal feeling and in contrast to typical Japanese customs insisted that I stopped calling him Mr. Katsura and that everyone should call him Jiro. Japanese workers even avoid the last names and opt for calling seniors by their titles, such as Shatchou (Mr. President, Mr. Director).

I only remained in my position for just under one year.  Jiro was always a soft spoken man and we got along very well.  However, he often operated under preconceived ideas of American business practices and stereotypes that might not have been suited for the enormous task he was undertaking.  In the creation of an American village, American personnel were added.  The first Americans to arrive were 5 young interns in their 20s.  Once again, Jiro threw that old stodgy Japanese formality out and insisted that the young people just know him as Jiro and basically have a free for all if they had anything to say.  The problems began to occur when he would speak critically about senior management or park management to the young interns and consequently made my efforts to lead exasperating.  I would ask for a couple hands to move a heavy table and be met with questions like, “Did you check with Jiro first?”  “I don’t know about that, Kevin.  I think Jiro would want this and that?”  I would come back to an empty office only to learn that Jiro had a sudden great idea and take people off projects and to another end of the park.  Privately, he would feel enraged by the lack of respect and consideration he received but he set they tone in motion without knowing the potential results.  But those were just minor annoyances.  I was still learning a great deal and enjoying my job.  

Jiro would give us a task at 830AM and none of had any idea how to approach it.  Yet, thanks to internet search engines and some calls to former colleagues , I had a strategy and a great work in progress by 10AM.  We were running a start up company by the seat of our pants.   My power point skills were horrendous , but I learned how to produce clear concepts in a short time.  

The first 6 months were great.  The last half, not so good.  By then, a fair number of bridges were burned.  He hired a very polarizing sailor’s wife who just simply had no use for working with me.  We just did not get along and I refused to engage in a a conflict.  She embodied all the poor work ethics and self-promotion that would make a good sitcom character.   My work became more keeping the growing project running smoothly and working individually.  I became a target of what is known as “workplace mobbing.”  The American woman Jiro hired secretly without asking the opinions of his manager was a nightmare.  She even hired her teenage daughter and asked her spy and report infractions on her behalf.  I don’t know how many times Jiro said, she said this about you, she said this about here.  I can see a perfectly capable 16 year old will be on her way to follow in her mothers footsteps.  Lucky for me, at least her 5 year old that she seemed to compelled to take to work with her didn’t tattle on me.  The little girl would be firmly planted at another managers desk or running through the shop.  Thankfully, she was better behaved than her mother.   As we were all equals, there was no one to keep this new hire in check as she accelerated the project on an uncertain path.  I wanted no part of a bad work environment, so I left for a more peaceful pastures back to Fukuoka.   I don’t do well in conflicts since I have always been kind of passive.

I wanted to leave on cordial terms with the president, which I did.  I just told him I had found other work, an I was finished.  I thanked him and left.  In hindsight, I think he desperately wanted to model a company based on American customs since Americans were his product and he would be employing Americans.  This was a mistake as he attempted to design his organizational structure on his own based on a lot of misconceptions about American work culture.  It is not a good idea to try to copy something without doing your homework first.

GETTING A MAINSTREAM JAPANESE JOB AS A FOREIGNER 

Prior to leaving Huis ten  Bosch, recognizing no profitable purpose for me to continue there, I returned to the employment office in Fukuoka for my replacement work.  Finally this time I got lucky.   I met a proactive counselor who finally recognized my  non-teaching skills and my abilities in Japanese speaking.  The same day, I met Mr. Kitajima for the first time, he produced two introductions to Japanese companies.  He carefully instructed me on the application procedure and set me up for my interview.  I went to Watami Corporation’s Food Processing Facility for the company presentation and individual interview.  I was hired the next week and still work there now.   I still needed supplemental income after working there for a month, so I returned to Mr. Kitajima’s office.  Now that I had had already successfully secured a job and not broken anything major, I could confidently seek a second Japanese company.   I found work with the Shirishi Baking Company which also operates two upscale bakery shops.  I am ecstatic about both of my jobs working at Japanese Companies.

WATAMI MERCHANDISING

Watami is a major Japanese corporation which operates everythig from food production to nursing homes.  Watami owns the Japan and Guam   franchises for T.G.I. Friday`s.   My work is at the food processing facility.  My hours are from 11PM to 4AM Saturday through Wednesday.  I prepare mostly bulk vegetables for being put through slicing machines, washed, weighed and packaged for over the road shipment across Japan.  In groups of 4, 5 or 6 people, we remove the cores and reduce the size of large vegetables at high speed.  It’s the fastest paced task you can imagine.  Do you remember Johhny Depp in Edward Scissorhands?  That is what the pace looks like.  There is no time for personality problems between worker or cliques like I saw at Huis ten Bosch.  For two straight hours, your knife never stops moving.  As soon as the last head of cabbage rolls across the table, the workers are  immediately squatting down picking up their area of leaves, spraying water and changing blades for the next crew who might be using the area.  They just keep moving.  

The most difficult part of the job is filling out my reports.  I speak Japanese but never really had the need to learn the kanji characters for HAKUSAI or TAMANEGI in Japanese.  I can read it but writing it is a challenge.  I can remember 8 people standing around the table while Im there dumbfounded tapping my pen on a clipboard until finally I just write everything in katakana, one of the simplified forms of the written Japanese language.  and they are cool with that.  My coworkers are mostly a little older than me and are full of advice.  Sometimes, they need to back off and let me get familiarized with my own machine.  It’s the only way I will be able to quickly troubleshoot when things do not go smoothly. They are very kind to me and I am honored to become part of their team.  They are always concerned about my personal well being and aren’t irritated when I ask child like questions like, “Did I write this right?”  These people are revered by me and owe them a lot for my personal and professional growth.  Scoring this job  is a personal victory, or in the words of VP Biden, a B.F.D to me.  How good it feels to be just a regular guy, just like the locals and not some novelty foreigner only suited to practice English on. 

SHIRAISHI BAKING/BIGGAREAU BAKERY

I work from 7AM to noon here.   Here I am one of the oldest workers.  Many of my coworkers are just 22 years old.  The President stays in Hita at the Headquarters but spent a lot of time with me during the first couple of weeks.  He taught me how to do jobs in other sections of the store so if I had to adjust my hours I could work anywhere within.  My main jobs are to prepare the selection of deli sandwiches that are placed out in the store.  I also make custard cream, chocolate cream and beef curries from scratch.  We usually do about 50 pounds of custard.  It takes about an hour to get custard done in a special gas fired kettle.  If I am ever pulled off my usual job, I am trained to make bread loaves, pizza, separate dough and operate most of the equipment in the main kitchen.  I am indeed a very versitle kind of guy there and I sure make a helluva lot of mistakes doing all those tasks. 

  As an added bonus, most of the staff are young females and are as hot as what comes out of the ovens there.

 TRAINING MODELS  Throw him in the fire v. One step at a time

Another contrast I observed between Japanese and American companies is the style of training.  At Watami, I was completely overwhelmed with the huge amount of information about operating each machine on the very first day.  If I wasn’t wearing a hygenic face mask, they would have noticed my mouth was gaping wide open.  I was saying to myslelf over and over again, “Holy Doggie Doo, what did I get myself into?”  They weren’t going to cut me any slack on the learning curve.  I was going to have to master many tasks in a short time.  It wasn’t necessarily a Japanese language barrier.  It was information overload that went way beyond my memory capacity.  Remembering several years back though, when I worked at Lowe’s in America, especially on the conveyer I did one single task over and over.  Sometimes, I would ask and get the reply,  “Oh no no, Kevin.  We don’t want you worry about that.  We will tell you about that next week.  Let’s master the box moving down the rollers for now.”   “OK, whatever.  Sorry to bother you with that.”   For me now in Japan, coming out of a more abstract work environment like teaching and management into a raw concrete production environment was quite a shock.  I was terrified by how I knew I would not get any of the procedures down on any machine for weeks.  After a few days, I could understand.  They will show me as many times as necessary and they will be patient as I learn.  When I make mistakes and  consequently throw my coworkers timing off, they are kind and encouraging.   Downright mean and demotivating comments have no place in a Japanese facility  Almost every time I worked for an American company or around Americans, it seemed its all about how well I do compared to how poorly you do.  We had a nasty tattooed old biker lady on conveyer at Lowes who was really into cutting people down while ingratiating herself to our superiors.    Now, people let me work through my performance, speed and efficiency issues and I can devleop skills in more multiple and complex tasks without the commentary from rude coworkers.  I am beginning to like the throw the new guy in the fire v. through the new guy under the bus much better now.  After 4 months, I can operate almost any machine at both my places of employment.  And to revisit the remarks I made on individual work previously, the dynamic of the group  moving in unison is important. When chopping all those vegetable, when my coworker stops to empty her 30 gallon can of leaves, the worker on the right instinctively takes over both jobs for a minute or two.  I cannot help but imagine if an American coworker hated me and I had to stop to change gloves, they might let all my work fall on the floor until I came back.  

I think now it is much easier for me to work in a purely Japanese environment.  Americans just have too much baggage they carry to work. I wish they would leave it in the parking lot.  Jobs and supporting your family are nothing to be taken lightly in either country.  

 In Japan as a foreigner,  If you do want to work in standard Japanese environment, conversational proficiency in the language is pretty much a must.   I have the second level of the Japanese Certificate.   I think I have to study a lot more before I challenge the first step.  I got away with simple interaction until one day a safety issue occured and I had speak on a very difficult concept in Japanese.  The manager went down the line and asked each one of us individually what we thought about doing something safer and better.   Saying, “Hey man.  That’s great.  Let’s do safety”  was not going to work in this situation.  Just as  I was about ready to leave a puddle on the floor when my turn came, some totally useless Japanese BS came into my head and and spouted it off.  I said, “As a new person who is comparatively deficient in skills compared to the others here, I must rely on my honorable older coworkers for their kind advice and direct correction if they see me do something that is not safe.  And for that, I am eternally greatful for the people I work with. ”    I passed the test.  What a relief!  Then immediatly thereafter washed my face to ensure no brown residue remained on my nose. 

I look forward return to the US in 2015, if our beloved president Obama hasn’t destroyed the country by then.  And when I come back, I would probably like another job like I had a Lowes.   Well, I would love to go back to the same company, afterall they are always building something together and it is a great place to work.   Of course, I will also have the second job already waiting for me at Stateline Realty Solutions.  I still need a high stress job for some high stress money.

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4 comments

  1. You’re too hard on Americans! I’ve worked with them in Japan, and they are really kind and encouraging. Even the tourists are really nice people. Anyway, good for you on your new job situation. Keep wielding that knife!

    1. Yes, we Americans are pretty nice folks. To get Americans to adopt some of the positive work habits that Japanese have would be hard. It’s not because they have a aversion to honest work. It’s that our individualness has been passed down from generation to generation and even the young folks grandparents werent used to thinking company profits, company profits, speed, speed. In , it seems the entire shop operation procedures are worked into the orientation so there is always something to do to stay busy. Even at Lowes a hard go getter like me promptly folded my ams when I noticed no boxes were coming down the conveyer. I never thought to pick up a broom and sweep under the belts until some more boxes came through. The design of a Japanese organization does away with, Its not my job. I have a long way to go until I live up to the title of master cabbage slasher but Ill march forward every week with my dagger ready.

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