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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sustainability lessons from Japan

Improvement is often best informed by changing your perspective and looking at yourself through a different lens.

Sen. Chuck Grassley's recent remarks that executives of AIG should consider following what he described as the Japanese model of shamed corporate executives: apology or suicide, were outrageous. But his reference to Japanese executives did get me thinking. In the US we have a perception that Japanese business executives subordinate their personal interests in favor of the interests of the business. And I think we have a level of admiration for that. I suspect US businesses would regain a lot of confidence amongst stakeholders if we could move the dial closer to the Japanese model in this respect.

And what about the workforce? Underlying most unionization debates is a basic lack of confidence in the USA of whether unions have the best interests of the business at heart. Rather we have a perception that they put the individual workers interests ahead of the sustainability of the business. I hear repeatedly that our resistance to ‘freedom to associate’ guidelines is a point of difference in many global discussions on ethical labor standards. In contrast, I recall a recent discussion as I was developing a sustainability framework with CSR peers from Japan. One of the dimensions was approach to unionization. The contrast between the approach of the American participants and the Japanese participants to unions was striking (pun intended). My Japanese peers described a mutually trusting relationship.

I am also intrigued by the harmonious approach of Japanese corporations. Take Canon’s corporate philosophy to ‘Achieve corporate growth and development while contributing to the prosperity of the world and the happiness of humankind’. I see it reflected in an integrated approach to sustainability across Canon’s website.

Or Omron, a Japanese manufacturer of electronics components and solutions based on sensing technologies. Omron’s mission is ‘No matter what challenges the future brings, we will continually develop new solutions to help build a safe and sustainable society where people enjoy peace of mind.’ I see this reflected absolutely in discussions I have had with Omron’s CSR representatives.

I suspect that if we are willing to listen carefully, we in the US have much to learn from the Japanese in the sustainability space.


  1. Typically unions are seen in the UK and US as having a somewhat socialist agenda – probably in part because they do.

    But perhaps it is time for unions to consider pushing an inclusive agenda.

    What I mean by this is that we can clearly see now that many organizations leaders are at best mistake prone and at worst downright corrupt. These are the people who make the decisions for the company as a whole on behalf of two groups – the shareholders and the employees.

    However, these leaders are neither chosen nor voted for by the employees. Given that, it’s imperative that this be given the chance to decide on the direction a company takes.

    In some cases the ‘board’ may be voted for by the shareholders. Unfortunately the shareholders view of the state of the company and direction the company should go is likely to be flawed, for two main reasons. Either the shareholder is interested in short term growth and so does not particularly care for sustainability, or their knowledge of the company is based on the very lies (or at best, mistaken information) they are being fed by the company’s leadership. For these reasons, the shareholders opinion can be ignored.

    Let’s be clear – a company’s leadership does not ‘run’ the company. A company is run by it’s workers. I think that this fact alone gives them the right – and the responsibility – to be involved in the decision making process for the company as a whole. It’s time for the ivory towers of corporations to be toppled. They must start to be run in a more transparent, democratic and sustainable way, and perhaps a re-engineering of the unions’ agenda would be a good starting point.

  2. Great post, Kevin.

    Small example. Go to a J company in the summer and what do you notice? Air conditioning, or lack of it. In the sweltering heat, the dial is set no lower than 78, 79, 80 which in the States is like setting the burner to boil.

    Conversely in the winter, bring a sweater when you walk in the building. Why? The employees are unified in their commitment to reduce energy consumption that causes GHG emissions. They’ll suffer discomfort for the greater good....

  3. It is interesting article. Especially, you discuss sustainability from unique point, trust of people and its difference between US and Japan.

    US and Japan have many differences:

    - Rigorously, US is based on Christianity. Japan is based on Buddhism
    - US has a big land, but Japan is a small island. So people in Japan stay more closely each other, in smaller area, in smaller community and in smaller houses compared with US. It is related to how often you meet with your relevant in a year, how many people you send a season greeting card every year, etc.)
    - US is young and open country. Japan is more closed country historically and single race. So Japanese people, as general speaking, tend to have stronger human relationship even he/she is based on business relationship. At the same time, Japanese are not good at being open and making relationship with new people or foreign people.)
    - US people can more think something globally, but Japanese are not good at think something from global point of view.
    etc. etc…

    These background is based on how Japanese people are and how we think like. This may not be a good example, but just an image…

    When you go to Wall-mart, and a customer has heavy complaint about the service…

    Reception in US would say…" Sorry, but I can not support you much here, so can you talk to my manager?"

    Reception in Japan would say… "Sorry it is all our fault. I will do my best, so please do not talk to my manager."

    I do not mean which is better or worse here. What I try to say is this different mind set is what you describe in your article.

    After World War 2, Japan has been learning a lot of things from US. We have many differences, so some of Japanese things may not be able to be applied in US culture. But as you said, US could learn some from Japan.

  4. My perspective was simply a perception from over here in the USA. Steve, Takeshi, I really appreciate your comments. It is great to read your insights from the experience as a visitor to Japan and a resident of Japan respectively.