What have we learned from the Suzuki0-GM CAMI technology transfer project in the late 1980s? * Here is a potpourri of personal reflections on the preliminary trainer-training I project-managed in Japan, seen in terms of intercultural communication and training issues.

Francois Knuchel, 2000

The Fluidity of Culture

During the CAMI TPS (Toyota Production System) transplant at Suzuki, similarly also at Toyota, Nissan & Honda, there was a vigorous debate amongst practitioners and academics as to what elements of TPS were culturally predetermined? In other words which features of TPS were practiced in Japan simply because they were part of Japanese culture and which elements were "invented" for the purpose of a more efficient manufacturing process, and were therefore more easily transferable to other parts of the world.

It was deemed that the "cultural elements" would not be transferable. Therefore Suzuki should only attempt to transfer the "invented" culture-free parts of the system. Teamwork, Teian and Kaizen, for example, were initially considered to be cultural, because they are based on collectivist consensus driven process, and would thus not be accepted or adopted easily in the West. Many Westerners took the view that if something was culturally determined there was not much point trying to transfer the concept. By contrast many Japanese took the view that by empowering the local workforce with trust and dignity they could more easily introduce newer different approaches, however alien they may seem to Western management.


In fact 20 years later the Japanese manufacturing approach can be found in the Europe, USA and elsewhere, and Western "lean production systems" are almost identical to Japanese ones. In many cases US transplants have a higher quality record than their Japanese "mother" plants. Moreover Western manufacturers have adapted Japanese people management practices without difficulty. It appears that culture has played less of a role than was originally expected. Or, another way of looking at it, many of the so-called culturally predetermined Japanese practices were not that culturally predetermined after all.

I take the view that a combination of both elements were involved. More importantly, however, the reality suggests an alternative view of culture, specifically that culture itself is not the absolute entity. What the Japanese transplants show is that while culture is fairly stable, it is not an ethnically or nationally fixed absolute. On the contrary culture does and can change - the "fluidity of culture". One implication of this premise is that many of the existing cross-cultural comparative studies (Hofstede, Hall, Trompenaars, Laurent etc.) are fundamentally flawed in that they only explore space (geography) not time (history), i.e. do not take temporal change into account.

One way of looking at culture is as a society's collective response to the daily challenges of life as presented through external circumstances. As these external circumstances change, so do too the response mechanisms, the survival approaches, and hence "culture". Culture as such is a collective response mechanism to the external circumstances at particular points in history, and as history is motion in time, so too culture changes constantly, however slowly.



A huge cultural change (within the last 100 years) in Europe, for instance, is the complete about turn between Victorian moral values to today's open values. This is obviously a societal change, but the point is that values themselves go in and out of fashion over time - in this case we are talking about the same geography in a different chronological time zone. I wonder, for instance, how English people would have responded to Trompenaars' dilemmas 100 years ago.

On a more pragmatic industrial level, the notion of quality has completely changed in industry through the TQC principles over the last 30 years or so. Quality used to be viewed as a cost by manufacturers in the West. However, the Japanese have turned this on its head and through the Zero defect approach have put in place a practice where quality actually represents a cost reduction measure (by not producing defects, i.e. eliminating waste - waste costs). This has been achieved by shifting the focus away from a managerial autocratic inspectorate type of perspective to holistic participatory teamwork approach involving the totality of the workforce (hence Total Quality Control). In other words this involves not merely a technical change, but a cultural attitudinal change.

Lifetime employment is another area where both Westerners and Japanese have misconceptions. While the Japanese bemoan losing lifetime employment nowadays due to the economic difficulties, what is easily forgotten is that lifetime employment is actually a relatively modern phenomenon in Japan, and not an old Japanese custom. Before 1960 lifetime employment practically did not exist in Japan (except in government), but at that time it was introduced as a managerial response to the worker and industrial uprisings of the 50s. Lifetime employment, from cradle to grave, actually had a far longer history (albeit gone now) in the West than in Japan.

Kaizen & Teian are more difficult, because they depend on a specific management view of human nature and managers' ability to trust and delegate. Whereas traditionally Western management viewed staff as disposable cost ("human resources"), recently there is a trend to appreciate the value of staff and a drive to promote and develop their full potential, seen as creating value to the company. Under these conditions Kaizen and Teian are far easier to implement.

One of the difficulties Suzuki initially had in the CAMI project was conveying the Teian concept (Suggestion system) to General Motors. GM had countered that they were not interested in adapting Teian because they "already had a Suggestion System in place, but that it did not work" in the West. I remember well when the Suzuki managers came to me in despair not knowing what to do, showing me the American "suggestion system" - embracing a lengthy form which any worker with an idea was entitled to fill in. It was so long, bureaucratic and convoluted that even highly educated people would have run away from it. It was pages and pages of legalese clauses detailing all the conditions that had to be met for a suggestion to be even considered, never mind adapted - a guaranteed way to convert any young bright enthusiastic person into a mega-cynic. No wonder it "it did not work".

The notion of Teamwork has a different meaning in Japan. Teamwork goes beyond survival games or other team relationship building programmes where people learn to work together. While team-building is important, fundamentally Japanese team work is achieved by a management attitude of trust and empowerment, resulting in an entire plant or unit working in synchronicity as a whole, like an orchestra (each musician listening and tuning to each other creating a new whole).

Multitasking was another element which was deemed difficult to transfer, because it goes beyond classical job descriptions approach. It is perhaps ironic that in the West this has recently become a male-female thing, even though a broader international view seems to indicate this is more cultural than sexual.


Adaptability and Change:

While some aspects of the Japanese production system may have been more difficult to adopt in the West than others, it is certainly not the case that some factors are or were impossible to transfer, whether cultural or culture-free. This is because, even in the the case of cultural factors, culture is fluid or dynamic. Technology transfer is not a one way street. Toyota, for instance, adapted certain American practices in Japan after it found the American way was more effective than Japan's own approach. And indeed one must not forget that the whole Japanese quality movement was actually an American idea (Deming, Juran) that had ironically fallen on deaf ears in America.

One must view culture as fluid or in flux. In the same way that our circumstances and our environment change, so we must develop an ability to change and adapt. Adaptability and flexibility is a strength, and it may indeed be an aspect which the Japanese are historically more adept at:

Japanese architecture, for instance, with its "feeble" wooden houses, are actually easy to build, and hence easy to rebuild after earthquakes or taifuns, flexible both in structure as well as in definition of space (fluid boundaries). Bamboo structures bend harmoniously with the wind, rather than trying to resist it like stone (and even modern concrete Japanese architecture take this flexibility principle into account to make them earthquake proof). This contrasts with the rock solid (stone, brick) architecture of the West, strong, solid but inflexible. This architectural comparison is also relevant in the way corporations are organised:

According to Kichiro Hayashi (click here), there is the O-type of organisation, where multitasking is predominant, featuring unclear structure, particularistic (not keeping to the book), fuzzy, messy, muddy, yet at the same time with a tremendous ability to change and adapt quickly (diagram). On the other hand there is the M-type structure which is typified by division of labour ("it's not my job" syndrome), rigid structure (whether hierarchical or flat doesn't matter) following clear delineation and normally top-down managerial approach (we talk of bosses rather than leaders). The M-type is very efficient when it works, yet becomes very inflexible and inefficient when it no longer matches reality (i.e. when the circumstances no longer match the structure). On a side note it is worth mentioning that Western "division of labour" is not necessarily a Western cultural feature, but came about after the Renaissance by the separation of arts and science (at the Sorbonne) and with the industrial revolution.


Cross-cultural Studies:

This O/M distinction is not one that forms part of Western classical "intercultural" knowledge. Indeed it is a "dimension" which is not at all present in any occidental cross-cultural research whether in the USA or in Europe. The closest equivalent western concept would be: power distance (Hofstede) particularism & collectivism (Trompenaars), or high/low context issues (Hall), but none really capture the essence of the O-type and M-type organising principles.

Indeed, the field of interculturalism is (as yet) not intercultural or international. Western intercultural researchers do their studies in Europe/US (and later "validate" them in the East, but they are not conceived there), and hence the end product is a Euro-American macro-culture (values). In non-Occidental parts of the world there are as yet very few researchers in the field, except perhaps in Japan. The Japanese are coming up with different concepts (of which the O and M type organisational principle is one example) and conclusions.

The field of cross-cultural studies and business anthropology itself needs to be "interculturalised". In the O/M-type example, O-type societies actually represent 80% of the world's population, indeed the new emerging economies of the world. Western managers would do well to understand these if they are to keep up with the economic development occurring in the next century. Because most Western dimensions are viewed from an individualist point of view (e.g. Hofstede's, Laurent's, Trompenaar's questionnaires are all answered by individuals, not teams), so an individual perspective of culture emanates: how individuals behave, interact or deal with dilemmas, not how groups interact.

Missing is the area of group dynamics. Since Gustav Le Bon's 'psychologie des foules' we know that individuals behave completely differently when on their own from when in groups. In due course we can expect the field of interculture to have been counterbalanced with a quite different view of culture and dynamics. By then we will be saying it is because culture is fluid.



In short we can say that culture is more fluid over historical time than we might have expected. Whereas some elements remain solid, we can be thankful that culture is fluid, as its fluidity is what enables a society to grow and develop. It is a pity that academic disciplines like history do not focus more on a historical cultural studies, and that cross-cultural studies do not take a more group dynamic point of view rather than a individualistic perspective. The new leaders of tomorrow will not be those who can command well (after all culture cannot be ordered around) but those who can embrace, work with and form culture to its members' advantage.



2010 Afterthought:

The recent recession, together with environmental concerns has initialised a silent massive re-think of how we live and how we manage our organisations, indeed we may see a huge paradigm shift taking place in our collective mindsets. Collaboration, engagement, empowerment, crowdsourcing, self-organisation, open space and sociocracy, for instance, previously alien, are all becoming mainstream approaches in the West. At the same time, many collectivistic societies (80% of world population), of which Japan has been the only one reaching comparable industrial success in the last century, are all coming to the fore and gaining huge prominence (such as China, India, Brazil, etc), even though they work on quite different collaborative grounds than what was common in the West in the past. A shift is taking place in the global landscape as well as in the Western mindset. Which again is an indication that culture is not static, but dynamic and forever changing, flexible and fluid over time. And thank goodness for that!