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Japanese Business Culture Blog

A blog about communications between Japan and other cultures, particularly in business.



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How can Japanese firms clarify their mission/vision?
Rochelle Kopp
Nov 22, 2009 07:09 PM
On several occasions I have been asked by the U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese companies to lead mission statement development sessions. This is always tricky because the thinking about mission statements, and the very concept of a corporate mission, can quite different between the U.S. and Japan.

Personally, I’m a firm believer that an effective mission statement can play a strong role in helping everyone in the organization understand where the company is going and how they can contribute to its progress. (On that topic, I’m a fan of the book The Mission-Driven Organization, which I often recommend to clients.) Also I think that creating a mission statement together is an excellent exercise for building team spirit and shared direction in a firm.

However, when asked to do such session, I sometimes encounter puzzlement or resistance from the Japanese expatriates. This has its roots in the fact that most Japanese businesspeople’s experience of a mission statement is as something that has been created on-high at the upper echelons of the company, and handed down to them unilaterally. It’s usually rather vague, and typically is ignored in the course of everyday work. A nice decoration on the wall, it is not integrated into the fabric of the company’s operations.

When the Japanese expatriates in the company have this kind of experience of mission statements, it’s often difficult for them to understand why a mission development statement session is needed, and why they should be motivated to participate. It’s a new concept to them that they can have a hand in crafting the mission of their organization. And it’s also often an unfamiliar idea that the contents of a mission statement can have some bearing on how one goes about one’s work.

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of effort explaining to Japanese what an effective mission statement is. So I was delighted when I found this wonderful slideshow presentation by Japanese author Taka Kondo (writing under the pen name Ryu Chikafuji), called Vision no nai joshi ni vision wo idakaseru toki (How to Make A Boss Without A Vision Get One). 148 pages in length, it’s basically a short book. Cleverly done on the Slideshare platform, it’s a readable cross between a Powerpoint presentation and a picture book that Kondo says is similar to the style of traditional Japanese picture scrolls.

You need to be able to read Japanese to enjoy it yourself, but I for one know this is a resource I am going to be sharing from now on with Japanese clients who I want to better understand what vision really is. (Note that Kondo uses “vision” where typically I would use “mission”, but that’s just a matter of semantics in my view.)

I practically laughed out loud at page 7, showing a Japanese manager spouting off a string of platitudes of the type that unfortunately all too often constitute the “vision” at many Japanese firms. “We’ll all work as a team, improve profitability, stay in strict compliance with the law, help the environment, submit strong patents, and..uh..um..ah…yes! and we’ll become viewed as one of the world’s ‘excellent companies.’ That’s our vision!” Heard anything like that before? I certainly have.

Kondo then gives a step-by-step explanation of what a true vision really is, and how it can drive a company. He gives lots of examples of mission statements from leading U.S. firms (similar to what can be found in one of my favorite books on the topic, Eighty Exemplary Ethics Statements).

Of course, there are plenty of American firms with wooly mission statements too -- this is certainly not a problem exclusive to Japanese firms.  But it does seem to be a pretty pervasive problem in Japan. Kondo's is a really nicely done piece, and a good contribution to the debate on how Japanese companies can sharpen their missions.

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