bottom-up decision-making in Japanese companies

When I worked at a Japanese company, I was in charge of their newly-established International PR function.  I felt some lack of clarity about what specific activities the company’s management felt that I should focus on.  For example, should we be trying to get as much international press coverage as possible, or spend our energies on launching an advertising campaign?  I waited in vain for management to make its desires clear to me.  Finally, I received a copy of the new strategic plan just adopted by the firm.  Surely that would give some hints as to what my area should be emphasizing.

I spent a day reading it cover to cover, but felt it was extremely vague and did not provide the guidance I was looking for.  When I complained to my supervisor, he told me “The answer to what we should do in international PR is not going to come to us from above.  We are the ones who are the experts in this area, not the people in management.  We need to understand the general direction that the company is going, and then decide what we think the company should do.  We can then suggest those things to top management.”

The idea that we would not be getting instructions from above, and would have the freedom to propose things to management that we felt were important, was a true revelation to me.  From my American perspective, I had assumed that instructions would be coming from on high.  It is a typical American assumption that strategies and directions flow in a top-down manner through an organization.  However, what my boss described was a completely different way of looking at one’s job, and at the role of management.  His explanation was of what Japanese refer to as “bottom up” in contrast to the “top down” style of American firms.

This bottom-up approach means that upper level managers do not give such specific directives, and instead provide a more general kind of direction.   Then, people at the lower levels of the organization are expected to apply that direction to their area, and use it as the basis for making more specific plans.  Those plans are then sent up through the layers of the organization for review and approval.

A somewhat extreme example of this approach was taken by Nobuyuki Idei when he was President of Sony.  He adopted the motto of “Digital Dream Kids.”  Western observers all scratched their heads at this, and wondered how something so un-defined could serve as an adequate rallying cry to the troops.  But the idea was that employees in each part of the organization would think for themselves what this motto meant and how they could reflect it in their activities.

The mechanism that is used to implement the Japanese bottom-up approach is the ringi-sho, or circulating proposal document.  This contains all the details of the plan devised by the staff at the lower level, and wends its way up the layers of the organization gathering the hanko approval seals of the various managers.  This process is in great contrast to the decision-making in most American organizations, which emphasizes a determination made by one person or a small number or people, usually ones at an upper level.  The decision and instructions on how to implement it then flow downward through the organization.

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