ho-ren-so with Japanese supervisor

 Don’t fix it!


Our company facilitates leadership training for Japanese engineers who are assigned to their companies’ factories in the US. Our job is to make them aware of American leadership styles and how to manage Americans effectively.


When we ask groups about their challenges, someone always brings up this point. “If the machine isn’t operating normally, Americans try to fix it themselves. On their own, they decide that it is a simple fix, and they can do it themselves. This can turn into a serious problem later. Instead of fixing the problems, we want them to report the problem so that we can investigate.”


Everyone in the room nods in agreement.


“The simple fix may cover up a bigger problem that might not present itself again until a critical later stage in the process. Also, if the malfunction is fixed, the original phenomenon is gone, so it is much harder to find the cause. And if we don’t find the cause the same problem may keep occurring again and again. Why do Americans feel that they have to fix things all by themselves?”


The HoRenSo system


Japanese problem solving system is sometimes abbreviated as Ho (hokoku, or Report), Ren (renraku, or Contact) and So (sodan, or Consult). This system says that when a problem occurs, workers should Report the issue, and not keep it to themselves. They should Contact the relevant people, the foreman or the Japanese coordinator in this case. Instead of assuming that they can fix it themselves, they should Consult with others to get their advice.


Not just for blue collar workers


Reading this, you probably agree that HoRenSo system is appropriate and necessary for factory workers working with expensive machinery. However, it is just as necessary for engineers and managers who work with the Japanese to use HoRenSo. It is critical to Report, Contact and Consult the Japanese when problems occur, so that they have a sense of your thought processes and can help you come up with the solution. So why do Americans feel that they have to fix things by themselves?


Just do it!


In many circumstances and in business in particular, Americans are rewarded for making quick decisions on their own, without relying on others. Almost every job description includes “works well without supervision” and “a self-starter.” Problems should be solved and decisions made at the lowest feasible level in the organization. It seems like a weakness to ask others for help, especially when the problem occurs within one’s own area of responsibility or expertise.


Our reluctance to ask for help probably stems from our pioneer roots. When our ancestors traveled through unknown territory and a wheel fell off the wagon and then the wolves started howling, there was no time to do a thorough root cause analysis. Quick action was needed. That wheel had to go back on, somehow anyhow.


The American expressions, “Just do it” and “Let’s get this show on the road” show our preference for doing something, anything without analyzing it to death.


Collective decision-making


Japanese on the other hand, do not have a problem with consulting with the group to find solutions. This probably stems from Japanese rice cultivation, a highly sophisticated agricultural system that requires the cooperation of the entire village in order to grow a successful crop. Starting in school, reporting problems and consulting with the group is the fundamental problem-solving method. In fact, a person who insists on solving problems his own way is called “a lone wolf,” someone who does not work well with others.


Common sense


Japanese call upon rules and procedures for their collective problem solving. However, in these human interactions, rules can be tempered by precedent (institutional memory), know-how, and “common sense.” If “going by the book” results in a solution that is unworkable, a more flexible solution can be worked out. This is aided by consulting with senior employees with decades of experience solving a great variety of problems. The way the collaborative process works cannot be completely explained. However, it offers the opportunity for divergent opinions to come together to come up with a creative solution. If you swiftly and silently fix the problem yourself, you deny the possibility that there is a better solution.


The postmortem


Once I had the opportunity to observe a postmortem meeting after the launch of a new product that was developed in the US. The biggest issue for the Japanese was that the Americans did not share all problems and solutions with them. In other words, not enough HoRenSo. Or, if the problem was communicated, the spreadsheet simply said “fixed.” They wanted every detail of the problem and wanted to know exactly how it was resolved. And why wasn’t it reported as soon as possible? The Americans felt that the Japanese should have better things to do than concern themselves with issues that should have been well within the Americans’ authority to fix, so they failed to report every single issue as the Japanese wished, in the interest of saving time.


For the Japanese, there were three main problems with this. First, since the Americans did not report some of the problems, they spent quite a bit of time looking for solutions that the Japanese had already discovered with earlier products. Second, even though the Americans “fixed” some problems, the fixes hid problems that did not surface until later more time-critical stages where the problems became much more expensive to fix. Third, the above two situations made the Japanese so concerned that they weren’t getting the real picture that for the next project they cut back on the Americans’ decision-making authority. They instituted an amount of control that prevented Americans from utilizing their engineering skill creatively, which was why the Japanese wanted to work with them in the first place.


Don’t be a “lone wolf”


Using the HoRenSo system to keep in close communication with the Japanese may seem time-consuming, but it will increase their trust in your decision-making ability. You may find that by not fixing everything on your own, you actually gain more trust and authority.


Horenso is sometimes rendered in Roman letters as hourensou

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