decision making Japanese companies

A French manager complained to us recently that when he attends meetings of the European management team (mostly Japanese expatriates based in the Netherlands, where the European headquarters is), he finds out that the decisions have already been made, without his input.

This is a comment we have received frequently over the past 12 years of working with Japanese companies in Europe.  I hoped the situation would have improved, as Japanese affiliates localise, and more Europeans are in senior positions, but what seems to have happened is that the communication gap between the senior Europeans and the remaining Japanese expatriates has actually widened, and the senior Europeans feel very cut off from any decision making that happens in Japan headquarters.

I recommend to the European managers a three step plan to improve relations and communications:  1. People, 2. Process and 3. Particulars.  For ‘People’, they need to build relationships with Japanese colleagues, in Europe and in Japan headquarters.  There are obstacles to this – travel expense and rapid rotation of Japanese expatriates.  But mutual trust is necessary if Europeans are to be including in the nemawashi process.

By ‘Process’, I mean the nemawashi (decision making) process needs to be made more explicit and transparent and the purpose of meetings (information exchange or discussion or decisions) needs to be clarified.  And for ‘Particulars’, the European managers need understand the kind of detail and data needed to reassure risk averse executives in Japan.

But this is only half the picture.  The Japanese expatriates must accept that their job is not simply to report back to Japan headquarters what is happening in the European subsidiaries.  They need to communicate the Japan headquarters’ corporate culture, decisions and strategy, and find ways to get European staff feel involved and have a sense of belonging to the wider company.

For Japanese expatriate staff I recommend 1. Debate, 2.Distil and 3.Disseminate.  Europeans love to debate – it makes them feel valued, and it is an opportunity to convince them of the direction the company must take, by explaining the background and logic to what is coming out of Japan.

‘Distil’ means to be clear, precise and concise about what the strategy, corporate culture or decision is.  It must be “actionable” – so it can be the touchstone for deciding how to act in a business situation.

‘Disseminate’ means to take practical steps to make sure that the strategy, corporate culture or decision is communicated to all parts of the European network.  This may need to be through cascading information through the correct chains of command if the company is a traditional hierarchical Continental European organisation.  Or it could be through workshops, to enable people to have a sense of ownership, and understand how the strategy or corporate culture applies to their daily work.  Or it could be through more meetings – but hopefully this time, if ‘debate’ and ‘distillation’ have already happened, the meeting attendees will feel more involved and accepting of the outcomes.

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