Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

HQ Invariably Gets It Wrong About Japan

One of the dubious delights of running an international business in Japan is dealing with the Mother Ship or it’s Regional Hub spin off.  Trying to explain Japan to those who don’t know Japan, has always proven tremendously character building for me.  Having left the corporate treadmill to work for myself, I mistakenly thought I had kissed goodbye to all that pathetic nonsense.  Alas, the long arm of Japan ignorance continues to reach out and challenge me.  Today, I live the frustration vicariously through my clients here in Japan, who have to deal with their own version of hell - HQ or Regional Hub know nothings located outside Japan.
Joint ventures and partnerships are a fun feast.  Japan is low on the detailed contractual side of the equation.  The basic idea in Japan is we don’t need reams of lawyer speak, because the venture will be a success or won’t be a success, based on how well we can trust each other and work collaboratively.  If it doesn't work out then we should walk away and not bother with courts, litigation, claims and compensation.  We need to focus on the bigger picture of success and how to achieve that and so a handshake is all we need.
I was reminded of this recently when I was contemplating buying a marketing service from a US based company.  They kindly sent over the agreement.  Pages of lawyereese, barely penetrable, thick and dense to the point of physical pain wading through it.  In Japan, we have very few written agreements with our clients.  We agree on the training, deliver as agreed and we receive payment in a timely fashion – all off a handshake.  We haven’t encountered any issues after 52 years operating here, but if we do, I am sure we will discuss and agree on a mutually suitable solution.
So a typical day in the life of the Japan rep is explaining to HQ why the Japan business is not tracking as expected when the agreement was concluded.  In one client’s case, the original expectations proved to be a misalignment of skill sets and targets.  The Japanese side had the sales force to cover the market but, it proved, not the expertise to cover it appropriately.  Sales were uninspiring, compared to the original business plan expectations.
What was the Mother Ship solution?  Fly in the Americans from HQ to berate the Japanese side at the board meetings about Japan’s poor sales performance.  Shame them into action to sell something.  The local representative was encouraged to keep the pressure on by using these same name and shame tactics in the interim between board meetings.  The "verbal beatings will continue until morale improves" type of approach.  The American HQ led strategy was going down a treat with the local Japanese partners, of course, as the trust and collaboration rapidly disintegrated.
Training delivered locally to those selected from within the existing sales force, was the better solution.   This sounds like a logical step, but convincing HQ to do so was painstaking.  The HQ view was to send in trainers from the Regional Hub to do the training.  Regional Hubs in APAC usually mean Singapore or Hong Kong.  Who do they choose to send to Japan?  The HR team is the preferred option, which excitingly, usually means a rapid fire, fast talking Chinese team member to come to Japan and conduct the training in English.  
"Its okay, the team can speak English", is how HQ types see it whenever the language and cultural issues are flagged locally.  That English capability assumption would be extremely optimistic, in my experience.  Just as a snarky side note, the people recommending these courses of action are often monolinguals, sometimes not even possessing a passport.  Machine gun English combined with an unfamiliar Chinese accent and no cultural sensitivity, is just one of those genius solutions HQ unleashes on the innocent and blameless.
Even when native speakers of English are sent in from overseas, they tend to speak too quickly, use too many idioms, confuse with incomprehensible jokes and word play, apply content recalling acronyms that can’t actually be recalled and have zero idea what is really going in the class dynamic.  
Doing role plays in English for teams whose clients are Japanese is one of the most brazen breakthrough HQ inspired ideas in a generation.  The language of persuasion is brimming with semantic options, which unsurprisingly need to be in the buyer’s language.  How we say it is much more important than what we say.  Sales people practicing sentence construction in English, so that the instructor can understand, is dumb and pointless. 
I was teaching a Relationship Selling class recently in English, with one very international Japanese salesman in the class.  He correctly told me that there was no point in him doing the sentence formulation exercise in English because his clients are all Japanese firms.  We switched over to Japanese and worked on helping improve his Unique Selling Proposition for his client base.  If we are dealing with a mixed audience of English and Japanese speakers, then bilingual trainers are a must.  The alternative is to waste the time of the Japanese staff, just to serve the English speakers.  Sounds very 19th century Colonial in approach to me!
English comprehension between 50%-60% is the maximum we can probably expect up until about lunchtime, after which rates rapidly spiral down.  This is not a very effective way of training local staff in Japan.  Delivering the training in the mother tongue, with the required cultural understanding is at least the base line.  On top of that, having trainers who are highly skilled is where the leverage can really be applied.
Headquarter’s whacky ideas are often amusing, at least for the first 15 seconds of hearing them, but the "global" training approach has proven fraught with failure.  "The training was completed, checkmark the box", is not an outcome.  Taking the training and applying it to deliver higher productivity is the only acceptable outcome.  A bit difficult though when you couldn’t understand most of it in the first place.  Globally delivered training in English rarely produces any residual value for companies and you have to wonder why HQ keeps repeating the same mistake?  It doesn't have to be like this.  Time for the organisation to wise up and listen to their local rep’s advice on what works best in Japan.
Action Steps
1.Understand it is difficult to apply a heavily legalistic approach in Japan – it doesn’t work the same way here.
2.Publically berating the Japanese side over their performance is not going to improve anything
3.Deliver training in the local language whenever possible
4.Semantics matter in sales training so English won’t work for teams who sell in Japanese
5.Use highly talented trainers if you want to achieve leverage
6.HQ – listen to what your local rep is saying and follow their advice about Japan
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