Found in Translation
Imagine a world where the chances of being victimized by crime are next to nil; a world where people are courteous and respectful of each other; where there is nary a trace of racial or socioeconomic discord and companies treat workers like family; a clean world devoid of graffiti or litter.
Impossible, you say? Well I have seen this world — and no, it was not via a journey to the Himalayas’ mystical realm of Shangri-la or achieving nirvana via transcendental meditation. The utopia I speak of is Japan, where I recently traveled for the first time as a guest of Panasonic Security Systems (PSS).
As an American who had never traveled abroad before, I was astounded by the many enviable characteristics — often in direct opposition to those in the States — exhibited by the Japanese culture. It is particularly impressive given the country’s war-torn history and overpopulation. Perhaps it is the result of having to rise above such hardships and challenges.
All this is not to say Japan is without its problems and drawbacks. Among them are too many people and too little land; an economic slowdown following the booming 1980s and early ’90s; the high cost of living, especially in major cities like Tokyo; dingy, scattershot layout of urban environs; rising numbers of homeless; and an insular approach to business.
The latter has been one of the chief reasons Japan lost ground in the electronics industry the past few years. Companies like Sony and so many other well-known names became a little complacent and were seemingly blindsided by foreign competitors, such as South Korea’s Samsung and America’s Apple Computer, which blew past them in the television and portable music player markets.
It is for certain that the Japanese approach to business sharply contrasts with that of the West. For example, Panasonic recruits several hundred young people straight out of school once a year, and most of them will spend their entire working lives with the company. The company becomes the new hire’s extended family, and success is predicated on doing the honorable thing and best serving the customer — not material gain.
This was the philosophy Matsushia Konosuke had when he founded what would become Panasonic some 88 years ago and championed until his death in 1989. Incredibly, this electronics pioneer launched his business with a 250-year plan! Now that is vision or at the very least unbridled optimism. Heck, most U.S. companies have difficulty projecting beyond the next three years. While it’s true such long-term plans may lack the flexibility necessary to keep up with today’s rapidly changing business and technology landscapes, you have to admire that level of commitment.
Panasonic’s factories eschew automation and robots in favor of people working in “cells” using configurable workstations that are easily adjusted depending on the process. As a motivating tool, each worker’s photo is posted on the wall beside a “sphere of competency” that charts a multitude of skills for all to see. Holding people accountable — what a concept! Can you imagine the uproar something like that would induce stateside?
Beyond Japan’s industry, I also visited several historic spots. One of keen interest was the Shogun’s Nijo castle (circa 1603) in Kyoto. Fearful of assassination, the Shogun not only surrounded himself with samurai but also deployed early forms of perimeter security. Gravel around the building and “nightingale” floors in the outer interior provided audible alerts of intruders. The latter was constructed so even the lightest footsteps would trigger birdsong-like sounds. It was really quite ingenious.
Japan was an amazing place to visit, but I still would not trade the American lifestyle (and as someone who eats no seafood, the cuisine!) for anything. I would like to personally thank PSS for an unforgettable adventure.
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