Academic journal article International Journal of Management

Japanese Management Approaches: The Fit for Project Management

Academic journal article International Journal of Management

Japanese Management Approaches: The Fit for Project Management

Article excerpt

The last twenty years have shown increased interest in and appreciation for Japanese management principles and practices. While management literature has gained and appropriated a number of insights from Japanese practices, project management has yet to sufficiently recognize the benefits that can accrue from Japanese practices. This article highlights the needs of project management, and shows how the particular needs of this discipline are particularly well-suited for Japanese approaches. Japanese emphases on teams, informal relationships, role flexibility and dynamic structures fit the peculiar needs of project management.

The economies of U.S. and Japan are mutually dependent. This is clearly reflected by the over $200 billion trade annually between U.S. and Japan. Japan is our second largest trading partner. The trade, however, has been the source of friction between the U.S. and Japan as U.S.'s import far outstrips the exports to Japan.

Japan's success has brought attention to its distinctive approaches to management, generating a great volume of research. While searching for the causes of Japanese success in a broad array of industries, researchers have identified several attributes, differing to one degree or another from western practices, that distinguish Japanese management. To the extent that Japanese methods have proven transferable to other regions, they have begun to be used elsewhere. First, some of the characteristics of Japanese management approaches will be presented, followed by a discussion of the fit between those approaches and the particular needs of project management.

In America, it is not a prerequisite to have a good relationship with the company you are doing business with. By contrast with Japan, U.S. companies rely on armies of lawyers and varieties of contracts to bind the two parties. Companies may even elect to do business with their adversaries, as long as it is mutually beneficial and there are contracts to guide them. It is quite normal to conduct business with strangers and then develop a relationship in the process. In contrast, Japanese prefer to develop personal relationships first before going forward with any business transaction. It is crucial that trusting relationships between the party be fashioned before business transaction can be considered. Lacking this understanding, many U.S. corporations have complained bitterly about the difficulty of accessing the Japanese market, especially the Japanese distribution system. In Japan, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary wholesalers and the primary reasons for the large number of wholesalers is the prevalence of so many small family-run retail outlets. These small retailers are not very sophisticated and thus, require a lot of 'hand-holding;' to accomplish this, a longstanding personal contact between the wholesalers and retailers are essential (12).

The importance of first developing a good relationship with the Japanese partner is illustrated by the following story: an executive from Switzerland, who was negotiating a business venture with a Japanese firm failed to recognize the importance of personal sentiment to the Japanese. He paid the price. The president of the Japanese company sponsored a party in Tokyo and exclaimed, "I will not do business with a man who does not like us!" The Switzerland executive believed he had concealed his dislike for the Japanese during his stay, but the president of the Japanese company had seen through his mask. The Japanese executive, therefore, refused to proceed with the business deal even though the partnership would undoubtedly have proven mutually profitable (8).

The significance of developing a good relationship can be partly explained by what the Japanese call tsuikiai or socialization. These are after work drinking sessions. This is quite common throughout Japan. An American manager visiting a restaurant or karaoke bar will observe tsuikiai taking place, where much of the real internal business of a Japanese organization is conducted. …

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