Face Time in Tokyo
I was working at the Tokyo office of a large multi-national. As a member of the regional office team, my role was to lead the change to a new technology platform throughout Asia. All the other counties in Asia took our recommendation to install Hewlett Packard hardware. This was because it was the fastest route to significant operational benefits. Any other equipment would need porting and testing of the application suite.
But Japan wasn’t going to be that straight forward. The resistance in Japan started with the IT Manager. He explained that as a well-known brand in Japan, they must use Fujitsu computers, else would be ‘loss of face’. As a result, went through a crazy exercise of porting software to a Fujitsu mainframe. The mainframe had to run an emulator for this to work. This is akin to taking the engine from a sports car and fitting it in a 16 wheeler truck. Needless to say, the Operations Director didn’t support the IT Manger’s rationale for Fujitsu. Evermore frustrated, he watched repeated software tests fail with incompatibility issues.
The Operations Manager held off-the-record meetings with me. These usually took place in Tokyo’s famous Whisky Bars after work. He called these ‘007 meetings’. It was at the third 007 Meeting that he dropped the bombshell.
The reason Fujitsu was in favour was that their Sales Director had been at the same Uni as the IT Manager. And, most importantly, with the Country General Manager! So my mission was to go back to Regional HQ and relay this story to my boss. We needed a way forward without ‘loss-of-face’ in Japan. After a few more trips to Tokyo, my boss and I managed to secure an unorthodox solution -Fujitsu would supply HP hardware (at a mark-up of course!).
Everyone was happy (except our accountants). The Operations Director got his working application software. The General Manager kept his friend happy, and IT Manager felt he’d kept his boss happy. And I could finally tick Japan off my list.
I left out part of my adventures in Japan. However, to round out the story, I include the missing bit here. The Operations Director and I were having a drink after work in an upmarket Whiskey bar. It was almost empty, in fact, the ‘hostesses’ outnumbered the punters. We were chatting about how the company operated in Japan when I asked an apparently probing question:
“What I don’t understand, is why we choose to partner with (Japanese company name) when we could take on all that business ourselves?”
The Operations Director looked decidedly disturbed by, what I thought, was an innocent enough question. He gulped back his drink and urged me to do the same. A few minutes later we’re standing by his car in a multi-story car park. He scanned the immediate vicinity to make sure no-one else was around. Then said only one word: “Yakuza”!
He then went on to say that the partner company was a Yakuza firm, as was the bar we’d just come from. He opened the car door with a click on his key fob, and we both climbed in. Turning to face me, he added, in whispered broken English:
“Please Nigel-san, do not ask these things, else I’ll be buried in freeway… how do you say …pillar”.
I’ve told two stories of my brushes with organised crime: the Bratva and the Yakuza. By the way, if you’re concerned for my Japanese friend he has long-since retired.
Wether in Tokyo, or Bratislava, it’s sometimes impossible to predict what will happen next. There I was just trying to change some technology, but meeting unexpected and at times, life-challenging, resistance!
Putting the drama to one side. The two “Wild, Wild East’ stories illustrate how people make change difficult. In my experience, the order of difficulty:
1) People, 2) Process, 3) Technology.
Values and Trust loom large in the story of change in Japan. We had to understand the ‘Uni alumni’ values system before figuring out the solution. And the Operations Director and I had a solid trust relationship. This allowed us to share politically sensitive information.
- Establish alliances with reliable partners
- Find sources for good intelligence – focus on making the unknowables known.
- Be ready to adapt to new circumstances.
- Play with a straight bat which will likely mean you’ll have to report bad news from time to time.
- Don’t get side-tracked on the technology and process design. Your job is to make the change happen, others pick-up the solution detail. As Change Leader you should focus on the evolving design of the change, not the design of the solution.