Change management: lessons from Japan

When it comes to evolution, “it is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change,” maintained naturalist Charles Darwin.

So it is with modernizing and changing operating models within organizations. This can often be met with resistance by employees and exasperated further by cultural influences. In Japan, consensus building is a strong part of the culture and change management programs fail primarily from employee resistance at the second level beneath the CEO and teams.

To combat this, one newly installed CEO – brought in to make changes at a Japanese consumer products company – immediately formed a team that would reach Level 2 employees. He handpicked younger people more likely to change and adapt and did not include disinterested veteran leaders.

Two significant things happened. First, the CEO spent considerable time educating the new team on the journey ahead, explaining how the organization would function so they could envision the company’s future. Second, by handpicking a younger team, the message to company veterans was that something important was happening, and leaders who accepted these new changes would be part of the company’s success.

A few core elements helped this organization achieve the right results:

  • Inspirational and effective change leaders.
  • A “change story” with real meaning to convince leaders and employees to be open to new ways of working.
  • The chance to change mindsets and behaviors.
  • The need to orchestrate change via an expanding and self-sustaining wave throughout the organization.

Our experience supporting change efforts in Japanese organizations suggests we find success when more attention is paid to culturally attuned principles, as in the above example. For similarly consensus-oriented organizations, here are four practical ways to drive change.

  1. Define the end state in detail and provide a roadmap much earlier. While a western company would launch a transformation based on a vision and engage the broader organization to define it, leaders at consensus-oriented organizations need a detailed description of the new model on which to engage and establish a fresh consensus early on. “Building a plane as we fly” is never an easy mission, but it is a nonstarter in these organizations.
  2. Engage the front line very early and create opportunities to endorse change. Spend time in the field – on the factory floor, with the sales force, etc. – to define the details of the new model; anticipate issues; and permit the sharing of frustrations, aspirations, and other emotional reactions. Identify and support champions of change in the front line from the start. Do not assume that “immediate followers” in the second level of the organization will spontaneously follow the guidance from the top.
  3. Map the organizational network and tackle change blockers. Organizational network mapping, which analyzes the networks that employees rely on in their work, is used frequently to identify and empower change agents. Identifying and mapping potential “blockers” is not difficult and even more important for a successful change. Actions can be taken to convert or neutralize change blockers early in the process.
  4. Expose top management extensively, broadly and directly. Town hall meetings, Q&A sessions and other opportunities that expose top management to large audiences prove the most effective ways to sell change to employees. These events sacrifice intimacy, but they also break through an organization’s vertical walls, override internal factions and convey a call to action that directly engages each member of the organization.

Establishing a purposeful team upfront helps sustain change and embeds the new procedural and cultural elements in the new model. In this context, the so-called “third generation” of leaders – those roughly 35-45 years in age who realize they have a future to build, not a legacy to protect – is becoming an important source of change energy because they’re more risk-seeking.

Staying culturally attuned promises to make a big difference in whether organizations in Japan or elsewhere succeed in their change management mission.

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