Having lived in Japan for more than 3 years and having taught Japanese management techniques and theory to Western companies, I regularly encountered resistance to the idea that we should emulate the Japanese model of collaboration. “Collaboration comes naturally to the Japanese,” I was told, “because of the historical practice of a rice planting culture”. This is a very common misconception and an even more common rationalization for why we shouldn’t resort to collaboration more.
Let’s dispel the myth first: historically speaking, the Japanese were a feudal society. Rank, hierarchy, and place in society determined one’s relationship to others. Access to the noble class and the ranks of samurai was a matter of birth: it could not be purchased or acquired. Commoners who failed to instantly display respect for the elite by touching their foreheads to the ground often found themselves headless, made an example for an entire village.
So during the Occupation following World War 2 when the U.S. was rebuilding Japan, teamwork and collaboration did not come naturally. Centuries, if not millennia, of following orders and paying close attention to rank and status continued as a strong racial and cultural memory. Employees paid careful attention to what their supervisors and managers said and obeyed.
No, it took years of hearing that “Made in Japan means it’s junk”, years of embarrassment while trying to redeem their national reputation, and years of intense consultation and admonishment from Messrs. Deming, Crosby, and Taguchi on the importance of teamwork before the Japanese understood.
Ironically, in a nation obsessed with teamwork and working together in sports of all kinds and at all levels, we have lost sight of the meaning outside of the sports arena. Teamwork does take a lot of work: practice, conditioning, and yes, more practice. Teamwork requires giving more than getting: being willing to pass the ball to a teammate if they have a better or more open shot. Being willing to work together for the greater good at the expense of personal glory or personal interests.
Teamwork doesn’t happen naturally, not in Japan, or in the United States. If Thomas Friedman’s prediction comes true that those organizations who are most likely to succeed in the 21st Century are those organizations who are most skilled in both internal and external collaboration, are we as a society, ready to return to the long hours and commitment that collaboration requires?
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