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Punctuality: The Japanese way of business
Karthik Tirupathi
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February 21, 2007

Economic relations between India and Japan have probably never been better, as both sides continue to reinforce their commitment to leverage each other's competencies and strengthen bilateral cooperation. This has opened a new world of opportunity for Indian professionals and businesspeople desirous of working or doing business in Japan.

However, success in business in Japan requires a strong understanding of Japanese business and culture. In the first of this three-part article based on my observations during many years of working with the Japanese, I note some essential pointers that will hopefully stand the Indian professional in good stead.

Part 1: Basic values that embody Japanese business people

No surprises: Punctuality, timeliness and sticking to commitments: The Japanese believe strongly in 'no hidden surprises' and are committed to a very high degree of predictability and consistent reliability (not just reliability). This is reflected in their business practices and everyday living, such that the train or bus schedule would read "Arrival: 8.23 p.m." and the train or bus would pull in exactly at that time!

In fact, being on time every time, is the first step towards building trust and reliability in Japan. This is true both in business as well as personal relationships.

Being organized and efficient, and adherence to deadlines (and a host of other similar virtues) are considered a way of life in Japan.

In India, arriving late for scheduled appointments is an acceptable practice. Perhaps, it owes itself to olden times when transportation was not efficiently organised and important people sometimes got held up and arrived late.

However, that has also resulted in situations where, if the relationship is strained, one person deliberately makes the other wait.

People in Japan, on the other hand, arrive for meetings at least 5 minutes before a scheduled 9:00 a.m. appointment! The simple logic is that it takes about 5 minutes to get seated and settled in and the meeting is support to START at 9 a.m.

Given the state of transportation infrastructure in India (roads and traffic jams mainly), there may be several unpredictable factors that can affect one's punctuality; However, lack of timeliness is not limited to meetings that require travel; the malaise of 'flexible time' seems to be prevalent with teleconferences too.

This practice of getting late can be overcome with advance planning and adequate preparation. At the very least, should one be getting late, it is important to inform well in advance so that the other person is not waiting and wasting time.

When the Indian associate says: "I will submit the report to you on Monday," the Japanese side expects it on Monday morning 9:00 a.m. Japan time, and not anytime during the day. It is therefore important to keep the 3.5-hour time difference in mind, Japan being ahead, when doing business with Japan.

In India, on the other hand, as long as one submits the report before midnight, it is considered as being submitted on Monday. If there is any delay, the Japanese expect to be informed well in advance and not at the last minute or after the delay has occurred!

Given "flexible" business practices, it is quite usual for Indians to factor such delays in their project, while the Japanese are accustomed to extreme precision. This often causes a lot of friction in a team where both professionals from both nationalities need to work side-by-side.

"No problem" syndrome

An Indian professional seeks to impress the Japanese counterpart with speed and efficiency. This is seen in immediate responses during discussions whereby the Indian says: "Sure, sure. . . no problem."

The Japanese interpretation of this phrase is, "How can the Indians say 'no problem' without even taking some time to consider all aspects of the problem? Surely they would not be professional."

What is needed in this situation is a response which goes like this: "We think we can do it, however, please give us 1 or 2 days to get back to you." It may seem bureaucratic, but the idea is to assure the Japanese that the matter has been given the due thought it deserved.

After the meeting, the Indian side has to remember all the committed deadlines and then get back to the Japanese counterpart with a "Yes, it can be done and will be done by XYZ date."

Of course, in the end this submission must be timely.

Preparing for a meeting

In keeping with the "no surprises" approach, the Japanese ensure that the agenda is agreed upon well in advance and all the necessary people from their side are invited and duly briefed.

I've seen seasoned senior Indian executives walk into a meeting empty-handed whereas the Japanese side comes in with a daily planner/agenda book, copious notes, a writing pad and a few big files!

This great reliance on the powers of memory by the Indian executives may be a bit unnerving for the Japanese, who see it as a potential cause for the proverbial 'slip through the cracks.'

The Japanese want to make it absolutely certain that nothing discussed at the meeting, whether of importance or not, is missed or forgotten.

The Japanese interpret not taking notes or recording dates and schedules as a sign of "lack of seriousness." What is needed for all Indian executives is to carry their respective note pads and make notes, even if they may not seem very useful. This will demonstrate the "symbolic" commitment to the relationship.

To the Japanese, an eye for detail and perceived importance towards quality are important evaluation criteria before entering into a partnership.

Quality before profit

Once a contract has been finalised, the Japanese expected certain minimum quality standards from the vendor. This quality need not necessarily have to be the best in the world, but it should be of mutually acceptable standards.

During the pre-sales phase, the Japanese would always take great pains to define this. Let's assume that this contracted quality is 70% of "best available quality." The Japanese would expect this benchmarked quality "time after time -- every time" and any reduction in quality below this accepted baseline is considered a major deviation.

A better quality level will be considered an improvement and highly appreciated, but the emphasis here is again on "no surprises ever." The focus is on consistent and reliable delivery of agreed quality all the time.

A general perception about India in Japan is that whilst good quality is available sometimes, good quality is not available consistently enough. There are wide variations and this is visible especially in manufactured products or in service standards.

This perceived "imprecision" (or range of deviance) seems to manifest even during our interpersonal interactions where one often hears "I will meet you around 2:00~4:00 PM" or "We will deliver it sometime this week."

The author is the president of Nihongo Bashi.

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