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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan


Jan 18, 2023

Getting change anywhere is a difficult process, but Japan is a special case.  Often in business, we represent the change.  We are the potential new supplier and that means a change.  They have been doing business with someone else and we want them to stop doing that and do business with us instead.  There are many currents underpinning Japanese culture and its resistance to change. I have been training in traditional Japanese karate for 52 years and part of that process is learning set sequences called kata.  These are fixed moves that cannot be varied in any way.  There is one way to do the movement, one order and our job is to replicate that same movement thousands of times until we have perfected it.  There is no possibility of doing it a different way - in other words, no change is possible. 

This is a powerful metaphor for many things in Japan where there is only one way of doing things and it cannot be varied.  This is prime change resistance in action.  I find this at home too.  My wife is Japanese and there are certain things which must be done in a certain way.  Being an Aussie, I am pretty easy going and flexible on trying to do things in a different way, but she brooks no variation.  There is a certain way specific things must be done and that it is that.

This is the culture and here you are, trying to break into the market.  By definition, you are a change and there is plenty of change resistance already built into the culture to start off with.  Anything that represents a change for a company has to get signed off by all of the stakeholders.  This is the famous ringi seido system of everyone applying their chop to the piece of paper to show they are in agreement.

There will always be more resistance to change in Japan, than enthusiasm for something better.  Part of this issue is no one wants to take responsibility if problems arise, so the safest career path is to say "no".  Hence, a change in suppliers is not easy here. Risk aversion means they have worked out who is the most reliable and consistent partner in their supplier relationship.  They are the incumbent low risk option, they have track record and they have built credibility over a long time. 

You however are shiny and new.  Maybe you are reliable, maybe you are not.  Who knows, so no change is a better path forward for people who don't want to be accountable.  So we have to come up with ways to eliminate or mitigate the risk.  in our case as a training company we only ask one question - are you satisfied with the training?  If the answer is no, then no debate, no haggling, the training is free and there is no cost to the company, apart from the time they have invested. 

We do this because we have to make it easy for the line manager or the HR managers to give us a chance to become a new supplier of training services to this company.  What about your case?  What can you do to take away the risk of doing business with you?  Remember we are dealing with individuals who are super deep in their comfort zone.  They have reduced risk in all aspects of their life.  They are seeking the maximum efficiency, at the lowest cost and the fastest speed. 

I am the same.  I get up at the same time, catch the same train to work, choose the same carriage because it will be the closest to the stairs or escalator at the other end.  I eat in the same twenty restaurants within a kilometer of my office.  This comfort zone is a powerful resister to change. It encourages us to keep doing the same things over and over.  We are doing the same thing in business - the fastest, cheapest, safest way of doing things.  That refinement makes it hard to break in when you are the Angel they don't know.  The opportunity cost of continuing with the same supplier, the Devil they know, and not gaining additional or superior benefits from a new supplier, is not easily considered in Japan. 

The individuals we are dealing with are worried about themselves and making sure they don’t get into any trouble.  So the same things, get done the same way, with the same results.  This is just fine with them. Underperformance won’t get you fired here in Japan, but mistakes can.  We are new for them, we are a comfort zone expander for them, a pattern disruptor for them and so we meet heavy resistance. 

To persuade the company that we are the better option, all risks considered, means we have to be working on more than just our champion inside the company.  Remember, the person we are dealing with is usually not the sole decision-maker. There are so many people inside the company who can say no. We need to make sure we are working on them too. 

It is possible to have change here in Japan, because we do get new clients.  It just takes a long time and is difficult.  It is not uncommon to create a “new” client we met four years, three years, two years ago.  We have been in business for 111 years, 60 years in Japan, have massive track record, plenty of runs on the board, but potential new clients still want to test us with a small amount of training first.  This drives you nuts, but that is just the client seeking risk removal and we are not about to change that buyer preference anytime soon.  Bringing new businesses to Japan needs patience and extended timeframes, if you want to overcome the inherent resistance to change.