Japanese companies must fuse traditional, foreign ways of working

TOKYO - Kosuke Kobayashi, area manager in Paris for Fast Retailing, a Japanese casual clothing chain, had a tough time in the early months of his assignment to oversee the company's operations in Britain two years ago.

Kobayashi got the job because of his previous outstanding work. He began by managing seven of Fast Retailing's Uniqlo stores in Kyushu at age 26. Later he was assigned to a team that opened 30 outlets in Japan and overseas.

But he found managing employees in Britain a difficult cross-cultural challenge. Local staff would go home promptly at 6 p.m., while their Japanese counterparts burned the midnight oil. Local employees demanded that he clearly explain his evaluations of their work. Some complained that they did not understand his thinking.

These experiences taught Kobayashi a painful lesson: The nonverbal cues essential to communication in Japan did not translate in Britain. He had to communicate in words, despite his broken English, praising his employees for their talents and carefully assessing their work. His efforts paid off. As he gradually won them over, Kobayashi was able to create a system that let everyone get their work done during regular hours six months after he was assigned to the UK

When in Rome

Kobayashi's experience is not uncommon. Many Japanese business people who venture abroad are stumped at first when they encounter colleagues with different cultural backgrounds and values. With a falling, aging population that limits growth prospects at home, Japanese companies are more active overseas than ever before. To succeed, they will have to learn new ways of operating. In Japan, long hours of overtime, ambiguous job descriptions and fuzzy ways of evaluating employee performance may work fine. Not so elsewhere.

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