Monday, February 23, 2009

Japan: Not Origami

In 1988 I was sent to Japan for 3 months as Resident Engineer inside the Engineering Department of one of our OEM Customers.
I had previously traveled & worked in several countries in Europe & in North America so was not expecting any eye-openers, except the radically-different language.
How wrong I was!

It's always dangerous to generalize about a whole nation or people, as there are usually more differences within any population than between populations, but the Japanese taught me that they were collectively capable of better consensus-seeking & cooperation & basic civility, than others in my experience.

Whenever there was a problem, a multi-department group would convene, explain the problem, propose actions, choose one which was efficient & 'good enough' then go away & implement it.
No bickering.
No agonizing over which proposal was maybe slightly preferable to another.
No looking for whose fault it was.
No defending private turf.
No need to check with the boss.
This was a revelation!

A detail which struck me was the waste-paper handling.

Back home (this was before Desktop PCs & e-mail) we were proud of our good information flow, which consisted of writing memos & making sure everybody who might need to be on copy or might want to be on copy, plus their hierarchy, was on copy.
So, having written a memo, you either photocopied it, say 20 times, or, depending on your status, got a secretary to copy it.
This meant a lot of work for the photocopiers in all the offices & there were usually queues at them, even though they worked nearly full-time, so you often had to run up & down several flights of stairs to find one with a short queue.
We had efficiency squads who worked on finding faster photocopiers & cheaper paper.

On the receiving end, you had a constantly-filling in-box to deal with.
Having read a memo, or at least noticed it, you then either filed it in your own numerous binders in your own big filing cabinets or, usually, screwed it up & flung it in your own waste-paper basket, along with the empty coffee cups & apple cores.
Important people needed more than one waste bin.
Every night, squads of cleaners emptied the bins into big bags, then into skips then onto trucks where it was taken away as low-density mixed rubbish.

In the Japanese office, which housed over 100 engineers & technicians, there was a single, one-shot photocopier and it sat silent most of the time.
Anybody could make as many photocopies as he wanted any time, but first you needed to go to your supervisor (they all sat at the back where they could keep an eye on you!) and ask for his photocopier card & as many sheets of paper as you liked.
Then go to the photocopier at the front of the office, in full view, feed your sheets in one-by-one, pressing the button each time, then take the card back.
So there was a lot less paper distributed.

Then, everybody had a couple of trays on their desks - usually shallow lids from cardboard boxes the A4 paper had arrived in.
There would be a '1-side' box & a '2-side' box.
When you had finished with an incoming memo, or any other bit of paper, you put it flat in the '1-side' box.
When you wanted to write something, you would take a sheet of part-used paper from the '1-side' box & use the clean side.
When the paper was full on both sides, instead of screwing it up & throwing it in your bin (you couldn't - you didn't have one) you placed it flat in the '2-sides' box.
Every Friday afternoon, one Engineer (by rota, not a secretary…) would come round all the desks & carefully put all the '2-sides' paper flat into an A4 cardboard box the paper had been delivered in. One week's waste from 100 peole would usually not fill one small cardboard box!

Draw your own conclusions...

Parting thot: "There is a better way. Find it !" - Thomas Edison

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