Training Issues in a US / Japan Joint Venture
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Training Issues in a US / Japan Joint Venture

Written by Jennifer Beer, Bob Wright, and Yoichi Shimakawa
for Organization Development Associates

Two Lunchroom Conversations:
Lunch with teammates
Lunch with the boss

Bob Wright
Yoichi Shimakawa
Copyright © 1998, Organization Development Associates Do not reproduce electronically or in print without permission.

Two Lunchroom Conversations

Let's be diligent and pay attention to details!

--sign on the wall of the classroom in Teidan's factory

Lunch with teammates

The moment he heard he was going to Japan, Larry had phoned his fiancee from the office, excited as a kid. Other than a quick trip to Europe in high school, he had never had the opportunity to travel abroad.

Larry is a tall, lanky 26 year old process engineer, who graduated with his Master's from Virginia Polytechnic three years ago and was offered a job with United Chemical shortly thereafter, with the understanding that he would focus on developing cutting-edge film processing technology.

United Chemical had soon decided that there wasn't enough time to develop the next generation of film processing technology because several competitors were so far ahead.

This past year, they'd negotiated this joint venture with Teidan, currently the world leader in this particular film technology. Teidan would help United set up a state-of-the-art factory in Indianapolis. In exchange,Teidan would gain access to United's impressive North American and Europe market. This was Teidan's first manufacturing venture in U.S. Both senior management teams had high hopes for the collaboration.

Now, five days after arriving in Teidan's plant, Larry was sitting in a corner of the brightly lit factory cafeteria with Ted and Rob, two other American engineers, poking dismally at a piece of dry grilled fish and a bright yellow salty pickle of some sort. He wished they offered choices instead of one set menu. At least the rice was good. He'd been eating a lot of that.

The training group were all wearing navy and gold company shirts--how Japanese, they'd thought when the head of the plant presented them with the shirts on the first day. Wearing the knit shirt identical to everyone else around him instead of his customary striped cotton cloth button-down shirts made Larry feel like he wasn't quite himself.

"Man, Wada treats us like we were middle school kids, there's no recognition that we know anything. I have a Master's degree in this specialty and three years on the job! From a good school, too. You know, yesterday, I asked the guy to explain to us how the roller tension is maintained, what calculations they used to determine it, and Wada just says, `You don't need to know that.'

Then on the way to lunch, he was even more rude. I wanted to know why they add the stage seven fixative an hour after curing the film, since we've always added it earlier. All he said was `You just need to focus your complete mind on learning how to do it correctly.' We're opening our own plant in Indianapolis in five months and we don't need to know that?" Larry finally stopped talking to eat a few mouthfuls.

The other two men picked selectively at their food. "Yeah," said Rob, it makes you wonder whether they are in this joint venture in good faith, you know what I mean? Why don't they want to let us have information, especially about the technical calculations and concepts behind their design? It's like we were assembly workers and don't have to understand the process, just know how to work the machine."

Ted said he thought Wada was not so bad. "He's trying real hard plus he really knows the details, it is impressive." Ted's problem was the distractions on the floor. He'd never seen such a clean and quiet factory, nor such seemingly obedient yet endlessly energetic and cheerful workers. Today he'd noticed that all of the film handlers in packaging section were wearing white gloves! Most amazing were the automated driverless delivery trucks running along wires imbedded in the floor, beeping as they cruised by.

Secretly, other matters were bothering Larry also. For one thing, Wada had a habit of trying to show him what to do by putting his hand on Larry's arm to guide it which made Larry jump every time it happened. And Larry wasn't sure how well he was doing. The only feedback he'd gotten was what he was doing wrong in such mechanical tasks as threading the machines.

Last night when they were required to go out to eat and go to a hostess bar with Wada and Takayama, the big boss, he'd heard more information. Here he was struggling to eat this weird new food and trying to figure out where to put his long legs comfortably, when Wada, flushed pink with his second bottle of beer, suddenly stops talking to Takayama in Japanese, pours more beer in Larry's glass, and says, "Larry-san, you need to pay more attention to details but you'll learn enough in time, I think."

I pride myself on being a fast learner, Larry thought, and now I'm being scolded for going too fast, for trying to ascertain the big picture. It just doesn't make sense.

Lunch with the boss

The set menu looked like dried-up leftovers today, Wada, thought. He asked the cook for a bowl of ramen noodle soup instead, then took his tray over to the far corner and sat down next to Takayama, his boss. The two men ate fast, holding their bowls to their lips and shoveling in their noodles with their chopsticks. Neither said anything.

It was obvious to Takayama that Wada was agitated. Takayama recalled the difficulties they'd had with the previous training group from Indiana.

The engineer teaching that module had come into the room the second day to find the Americans rearranging the classroom tables into a large U shape. The trainer was taken aback and then got very angry with the Americans but they did not seem to understand why he was upset, or in fact even notice that he was upset. Takayama hoped that Wada was going to be more flexible; at least he'd put in more effort to prepare for training Americans.

After a while, Takayama said, "Well Wada-san. How is it going?"

"Hmmm." said Wada, hastily swallowing the last of the broth. "The young one, Larry. I do have trouble pronouncing his name. He, how should I say this? He doesn't have the right attitude, and I don't know how to handle that."

The men sat in silence for another moment. He'll say `Okay, I got that, what's next?' after only ten minutes, when I can tell he still doesn't really understand how to do what I've taught. He and some of the others miss obvious details. This morning, for instance, he didn't close the second latch after threading the film, because he wasn't following the steps in the order I told them. When I showed him that he forgot an important step, he just laughed."

"How rude," said Takayama, unsurprised.

"I try to be patient and teach him step by step, but he keeps asking theoretical questions and not concentrating on learning what we're teaching that day. I don't want to explain the technical theory until they understand how to work and repair the machines. It will just confuse them."

Wada-san didn't say so, but he was also annoyed that a young engineer in his 20's was questioning his authority and experience. He'd been with Teidan 23 years. This young man and his friends were challenging him constantly: "Why do you do it that way?"

Takayama sighed and pushed back his bowl to light a cigarette.

This joint venture might make sense to the company directors, but organizing the training was a much larger task than he had thought. They had 65 American employees to teach over the next four months. The Japanese vendors had been on time with equipment, but the Americans had made several last-minute changes in the plant construction schedule in Indiana and they'd had to wait. Then there had been delays on the American side hiring the operators and process engineers.

As a result, Takayama's carefully organized training schedule had been revised several times with little notice. The man who was supposed to help Wada with this module had not been able to shift to this week, so Wada and the interpreter were on their own.

"They're not all bad," said Wada. "Ted and Jane, for instance, they are very careful and attentive. I think some of them are learning very well."

"Keep working hard, Wada-san," said Takayama sympathetically.

"I'll talk to the American team leader about attitude."


Bob Wright, Organization Development Associates, Wilmington, Delaware

Wada-san and Larry find themselves in a situation lived out in many Japan-U.S. joint ventures and strategic alliances, as well as in Japanese manufacturing start-ups in the U.S. In all of these scenarios, Japanese engineers expert in technical operations are instructing relatively experienced North American engineers, operators and technicians. The personal and professional enjoyment in these exciting cross-cultural assignments is often undercut by frustratingly different expectations and patterns of teaching and learning. As trainers, we can learn from both the structural and cultural issues in this United Chemical scenario.

Structural issues

On the structural side, the joint venture organizers had not adequately prepared their managers for cross-cultural collaboration. In the rush to move ahead with transferring the technology, they either overlooked or dismissed the need for cross-cultural training.

In addition, from Takayama's perspective, the Americans had modified their plans at the last minute, without considering the difficulties that created for Wada--san and Takayama-san. Changes are a reality in any start-up, but Japanese companies tend to plan in greater detail and further in advance. An experienced Japan hand once commented that Japanese start-ups are like launching the space shuttle: all the detail goes in upfront; then you push a button and watch it happen.

For North Americans who emphasize individuality and flexibility, a start-up is more like a jet taking off. Even after it starts rolling down the run way and gaining speed, the pilots make frequent adjustments. Just understanding this dynamic better would help all involved in this training be more aware of what to expect and coordinate a joint training project with less friction.

Cultural issues

The value placed on individual expression and achievement in U.S. means that Larry and his colleagues feel confined by such seemingly small things as wearing uniforms and not having many choices at lunch.

The different assumptions about learning, however, are what cause serious difficulties. When Wada-san tells Larry that he doesn't need to know certain things, Wada-san is simply following his common sense about proper training: first master the basic form, the one right way to do the operation. Learn how to do it perfectly first, then learn more about why it is done a certain way. Master the form, then discuss broader theoretical understanding. He views Larry's questions as distracting, as signs that Larry isn't serious and has a poor "attitude."

Wada-san has no conception that Larry comes from an environment where questioning is a sign of seriousness, and that responding to the Americans' questions would be a strong motivator.

Notice, too that inevitably the experience of being in a foreign environment is both exciting and distracting; it may be hard for trainees to focus on content when they are still getting used to the food, the beeping robot trucks, the unfamiliar patterns of work. What seems natural and unremarkable to the trainer may derail the attention of the trainees. The added strain means the participants may also tire more quickly than the trainer expects.

Differences in feedback style play a major role here, as well. Wada-san seems to give Larry only corrective feedback. In many Japanese companies, managers offer very little praise compared with more frequent "good job" type comments in the U.S. Corrective comments will tend to motivate a Japanese worker, however, North Americans sandwich such comments with positive observations.

Wada-san's one attempt at an encouraging remark ("'ll learn in enough time, I think.") -- from his perspective made in the spirit of encouragement -- probably had the opposite effect on Larry. In Wada's context, drinking is the time to be more personal and honest; in Larry's experience, comments made at the bar may have an extra competitive, aggressive overtone.

The breakdown between Wada-san and Larry may have a high price, especially if other trainees have similar reactions; it may cost the joint venture in dollars, in future productivity and can permanently undermine working relationships. This is where good cross-cultural training for technology transfers can be valuable: for the Japanese, modules on how to supervise, train and motivate Americans, and some background how Americans learn.

In addition to preparing the American staff on the basics of living in Japan, training for the Americans should teach them how to interact with their Japanese colleagues in English, how to use interpreters, how to get information effectively, and understanding Japanese expectations of a learner/trainee.

At the very least, Wada-san, Larry and their colleagues need to share their expectations of good training and learning behaviors, and collaboratively create groundrules for their day-to day interactions.

Yoichi Shimakawa, Meridian Asscoiates, San Francisco, CA

In this scenario, there are several strong contrasts in the ways American and Japanese engineers approach knowledge and learning which make the training a difficult experience for both Larry and for Wada.

1. Assumptions about Knowledge

The Americans have a linear sense of the structure of technical information and therefore how one acquires it. Knowledge is "out-there," a trainer can explicitly describe and explain it. The more spiral logic of the Japanese sees knowledge as embedded in situations, acquired by immersion, by circling round many times.

We can see this logic pattern with Larry. He thinks, "Well I've learned the first step, cleared the first hurdle, lets go onto the next point." He expects information to be articulated and mapped out, and constantly asks Wada for explanations until he thinks he understands. Then he is ready to go the next step. In this way, he is like very "low context" American lawyers: they clarify assumptions through questions, and then they move onto the next level.

Many Japanese engineers think that knowledge should be understood holistically. From this perspective, a trainee cannot say claim to understand Stage 1 on the first dayłyou have to know what is in Stage 2 to really understand Stage 1.

That's working against the American trainees in this case study. They are ready to move on, whereas Wada is actually expecting them to spend more time on the first point and practice and experiment and imitate.

2. Learning Through Principles, Teacher as Equal

The end product of a successful training, from an American point of view, is a conceptual model that trainees can adapt to their own situations. These models don't have to be exactly the same as what the professors or trainers have taught. Rather, the trainers' models are a springboard. Contradictions and confrontations are allowed. Rules are made to be broken, changed, molded to the trainee's own way of thinking. The practicality and individual ownership of the "take away learning" is most important.

Larry is trying hard to be a "good" trainee: he listens for the main points, rather than the details, in order to grasp the general framework of the process, and asks "Why" questions early on. He wants to see whether the trainer's points make sense applied to his own knowledge of his profession and his company's needs. When American trainees don't agree or don't see direct relevance, they may challenge the trainer, or at least as Larry does, complain to other trainees at lunch time. Trainers and trainees are considered equals who are sharing information and developing theoretical understanding together.

In this environment, an American trainer tries to encourage trainees, capture their interest, and increase their confidence. Consequently, Larry is upset that he receives no response to when he tries hard to learn; Wada gives him little positive and constructive feedback.

Japanese trainees generally expect to get negative feedback in a hierarchical relationship such as trainer and trainee. They believe that giving "good job" feedback too often is childish or sounds like flattery, because they assume that mature adults do not need constant praise.

3. Learning as Hands-On and Situational, Teacher as Authority

A Japanese approach, in contrast, sees teachers as sensei, as masters and mentors who have gained wisdom and tacit knowledge through long experience. Students learn by observing, feeling, absorbing the teacher's tacit knowledge łnot by asking questions and or by developing reasoned, explicit models. Students listen to details, and in this case, we see that for Wada the minute things, such as threading the film exactly right, make a big difference.

Wada probably does not value Larry's engineering degree or his several years of practical experience at United Chemical much. He assumes that since Larry is now working in the joint venture, he must put aside whatever he learned elsewhere and learn from the Teidan company's experience.

As the Zen Buddhists say, Larry needs to come to the training with a "beginner's attitude." Whatever you've learned in another company is completely different situation. Company knowledge is gained within. This seems odd to the American engineers who may think more in terms of their career in a profession, rather than in a company.

Also, the Japanese expect a long learning curve. Their engineers see a person who has spent five, preferably ten, years in a specific company as a full fledged engineer. Only then can you talk back, or have a constructive argument with another engineer.

The Japanese approach usually starts from genba--literally "original starting place," a specific on-the-ground reality. They prefer to observe, to touch. They don't usually like to generalize principles. Teaching is more inductive, talking about a problem case by case. If you see the facts, they tell you what the cause of the problem is. In contrast, the Americans may discuss the theory to determine the source of a problem.

The other day I was watching a television documentary on Japanese steelmakers. Despite their advanced technology, they still use intuition in turning around the heated iron roll on the conveyor. Everything they do they've learned through their hands-on experience in that particular factory. In their pocket books they note down detailed descriptions about what they have discovered works best: written information is grounded in the genba of particular experience. Japanese managers expect good engineers to "steal" knowledge, as they say in Japanese, meaning that they should be able to pick up the small points that prove critical to understanding and improving a process.

In a training, therefore, Japanese engineers like to see physical models because they look for HOW something is done. If they ask questions, they ask HOW not WHY. They want to know when to turn the roll of heated iron, not necessarily the principles which explain why that moment is best. Very often trainees will ask for both good and bad examples, then they often imitate the good model through practice, practice, practice. Once Japanese engineers master a new technology completely they are allowed to practice with their own individuality, to be creative.

What advice would I give Wada as he prepares to train his American engineers? As Bob Wright said, the Japanese side needs some cross-cultural training especially to learn how to coach Americans, including giving positive and constructive feedback. They should also know something about how Americans are educated, their learning styles, that kind of cultural background information.

More specifically, Wada needs to reorganize his presentations, giving main points first, articulating the points clearly rather than expecting the trainees to pick up what's important or not important. A logical roadmap of the material would be helpful.

He should also give an overview of the course, what is expected, key learnings he expects at different stages, why he's working on this one, why he designed the program the way he did. This will help the more verbal, principle-oriented Americans be more willing and more prepared to learn the nuances and details of practice that Wada wants to teach them.

Lunch with teammates Lunch with the boss
Bob Wright Commentary Yoichi Shimakawa Commentary

Copyright © 1998, Organization Development Associates
Do not reproduce electronically or in print without permission.

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