The school district was one of the largest in the nation.Their budget for technology was extremely large and they had purchased many products manufactured by a well-known Japanese manufacturer.
Despite having standardized on this manufacturer’s product, sales from the district had begun to drop. Astutely, the American sales manager contacted the decision-maker at the school district to inquire if there were any issues that he and his company should be worried about.The answer was shocking.“Well, yes there is.Your products are a fire hazard and our teachers refuse to use them.”
After an extended conversation, the sales manager promised to update the engineering staff and pledged to “make it right” for the customer.After all, if there were product defects that posed a fire hazard, he was convinced that the Japanese management would want to know about this and he expected they would promptly notify the factory.
He transcribed his extensive notes from his phone conference with the end-user and scheduled a meeting with the Japanese president and the director of operations, also Japanese.
As the scenario was being explained and the numerous examples were relayed of their products failing, smoking, and igniting, the Japanese president stood up and told the American to “Stop. That’s impossible. You must have misunderstood what you were told.Our products could not act this way.”The sales manager calmly reiterated that a technically proficient end-user had provided all of the details he reported.But the president continued to deny the plausibility of the story.“They must be doing something wrong in their use of our product. It is impossible for our product to cause these issues.”
Yes, this sounds a bit like the way Toyota handled its unintended acceleration crisis. For some Japanese firms “Deny, deny, deny” is the first commandment in crisis management.
In the case of the subject of this report, a field visit to the school district was held by senior managers of the Japanese firm.Hundreds of examples of their firm’s defective products were placed on display on tables in the library of one of the high schools.In fact the school closed the library for the day to provide an area large enough to hold all of the products.It was a dramatic, and shocking, display to behold.
Ultimately, the Japanese firm determined there was a manufacturing defect and all of the units were repaired.But it was too late.The purchasing department never forgot the company’s reluctance to accept the truth.And the teachers who lived through smoke and fire in their classrooms never wanted to see the “brand” anywhere near their students again.
We Trust William
William had been employed for more than two years as the Manager of Administration for a Japanese subsidiary company.He was an Asian-American, non-Japanese, and reported directly to the Japanese president.
On a day that most of the executives and sales managers were away at a trade show in Las Vegas, an incident transpired that uncovered a situation at this firm that no one could have imagined and which the president refused to believe.
A worker, Tom, had been fired by William.This action was highly unusual as all terminations required the approval of the Japanese president. Tom refused to leave the premises until he spoke to an executive, but the executives were in Las Vegas and there was a three hour time difference.William refused to allow Tom to speak with an executive and called the police to have him removed from the premises.
William’s Side of the Story: When questioned that morning, William explained that Tom was “smearing” him in front of all the people in the office.He said he couldn’t allow that kind of behavior.William said that on several occasions Tom had asked to be transferred to a position in the warehouse.William said he declined to arrange this because he felt that Tom was more valuable to the firm in his current position.William was asked “Why would Tom be interested in a job that paid less than his current position?”William responded that Tom felt he’d be eligible for overtime in the warehouse job.William then added a very interesting yet unusual final comment.He said that because Tom was not given the transfer he “made up a story that I told him he’d get more money in his paycheck which he was to turn over to me after cashing his check.”
When asked “How could you fire someone knowing that only the president could fire someone?”William responded, “In this situation I had no choice.”William then added that he wanted to fire another worker, Mary, immediately.He said she “had to be gone within the day.”According to William, Mary had attempted to block William from gaining access to Tom when Tom was on the phone trying to reach an executive in Las Vegas to explain his side of the story.
Tom’s Side of the Story: Tom stated that on the day before the firing he was approached by William who asked to speak with him.He said William told him his “check would be larger this week because there would be overtime included in his pay” and he was to give William the difference.Tom said he was told to not tell anyone about this arrangement. When asked if William offered to share any of the money with him Tom responded, “No.”Tom said he discussed the incident with Mary who advised him to tell an executive.
Tom said that on the morning of the termination William approached him and reportedly said, “Come with me. You’re fired.”Tom said he told William, “This is illegal and is not the right thing to do.”Tom stated William then said, “Why did you talk about this?Why didn’t you just say no?One of us will have to go and it won’t be me.”Tom said he went to a phone to try to reach an executive in Las Vegas.Mary struggled to keep the door closed and William yelled “I’m calling 911.”Tom stated that William also said to Linda, “You’ll be next.”The police then arrived and asked him to leave.Tom said he then yelled at William, “William, go ahead, the cat’s out of the bag.You’re a thief.”
When Tom was questioned to explain his interest in transferring to the warehouse, he responded by saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.I’ve never been interested in the warehouse job.I like my job.”
The Corroboration: On the following Monday, the senior ranking American was visited by two company associates who admitted that they had been paying William for some period of time.They explained that William took money from them each week, for more than a year, in an arrangement similar to the one alleged by Tom.Both said they received no money and both felt their jobs would be in jeopardy if they refused.
Both individuals prepared and signed affidavits detailing the arrangement with William.
The Disbelief: When presented with a summary of the events and the two affidavits, the Japanese president refused to believe the allegations against William.He stated that “This cannot be true. We trust William.There must be some other explanation.”
Despite the president’s refusal to accept the reality of what had been exposed, William was terminated that morning.However, William refused to confess and in a defiant tone exclaimed “You’ve got nothing on me.”But he was mistaken.His office was searched and it was discovered that he was a gambler. What appeared to be a pile of business material on his desk was actually sports-related betting information.His web browser also was loaded with betting sites and many more revelations were made in the ensuing days. It was learned that William had told a supplier that unless he received kickbacks from them each month they would be replaced.He also had access to a customer rewards program offered by the firm’s telecommunications supplier.On the day after his termination, he cashed in points and had a leather brief case and other items delivered to his home.Finally, many examples of improper purchasing steps were uncovered.William had been making retail purchases for the company for computers and related items.He would simultaneously purchase additional items and then later return those for a refund which he kept for himself. The Japanese finance manager had never questioned William’s poor expense report documentation or his failure to follow standard purchasing guidelines.
When he was asked to explain why he never challenged William, he replied, “Because we trusted him.”
She Has A Husband
The Japanese president had an annual ritual. Each year, in December, he woud create a spreadsheet with the names of all of the firm’s associates.He personally set-up the document with individual columns detailing each employee’s Name, Title, Current Salary, Hire Date, Date of Last Raise, and Amount of Last Raise.He then single-handedly determined the amount to be awarded for that year’s salary increase.There were no discussions with the Americans who supervised these associates.There were no written annual performance reviews.There were no self-assessments prepared by the staff themselves.
One year the budgeted amount for salary adjustments was set at 5%. At an executive management meeting the president distributed his worksheet and every employee on the list received a 5% raise, except two. The president had even awarded 5% to one associate whose performance would have been classified as unsatisfactory.However, since no reviews were conducted, he was oblivious to this person’s actual standing and evaluation.
The two individuals who did not receive 5% were supervisory associates; one male, one female. Both at about the same base salary and tenure with the company.
When questioned why the woman was given a 2% raise, while the man had been given a 7% increase, the Japanese president answered matter-of-factly: “She has a husband.”And unbelievably, when he was asked why the man was given a 7% raise, the Japanese president replied: “He has a family to support.”
Every day executives are making serious and costly mistakes like this and not just at Japanese subsidiary companies. In October 2010 a class action lawsuit was filed against Citibank for gender discrimination.
Japanese expatriate managers must avoid violating American laws and follow the “rules of the road” here in the United States. They must avail themselves of the services of an experienced, trusted advisor like Billiken Group.
We’ll Take It
The search had lasted many months.After two decades of leasing office and warehouse space, the Japanese subsidiary company had finally found the perfect commercial building for its new US headquarters. Although it would need some renovations, it was in the ideal location for nearly all of the associates, and most importantly, it was priced right.
As a company, this organization was very conservative and always conducted themselves “within their means.”A purchase like this one, in excess of $1,000,000, was intimidating to the Japanese president.He was approaching retirement and knew that this investment would be his last major initiative in his career.
The negotiations by the real estate agents had stalled and both parties agreed that the buyer and seller should meet, face-to-face, to conclude the deal.
The Japanese firm’s senior American executive was in charge of the negotiating for his side.After nearly an hour of judging the seller’s “hot buttons” he knew that the seller would accept his below-asking-price offer.The angle was this: the seller wanted reassurance that “his” building was going to be entrusted to someone who would appreciate what he had done to it and not make major changes.As the issue went back and forth a few times, the Japanese president began to fidget.It was not clear why he became restless. He had been sitting quietly for the entire meeting.The American executive went for the close.“We really believe our offer is fair to both sides and as you know we are cash buyers.No financing will be required so we can wrap this up today.”
The seller knew he had a buyer who was ready, willing, and able to buy his building. He knew the offer was fair. He also knew that his building had been vacant long enough. It was time to say “Yes, we have a deal.”
Just then, the Japanese president, stood up at his position and exclaimed, “We’ll take it. We will pay your asking price! We do not want to lose this building.”
Could his limited English language skills have prevented him from comprehending what was being discussed by the negotiators? Was he not able to understand the body language of the seller? No one will ever know for sure if the president’s nervous tension and impatience cost his company money it did not need to spend.However, by having Billiken Group, a trusted business advisor by your side, you can ensure this doesn’t happen to your firm.
The Sunday Snack
Two Japanese engineers were sent to the US to conduct a market research tour.During the course of 8 weeks they were scheduled to visit with dozens of their company’s resellers and end-users from coast to coast.What they would learn during this visit would become the foundation for new products specifically designed for churches and other houses of worship in the US market.
For most of the tour the two engineers were accompanied and hosted by an assortment of the company’s American sales reps or other managers.However, during one weekend the two visitors were left alone.
They decided that they wanted to see what a typical church service was like.Conveniently, a Catholic church was within walking distance of their hotel so the two engineers ventured over and into the Sunday morning services.
Not being familiar with the rituals of the Sunday mass, and not fluent in English, they watched and followed along as the parishioners stood and kneeled at various points of the service.They tried to keep up and not look out of place.
At one point they noticed that the priest was offering everyone a “snack.”They got in line with the others and headed for the altar.As they got closer to the end of the line, they both noticed that the priest exchanged some words with each of the locals before giving them their “snack.”Not being able to speak English, they decided they would simply mumble something and hope for the best. The first Japanese engineer to reach the priest panicked and froze when he reached the altar. But the priest gave him his “snack” anyway.The next Japanese visitor attempted to mumble his response to the priest’s words, but he too froze before anything came out of his mouth.The priest repeated himself several times, waiting for the correct response, but the engineer was frozen in place.After a few uncomfortable moments which must have seemed like hours, the second Asian engineer exclaimed, “I am a foreigner. I am sorry.”The priest gave him his “snack” and both engineers returned to their pew.It was not until the next day, after both engineers boasted of their boldness to visit a church unescorted, did they learn that they had actually received the sacrament of Holy Communion and not a mere Sunday snack.
This story is amusing and brings chuckles to most readers.However, protocol violations can be very damaging to your business relationships.Having the Billiken Group, an experienced advisor, by your side will ensure that you and your colleagues conduct yourselves within the accepted norms of American society and culture. You will never be embarrassed because we guide and coach you through all varieties of public interactions.
Is Robin Hood Peter Pan?
This question was asked by the President & CEO of a major Japanese electronics manufacturer. He had been in his assignment in the USA for about six months and was trying to learn more about American customs and culture.
Why would he think that they were the same person?
Images of these two characters do have some similarities. The hat. The tunic. And yes, the tights.
But Americans know they are distinctly different.
The confusion experienced by the Japanese ex-patriate executive is explainable. He lacked thousands of “exposures” the average American adult has had to these two characters. He hadn’t seen the movies, cartoons, TV shows, or plays. He never had a Robin Hood coloring book or a Peter Pan peanut butter sandwich.
This lack of familiarity with American culture also explains why Japanese managers assigned to run North American subsidiary companies need the help of a trusted advisor like the Billiken Group. How can you assess a situation involving Americans without a lifetime of “exposures” to "the American way"?
We Cannot Sell To UPS
An American sales manager had submitted a trip report which included a reference to a potential sale to UPS.
As was the custom for this organization, the trip report was circulated to several layers of managers, both American and Japanese.
One of the Japanese managers became alarmed and ran into the sales manager’s office yelling “We cannot sell to UPS.We cannot sell to UPS.”The startled American asked “I don’t understand.Why can’t we?” The Japanese manager emphatically stated that their particular business unit “was not authorized to sell to the United States government.”He stressed that “the United Parcel Service is part of the government and we cannot sell to them.”This individual made an incorrect assumption that UPS . . . the United Parcel Service . . . was a branch of the federal government of the United States.
The misinterpretation of a simple word – United – created a misunderstanding by the expatriate Asian managers that the American staff was jeopardizing the company by not following all of its rules and practices. In this case the parent company assigned specific market segments to various divisions and US government sales belonged to a different group.
There are hundreds of other words and colloquial expressions used every day in North America that could be misleading or difficult to grasp for a manager or executive who was born, reared, educated, and trained in Japan.
The Billiken Group serves as your advisor to guide you through the intricacy of the North American business environment.