Awasu » Giving a damn
Sunday 1st May 2005 1:55 PM [General]

An intriguing post came my way this morning, talking about the difference between Japan the the US:

Every--and I mean every Japanese restaurant (including the fast-food sushi joints) had an architectural bent. A sense of style. An aesthetic sensibility you just don't see throughout the US!
...
The Japanese are being raised with a design/art/aesthetic sensibility, and we need to do the same.

While this may be part of it, I think it goes a bit deeper than that. Actually, I'm surprised they didn't mention it since they talk about it quite a lot on their blog. I think the biggest difference between the Japan and the west is that the Japanese are raised to give a damn. Aesthetic sensibility, attention to detail and appreciation of a job well done are all just part of, a consequence of that.

In the west, we are raised to see work as something to be endured, a necessary evil. You commute to the office in the morning, do your job and then clock out as soon as you are can. We talk so much about and put so much value on "getting the job done" with barely a nod to "getting the job done well". If you said that you really cared about your job and doing the best you possibly could, well, people would just assume that you were a little strange.

Now, not ever having ever worked in Japan, I don't know if the usual employee-for-life-working-in-a-big-corporate-family image is accurate or just a sterotype but I suspect there is more than a grain of truth to it. Work is more than just toil for a paycheck, to the point where people making manholes or cleaning offices take pride in their work and doing it well. I heard reports that the recent train derailment in Japan was possibly caused by the train going too fast because the driver was trying to make up for being 90 seconds behind schedule. Now this might be taking things to extreme (another thing the Japanese are very good at 🙂 ), the average lateness of trains is around 20-25 seconds (!), but it certainly indicates the importance of doing the job well.

If you've ever had the chance to work for someone who really cared about doing a good job, you probably found that it was infectious. If your boss actually gives a damn, the people working for him will almost certainly feel the same way as well (and those that don't probably won't last too long anyway). Passion is contagious, not only amongst co-workers but with your customers as well. Just look at the fanaticism keen support amongst its users that Apple has managed to raise. Just look at the difference between the release of Tiger (the new Mac OS) and the buzz for Longhorn. Microsoft just hasn't been able to get anyone to care (other than maybe the techies and even they're starting to lose interest).

Anyway, the rest of their blog is well worth checking out and I've been a big fan for a long time (they have the best pictures on any blog I've ever seen 🙂 ). In particular, check out If some people don't HATE your product, it's mediocre. It's the post I'd write if I was actually able to write. And while saying things like "If you aren't living on the edge... you're taking up too much room" might be a bit harsh, the energy behind such an attitude, well, wow!

11 Responses to this post

Hi,

My first time here. I found your trackback on headrush. Yeah, things are pretty sad here in the US as far as giving a dam about things - work especially. Our businesses are driven by quarterly numbers and that means getting offerings out the door as soon as or before they are ready. Design and passion are rarities. I used to design and develop mainframe business apps for large co's, the only thing that mattered was that they worked. What did not matter was how user friendly they were.

I couldn't agree more. Anyone who truly makes an effort in the workplace is looked down upon by coworkers. Although, in contrast, we seem to make a sport of "who's got the most work". We spend more time complaining about how much we have to do (as though it is a badge of honor to be overworked) than we actually spend doing our work.

I am a Canadian living and working in Tokyo for 14 years now.

I would yes, what you say is very much the case. The Japanese are very thorough and exact about things. The level, or standard, at which a task is considered "complete" seems a bit higher.

At the same time the average Japanese company is a bastion of negativity. They do it while griping and complaining. They care about petty matters like who left the office early, or who is spending time on the phone making personal calls, even though that person is doing a good job.

Bosses expect subordinates to sacrifice everything for the company, including personal and family time. In the end there is very little return for the employee. Stock or stock options for employees are very uncommon although this may be finally changing.

They are like whining children. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of the occupation of this country after WWII, said Japan was a nation of 12-year-olds. I completely understand his feelings and the frustrations he must have experienced.

I think that the pressure caused by taking one's work so seriously is what triggers the petty behaviour. I think both cultures need to find a healthy balance between taking pride in work and having a healthy psyche.

I know that I could put in more hours at my job to perhaps get more accomplished, but I am also aware that I have a point of diminishing returns in that regard.

Thanks for the comments, guys. I think deltabob was on the right track when he said the excessive pressure caused people to take things too seriously.

I said in the original post that the Japanese are really good at taking things too far and I think it definitely applies here. The push to excel is taken to extremes, to the point where the process overwhelms what is actually trying to be achieved.

Jim Wilde says, "the only thing that mattered was that they worked." Therein lies the issue: the definition of what "works." It would seem that for many American products, the fact that they don't break is considered a success. It would seem that for many managers and executives, if it looks like a product, it must be a product. Perhaps this is because of what seems to be an institutionalized corporate dysfuntionality: only the executive and managerial elite have authority and, ostensibly, responsibility, and receive an unbalanced share of the profits. Only when authority, responsibility and profits are shared throughout the corporation will workers be able to design and build "real products" that "really work" for their users.

[...] And while it’s true that there is a huge divide between good and bad programmers, let alone the great and the truly terrible, a lot of it, IMO, can be explained by attitude. The best developers got that way because they gave a damn. It’s not enough for a piece of software to just work, it has to work well, and on many levels: the way the code was designed, the way the code was written, they way the user interacts with the software (or not ), how it was documented (yes, really! Good documentation is part of it!). And the best developers are always looking for better ways to do things, honing their existing skills and picking up new ones. The worst ones are happy just to shove something out the door, even if it’s built like jello. [...]

[...] I’ve tightened up a lot of the writing [1] and it definitely looks much better than before. It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since the 2.2 release so I figure it’s worth taking an extra week or two to make the documentation look good Just my Japanese heritage showing through again, I s’pose [...]

[...] moons ago, I wrote a post about what I see as a key difference between how the Japanese think and operate to us in the West and this article explores more of these differences: In Japan, relatively few [...]

While it's true Japanese are willing to work longer hours, they probably don't work as quickly as they could, preferring to get things absolutely 'right'.
The biggest difference between US workers and japanese workers is the attitude of the company, who will bend over backwards to avoid firing unneeded workers, while the American boss will fire with little or no regret. This combined trust between the company and the worker is the basis for their aim for perfectionism.
It's the well-paid American boss who needs to commit more effort to maintaining a stable evironment for their workforce.

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