Japanese Management Style

The way team leaders and managers approach leadership in the West helps promote team prosperity among a competitive, yet harmonious workplace. In fact, many team leaders tap into their charismatic nature to inspire and push team members toward productivity. Most of the time, Western leaders take guidance from top level executive to push their team members toward prosperity.

The Japanese management style, however, places an emphasis on allowing low to middle managers to push forward company policies to the top of the company, where they’re reviewed before being approved by the responsible managers. This approach allows managers below top level executives to play a large role in their company’s decision process.

What is Japanese Management Style?

The Japanese management style primarily emphasizes a need for an information flow that starts from the bottom and continues flowing to the top.

The result of this information flow is a senior management team harboring a mostly supervisory approach to teamwork, rather than a Western-oriented hands on approach. For example, policies tend to originate at the middle levels within a company before rising to the upper levels of the company for confirmation.

The main benefits of such a management style is that those who have been actively involved with the construction of a company’s policies are also actively involved with implementing decisions that affect the entire company.

Characteristics of Japanese Management Style

The Japanese management style, as mentioned, mainly emphasizes fostering an information flow that starts from the bottom and continues flowing to the top of the company. This management style is commonly associated with the following key practices:

  • In-house training for managers.
  • Decentralized and consensual decision making.
  • Extensive utilization of quality control methods.
  • Carefully codified working standards.
  • Large focus on fostering a harmonious work environment for workers.
  • Lifetime employment, in addition to seniority-based compensation.

The aforementioned practices, while in use, are generalized according to the most conventional management style used among Japanese workforces. Many workplaces across the country utilize the Japanese management style in different ways. Some aspects of these practices, however, have been challenged by an increasingly young workforce in recent years.

The Ringi System

The Ringi system is the traditional decision making process utilized in Japanese firms. Professionals who utilize the Ringi system circulate proposals to all of the company’s managers, specifically those affected by an imminent decision within the company.

The proposals are usually initiated by middle managers; on occasion, such decision making originates from top executives within the company. If an executive initiates the decision making process, the executive will typically give their subordinates their idea and allow them to present the idea to others within the company.

Managers from each department within the company then hold meetings to attempt to reach an informal conclusive decision regarding the matter on hand. After each manager deliberates and reaches a conclusive decision, the formal document – ringi-sho – gets drafted and later circulated throughout the company for approval by the managers responsible for the document.

While effective for decades, the Ringi system has been commonly criticized for its long lead times, which can be inappropriate for making critical or time sensitive business decisions. Despite its shortcomings, the Ringi system’s main principle remains the cornerstone of the Japanese management style:

When a decision proves to bring the company benefits, middle level managers who initially pursued the decision receive credit. However, when a decision turns out to be unsuccessful, top level executives take responsibility for the decision’s shortcomings.

What Managers Undergo

When a Japanese manager ascends higher in their organization, they are tasked with becoming more unambitious and unassuming. In Japanese management, bombastic charisma or forcefulness aren’t seen as a requirement for effective leadership. In fact, managers are encouraged to forgo relying on individual personality and pursue a more neutral approach to leadership within their organization.

This management style, at times, can seem intentionally vague to Westerners, potentially causing confusion among transplants. That’s because the style of communication used in the Japanese management style is markedly different from that of Western management styles. Japanese managers use coded speech – in which what they may say doesn’t usually correspond to what they actually mean – to communicate to their team members.

Due to this, they typically don’t need to communicate clear instructions to team members. Team members go on to ‘second guess’ their manager’s requests and then react in accordance with those requests.

A manager’s main task is fostering an environment where their group can become more productive. To accomplish this, a manager has to be accessible all the time, while also being willing to share essential information within their group.

In return for their cooperative leadership, managers expect team members to keep them fully informed of developments that happen at their level of the company. This relationship is what forms the basis of good teamwork and management within the Japanese management style.

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