Agile and Lean thinking in Japan

I have just returned from Japan, where I was involved in leading a workshop on Agile and Lean thinking. Being back in the UK, I am reflecting on how things went, what worked and what did not. The whole experience proved to be much more difficult than I could have imagined.

Japanese culture does not seem to be compatible with Lean or Agile approaches.
  • Consensus is always needed
  • Time spent on a problem is the primary indicator of effort and success
  • All expressions of ideas need to be well thought out (brainstorming is not natural) 
  • It is natural to delay the commitment of an idea or an approach, so decision making is delayed to the last moment
These observations are in total contrast to the Agile or Lean approaches, which value "efficient communication", "lists", "brainstorming" and rapid decision making. 

This is probably why these Technics have not much of an adoption in the Japanese business world. If I were to revisit this market, in terms of helping with my consulting efforts, it seems as if I would need to tailor my methods to work within the Japanese context or I would have be very confrontational to get the desired outcomes. I plan to write more on this topic in the coming weeks.

When we apply our methods and methodologies in different cultures we should be aware of the context. Business methods and techniques are inherently centred around communication, decision making and planning. However in different cultures, communication, decision making and planning are conducted in very different ways. This could possibly be an explanation for why many methods don't work well across borders or regions, furthermore it could explain why internationalization remains difficult. It is not only about the product, but the process of bringing the product to market.

Interestingly "ThoughWorks" recently published this article
In which they allude to an aspect of this issue:

Conway's Law, that states that "organizations which design systems ... are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations", keeps appearing in unexpected places. One of the key tenets of the Agile Manifesto is "People over Processes and Tools", and we see Conway's Law reinforcing this idea both negatively and positively. Some companies are mired in siloed structures that add needless friction to engineering efforts, while more enlightened companies use team organization to drive the kinds of architectures they want. We're learning the peril of ignoring Conway's Law and the benefits of leveraging it.


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