Walk down the street in a Japanese city where major construction is taking place -- and these days, that means any Japanese city -- and you'll likely see ready-mix trucks driving by, their big drums spinning as they carry fresh concrete to building sites all over town.
If you have the chance, take a close look at one of those trucks. You'll notice something astonishing.
I mean really clean -- inside and out. Clean enough to sparkle in the sunlight. Clean enough to eat off. Cleaner than your doctor's waiting room.
What does all this mean? Two things. First, a plethora of construction projects indicates that after more than a decade of stagnation, the Japanese economy is starting to fire on all cylinders again. Second, if you want to do business in this reinvigorated country, you'd better learn something about its culture -- a culture in which no self-respecting ready-mix supplier would have his product delivered in a vehicle that was anything less than spic and span.
Many of the elements of contemporary Japanese culture derive from the belief systems of Shinto and Buddhism. Others come from bushido, the samurai code. Together, they form a complex web woven from the concepts of honor, loyalty, self-discipline and the pursuit of perfection.
Respect for and obedience to authority is part of the mix, which explains why an employee will bow when addressing his boss -- even when he's doing so on a cell phone. The ideal of service motivates a retail clerk to run -- run! -- to bring you your change. And avoiding the disgrace of imperfection is reason enough for a truck driver hauling what amounts to a load of mud to keep his vehicle spotless.
"Inefficient," you bellow. "A waste of time and money. I don't want a driver washing his truck. I want him delivering the damned concrete."
But if the truck is immaculate, doesn't that imply the driver cares deeply about his work? Doesn't it indicate that he takes pride in doing a good job? And that he will go the extra kilometer to ensure the service he provides approaches if not achieves perfection?
A few years ago, the president of a Japanese company told me that he once witnessed the reverse-engineering of a German luxury automobile. The car was disassembled completely, including its engine. Deep in the guts of the powerplant, Japanese engineers found parts that ordinarily would never see the light of day. Yet those same parts were finished so beautifully -- so perfectly -- they could have been displayed as art.
"Japanese people," he said. "We like this."
If you understand what he meant, you've penetrated one layer of Japan's culture.
Now -- only a few hundred more to go and you're home free.
As a college student some 40 years ago, I worked in two old electric power plants owned by two different utility companies on summer jobs. The first plant had been built during WWI and upgraded in the 1930s, but still ran in peaking service. My first assignment was sweeping the floors and then re-sweeping them until they passed the foreman's inspection. Bundles of wiping rags were always available at the tool crib and down time when other work was not ongoing was spent wiping down machinery so that any leaks or other defects became promptly visible. This plant operated at a high level of reliability, regularly accepting the required load every day and coping speedily and ingeniously with any failures that occurred.
The second plant was a few years newer, but was much dirtier.Maintenance was done on a breakdown basis with a continuing rotation through the operational low pressure boilers as one after another suffered ruptured tubes and other problems. A turbine was damaged by water carry-over from the boiler and lost three rows of blades.
Since that time, I went on to a career in the engineering/construction industry serving a variety of industries and customers. I have had the opportunity to be in many facilities in a number of ountries. I have found nearly complete correlation between the level of housekeeping in a plant and the overall performance and productivity of the operation.
A clean plant is a happy and efficient plant in my experience.