I don’t do much of business reading, but I like a good autobiography. The previous one I read a while back was Sam Walton’s Made in America. It was an intriguing read. I still remember how Sam Walton, founder of Walmart had valued the buck as a kid and never really lost that habit of looking for Value For Money in everything he did. Recently I picked up Akio Morita’s Made in Japan – surprising how both the books have the similar name style. 🙂

I was intrigued to know more about Akio, because Sony has been a household name since ages, I still remember how I spent hours listening to my walkman as a kid. Now a days it is all available on mobile and the days of the tape are gone still I was intrigued to know about the company. I had no idea about it’s history at all. What also intrigued me was to know more about the Japanese work culture and industrialization history. And this book really provides insights into a lot of it. Here are some snippets that I find worth sharing (there were many of those, I am sharing the ones I remember now. 😉 )

Japan Pre-War & Post-War

I often read travelogues and Japan is an enigmatic travel destination. I have been reading a lot of cycle touring stories from Japan and I had a lot of questions and thoughts on the place. This book threw some light on Life in Japan before the World War 2 & then the effect of the war, followed by the loss and restrictions imposed by allied powers.

Firstly, pre-war Japan had a lot of inequality – the workers and labour force were always poor. The rich few kept amassing wealth and power. Landlords with huge lands were very rich and powerful while the labourers lived a poor life. This was actually similar to India as well. As with India, post world war 2 – all this changed and landlords lost a lot of their land to the labourers toiling on it. I am sure there would be differences in how it all panned out exactly. But post-war Japan saw improved conditions for the common worker.

Secondly, there were some serious fiefdoms taking place within the Japanese industrial structure. Certain major companies were owned by really powerful folks and they pretty much monopolized the market. This led to bad conditions for business innovations, but also these people being industrial tycoons held lot of power in society. These fiefdoms were dismantled by the allied management, because they were worried that these powers could lead to another war environment.

Thirdly, there was a fear of communism from the Chinese & Russian influence in the country. (A part of) Japan feared Communism gripping the country. This was an interesting matter for me as I had never associated Japan with communism – but clearly the neighbourhood conditions affected the country. Post-war I felt the communist side grew stronger for a bit because the Allied Management created labour unions. They put restrictions on employees leaving their current companies and so on. This way employees were stuck with their company and vice versa for a long period. This led to labour unions which were fairly communistic. However, at the end of day, communism didn’t rise up in Japan probably also aided by the fact that the American (Allied) management was at Cold War with Russia thus would have proactively discouraged it.

The History of Sony

Post War with a large number of restrictions imposed by the Allied management, people displaced, factories in rubble and basically everything in shambles – the Japanese people got down to rebuild. Rebuilding is something they had done before – with earthquakes that leveled major cities, fires and tsunami/typhoons – these people knew how to get their stuff going again. Even today what I have heard about the infrastructure in cities like Tokyo is a testament to what these people can do in quite adverse conditions.

Sony came up in a burnt down warehouse during the post war recuperation period. It was truly amazing to read how things worked out for them – due to their dedication to do something innovative, sheer perseverance, experimenting and learning. From fairly dubious infrastructure to a work force that had just come together, not really being qualified for the cutting edge tech they were working on – it is a wonder that they pioneered so much of the digital and analog technology. From walkmen, digital cameras to home videos, colour TVs and video cameras – Sony has pioneered a lot of the technology we take for granted today. They were also one of the leading companies to envision bringing these products into the common mans household. What made them click? Here are my thoughts,

 

1) Digging In deep:

Getting deep into the domain they want to crack. Getting hands dirty for eg: actually making tapes for their recorder on their own! It was crazy to even read about it. This way just experimenting newer ways to come up with better, more efficient stuff.

2) Vision:

The founders Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka had clear vision at different stages that led to revolutionary products. For eg: The walk man – Akio Morita could just see the walkman being adopted by people, even though others in his company didn’t share the enthusiasm – his vision and belief in this product was clear. Similarly, Ibuka also provided a similar level of clarity and vision to make Sony a household name it is today. I find this vision is very important because otherwise an entrepreneur may compromise and end up with a much smaller company. The path to true innovation and greatness is fraught with a lot of difficulties – to get through one needs to have a very clear vision. And both these founders had it. The question that comes to my mind – is whether it can be at least in a small way encouraged by company culture?

3) Shaping the Bigger Picture:

One quality that I see in many big business people is that they take a lot of stuff up. In Akio Morita I read the same, it wasn’t just creating their product and selling it. At some stage of the company, Yes this is the main focus but inevitably they became a part of the bigger world. For eg: Japan – US trade relations – there were a lot of trade related nitty-gritties that kept cropping up between the two nations. Or digital innovation in Europe so that there is a healthy industry across the globe to avoid complete monopolization by Japanese companies. Or impact of Forex on trade. All of these aspects were of course relevant to Sony as it grew – But I could see Akio Morita becoming part of the bigger community and talking about these matters, taking leadership in many of these areas. I think this is important for an entrepreneur.

Employee culture

Another matter that Morita talked quite a bit about was the employee culture. Post war Japan employees had many restrictions – they would be tied with one company for many years. This helped the companies with a much lower attrition rate however, they had to work with the employees they had. This meant ensuring the employees keep growing, they don’t get complacent, enough expansion to ensure the younger folks have a growth path ahead of them and so on.

When Sony expanded to US the Japanese team faced great difficulty in understanding a culture where employees may move to competitors taking all the trade secrets with them and also being able to fire an employee! In Japan they didn’t work that way at all. One analogy Morita made that has stuck with me, the Japanese style of company building is like making a rock house – you take the rocks which come in different shapes and you go about building the house. The shape of the house would very well depend on the rocks you gather. The employees that are hired will then shape the company as per their capabilities and suitability. While, in America people are hired with a certain set of skills to perform a particular job. The American way of building a company is using bricks. The house structure is pre-defined, each brick is well designed and specific as per the structural plan.

I find this makes a lot of sense. I have been involved in recruitment here in India for a long time now. In fact the last two years I really got deep insight into recruitment in my field – and that was one reason I finally chose to wind up my social media agency DigiWhirl. I realized that high quality recruitment would require a certain investment in terms of money and time, that I didn’t have in my solo venture. Later I joined SwitchMe, a funded startup and set about building its marketing team – I was able to put in the necessary time into it and gained a lot of insight. We managed to get a team in shape, but there is attrition risk. This stuff by Morita – the Japanese style of employee culture resonated with me. I think this style and approach would work well for India as well. Find the right candidates who do have the basic skill set, but more importantly they are capable of being long term, loyal, performing team members with similar work growth inclinations. After that they need to start learning the required skills for the company, but also the company grows in a manner that takes their inclinations and interests in mind. There are of course certain positives in the western work culture as well, creating processes and an organized manner of working is well set up in that environment (unsure about the Japanese work style in this aspect).

These two styles of working are very interesting to note due to the obvious difference in culture. The American culture is ‘low context’ where people are fairly individualistic and they speak their mind openly. The Japanese culture is ‘high context’ where they are community driven people and they would talk in context rather than the exact matter. I have earlier done the inter-cultural communications and conflict resolution course on Coursera – and in it there are clear examples illustrated to understand this cultural difference.

India also falls in the high context culture society and so I feel the Japanese way of working is something a lot of us must read and understand because it will help us work out better work systems for us here. The American style has some serious drawbacks when coupled with the Indian employees cultural mind set. A similar point of view is shared by Devdutt Patnaik in his ted talk – where he talks about the East v/s West cultural differences and how it impacts work life.

In my work experience as well, the more logical and western way of working very often becomes very aggressive. I remember going for a job interview very long time back and the person wanted to know if I would be able to aggressively push my POV in their internal meetings. I wondered why it should be needed – everyone can respectfully hear each one out. Often the western work environment assumes aggression is normal and also needed in the work setting. I don’t get it. If I am spending majority of my life with the people I work with, it has to be a lot more relaxed, trusting inter personal interactions. In India and Japan (as I gauge from Morita’s book) the employee environment is more like a family. In the west it is possibly more aloof and less emotional. I don’t have any real experience though, so if you have work experience internationally, do share your thoughts!

All in all Morita’s book was a fascinating read. Later my friend told me that it is a suggested read in certain MBA courses as well. Good for those MBA students for reading this book. At least some good may come from their MBA degrees. 🙂