In Lab - Archive

Team leadership

Franco Marzo Coaching& business development

This summer I went to Japan, hot weather, temperature of 40 degrees above zero and 80% humidity level. Tokyo is just as hot as Tunis, Tangier and Algiers, but there is no comparison for humidity: you simply cannot breathe. Yet everything works beautifully, people move with ease using a network of roads, railways and subways that make cars almost useless. If you want to stay "cool" or sheltered from the rain, there is a network of underpasses in several central areas of the city. To pay for trains, buses and the metro, only one rechargeable card is needed and valid throughout Japan. Public places and underpasses are welcoming and well ventilated. Restrooms are everywhere, free, comfortable and absolutely spotless.

Tourism was not the only reason behind my visit, I had the opportunity to experience first-hand the lifestyle of an ordinary Japanese family as well as talk with a professional training manager. In this article, my objective is to highlight what makes this country the third largest economy in the world, with a per capita income higher than ours, despite the population being double in size, and environmental conditions far from ideal (earthquakes, scorching heat, humidity and devastating typhoons): team leadership. “Team" in Japan means everything: Japan with its emperor, its traditions, its temples, its cuisine, its earthquakes and its volcanoes. Every detail contains everything (the Shinto religion being its spiritual representation) and therefore every individual (but also every tree, every stone, every animal) is worth as much as the whole team: Japan. The emperor represents all the citizens and until a few decades ago he was considered a deity: nobody could touch him. At the end of the second world war this was understood and the victors spared him trials and convictions to avoid dire consequences on the whole population.


                                                               Japan                                        Italy

Total area km2                                   377.994                                302.072

Population                                        127 million                              60 million

Density per km2                                  343                                             240

Per capita GDP                           $ 38.900 28° place                  $ 30.500 33° place

Latitude                                               24° - 46°                               35° - 47°




Unsung heroes

Japanese are tireless workers, they live for the team, their ambition is not to emerge as individuals, but as a community. For them words such as "Ace" or “Star”, a reason for pride in the Western world, are a cause for shame. Corporate incentive schemes always reward the whole team. Only recently, some companies have been offering individual recognition. Top managers are never overpaid, nobody wants to be considered “above average”.

In Japan unemployment stands at 2.4%, with more than 65 million people currently working, more than 50% of the population (23 million in Italy equal to 38%). In order to work they accept any position, the important thing is to work. The training manager (in times of crisis companies invest in training rather than cutting down those costs) told me that the government, given the advanced technological evolution sweeping through the country, would like to reduce the working hours, but is unable to do so! Japanese citizens want to work and want to feel useful even after retirement. For them, the idea of weighing on someone's shoulders is simply absurd, they do not want to be a cause for "disturbance". In the subway I watched  people holding their backpacks firmly in their arms, and I thought: "Right, so also Tokyo has thieves!”. My mistake! They hold the backpack in front because putting it on the shoulders might disturb others, and whoever lives and uses public transport in Milan knows how true this can be, with scores of students eager to break someone’s nose as they shift around with their backpacks on their shoulders, totally unaware of the danger this represents.


Everyone does their best

“Team leadership" is based on a basic principle: everyone "does his or her job", and does it "to the best of their ability", without questioning or worrying about what others think or do. I know the struggles to get employees to adopt new, innovative and effective techniques. I remember the resistance by Polaroid agents on the use of set presentations. They rejected it, they felt ridiculous. In Japan this is not a problem and workers willingly do anything that is considered "for the better". For example, using a “declaration” technique they greatly reduced human errors, a procedure that we would not even dream of thinking. Before each "action or procedure", the operator must declare the action indicating it in the manual. Therefore, it is not strange to see train or subway conductors talking to themselves and gesticulating, pointing at instructions, procedures and signs before making any manoeuvre. This technique though, can hardly be applied anywhere else, in many countries workers think they can manage their tasks perfectly well without having to declare anything before-hand, but statistically speaking this is far from the truth. In Japan this is accepted because they know that if everyone does their best, the whole team will benefit. This also explains the Kaizen culture, the legendary method of continuous improvement: "there are no two ways of doing one thing well" and everyone wants to use the best way, the only way.


The search for the sense of what is being done

I asked the trainer: "but if everyone works so willingly and with such concern, what need is there for training besides a simple technical update?". Answer: "we try to align the personal values of the workers with those of the company and then we must always be aware of the  ‘sense of what is being done’". For example she mentioned cleaning staff always with a smile on their faces. They consider their work useful for the entire community and they are proud of it. Bearing in mind the “sense” of what you do is fundamental. In Italy most people do not know or forget it, they only work for money, thus feeding a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction. Being aware of the sense of what we are doing makes working a more "human" experience, reminding us that behind every job there is always a person who benefits from it and who will be grateful. A "loan" can make a family happy, make a man's dream come true, allow a company to start doing business and hire some young people. Yet, how many bank manager actually remember this? An "automated warehouse" can reduce accidents and errors in the use of materials, reduce waste as well as the time taken to process an order and as a result operators benefit from increased safety, customers are more satisfied and the company thrives. A car workshop can make people who need assistance happy, reassure those about to embark in a long journey and are terrified by that little "noise", and reduce victims of accidents due to tire, brake or engine failure. Every job is born to provide an amazing number of "useful things to people", but we tend to forget it. If we do not understand and appreciate the reason behind what we do, we will lose motivation.


Communicating values: the “sapiens” company

Behind any activity there are important values such as trust, punctuality, respect, responsibility, health, well-being, safety, pleasure, corporate pride, etc.

In a beautiful book "Sapiens, from animals into Gods" Yuval Noah Harary reveals how Homo Sapiens defeated the stronger and more muscular Neanderthal man: thanks to language. Not that the Neanderthal man did not know how to communicate. He could perfectly describe instruments, foods, plants and animals, in other words he knew how to describe everything that existed around him. Homo Sapiens, however, had a "competitive advantage", he knew how to talk about what did not exist: loyalty, honour, justice, divinity and this made the difference as far as motivation and desire to win. “Sapiens” companies that know how to communicate their values will defeat “Neanderthal” Companies. This is one of the secrets behind the success of Japanese companies: they are “Sapiens”.


Respect for the rules

In Japan, pedestrians who cross with red light are sanctioned. Police officers are unyielding and will not overlook even the slightest violation, they know that in order to coexist peacefully on such a populated and difficult territory, discipline and respect for the rules are crucial. I had the opportunity to see a folk parade with thousands of people lining the streets sitting barefoot on long strips of plastic material. Entire families welcomed the parading musicians and dancers in traditional costume eating, drinking, applauding and taking photos. At the end of the festival, which lasted hours, in five minutes the mats were rolled up and no trace of the celebration was to be seen anywhere on the road! As if nothing had happened, everyone took away his garbage, no wastebaskets along the streets, just a few bins in a few selected points. But the rules are the same everywhere, there are entire neighbourhoods where smoking is prohibited, on trains no one talks on the phone, and if the citizens are so law-abiding the State follows suit: public means of transport are frequent and punctual, public offices are welcoming, government officials smile and documents are released in real time without queues or taxes. Rules are not a constraint, but a great opportunity for everyone.


“Team Leadership”: Italian-Japanese rulebook:

01       you are not  “part of the team”, you are the team!

02       the “team” is a “Sapiens” company invention, it doesn’t really exist, but it’s a great idea and must be honoured!

03       honour the team and you will honour yourself!

04       if “you do your best”, everything becomes simple and the result will be positive;

05       remember why you are doing what you are doing and all the people that will benefit from your work, you will be happier and more efficient; the real value is not in what you do, but in the people you manage to please;

06       do not disturb others;

07       smile while you work, it costs nothing and produces more smiles;

08       if you respect them, rules are an opportunity! If you break them, a threat!

09       if you consider yourself a “team” rather than a “star”, you are a leader!

10.       thank whoever gives you a service, they will know you have appreciated it ! Arigato!


Franco Marzo

smart management Coaching e business development

(reproduction is forbidden)

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