A Week-end in Tokyo

April 3rd, 2011

I arrived three nights ago into Tokyo, not knowing quite what to expect. Food shortages, radiation fear, a depressed population, an ineffective government response–what will it be really like on the ground.

Some first impressions as I sit in a cafe in fashionable Omotesando.

- NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting channel, continues its coverage of earthquake related stories, but the human element seems to be at the forefront. A thousand residents from Minami-Sanriku town who have no hope of returning to their homes, at least in the next 6 months, have signed up to be evacuated to other towns, not knowing if they’ll ever return. The farmers in Fukushima have resorted to trucking their vegetables directly to the sidewalks of Tokyo’s business district, bypassing wholesalers who refuse to handle Fukushima veggies for fear of radiation. Farmers insist theirs are safe.
- A regular traveler to Tokyo will quickly realize that many of the city’s escalators are stopped, especially those going down. Lights in office buildings and shops are only 50-70% lit. Trains come less frequently. The effect of the power shortage from the shutdown of the Fukushima reactors is felt everywhere. All of a sudden, rollers have become even more inconvenient. However, the theme seems to be that small inconveniences are nothing compared to the living conditions of those who are now left homeless from the tsunamis.
- Most people really have a bad feeling about the radiation, not trusting anything the government is saying. There seems to be an enormous amount of energy spent on worrying about things over which they have no control.

But the faces of the people I see, and the voices of the people I hear all have one thing in common–a quiet determination that things must return to normal and a doubtful belief that this may be exactly the kind of event that will change the ways of a nation that has been in the doldrums for so long.

This is a time where strong and steady leadership is needed. So when I heard on NHK that the Japanese government has decided to take charge to ‘establish standards’ on how all the private relief funds amounting to close to $1 billion will be spent, I wasn’t overcome with joy, but rather with a sense that nothing will ever change.

Rather than doing something, the people in charge are more interested in staying in charge. And therein lies a big doubt I have as to whether anything can change this nation. A friend I met yesterday repeated a comment from Tokyo Mayor Ishihara who said that the tsunami was heaven’s punishment for Japan’s excessive ways. I told her, that if it were in fact heaven’s punishment, the tsunami would have hit Tokyo, wiping out all the government buildings along with the politicians, leaving the innocent civilians so they can start anew without the existing broken system.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management (Tokyo, Japan) where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

Heroes, Hype, and Hope

March 18th, 2011

We’ve been inundated by the week-long stream of news flowing from Japan. Before this is all said and done, it will probably be the most covered natural disaster in the history of mankind. The past few days, we’ve been receiving 24-7 coverage of the “Fukushima 50″ who were going to give up their lives in order to save the nation. It’s the stuff that movies are made off.

Japanese media, however, report that the Fukushima 50 are routinely tested, and so far, none of them have major medical problems. Of course, the information’s coming from TEPCO, so many people take it with a grain of salt. That, however, does not diminish the sacrifice and courage they’re showing in the face of overwhelming odds. To attribute their heroism to the fact that they are Japanese, and may have the “kamikaze” spirit makes for an interesting narrative but is probably off the mark. Uniformly, we know that people who work in teams under high stress environments are often willing to compromise their own safety in order to accomplish the mission. As Spock said to Captain Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…” If a nuclear disaster were to occur in the US, I have no doubts that we will see similar feats of heroism.

Which brings us to the hype. For the last 4 days, we’ve heard nothing but hype about the nuclear accident at Fukushima. But we’ve already known for some time that the situation was out of control, and that even in a worst case scenario, we won’t see Godzilla destroying Tokyo. The likelihood of a Chernobyl type disaster is low, and even if it did get there, the loss will not be in the same scale as the loss of lives from the Tsunami. And we so quickly forget that six years ago, a massive tsunami erased 200,000 lives from Africa, a disaster that was ten-fold the Tohoku quake in terms of human cost.

We watch in horror as Anderson Cooper and all the Western correspondents listen in to Japanese news conferences which offer so little information, and then manage to mistranslate crucial little bits only to scare the rest of the world… like the Brave 50 being pulled out, and thus ‘the Japanese government must have given up any hope of averting the disaster.’ It turned out that they were pulled back for a short while till the radiation levels at the site settled down.

A Japanese friend and I talk over dinner, “Even an ordinary Japanese will have no idea what they’re saying, I wonder why the Westerners even bother trying to translate that garbage.”

Amidst all of this, we see a glance of the spirit of Japan. Ryu Murakami, a best selling author writes in the NY Times about something that Japan had been missing for a long time– hope.

And a Waseda Professor writes of his pride in being a Japanese.

I wrote a blog 3 months ago about the economic miracle that Japan had orchestrated in 19 short years after the end of the second World War. Few people could believe today that the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo were held only 19 years after the city was bombed into ruins, a whole nation defeated in a disastrous war, and the spirit of the people, seemingly crushed.

But the spirit never died, and the hope never faded, and heroes emerged in the form of strong political leaders, business innovators, a committed populace, and a desire to reach for the top of the world again.

The cameras and anchors from CNN and the other news networks will be gone. The attention of the world will turn to other matters that are more important and current (hopefully, no more Charlie Sheen). The summer of 2011 will come and go, probably another sweltering one, but this time, with little electricity to power the air-conditioners. The beautiful crimson leaves of autumn will arrive in no time, bringing in the cool breezes from the north. The first snow fall will hit the contaminated grounds in Futabacho, Fukushima, once again before the end of the year. And the nation will ring in the year of the Dragon with a fury when January 1, 2012, comes.

And the next year, and then the next year, till we reach a decade, and another one. The fact that we know these things will happen–that is why we have hope.

Nelson Mandela often spoke of the need to help his people “exceed their own expecations,” invoking the powerful poem that also became the title of the movie Invictus.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

As long as the people in Japan know that they master their own fate, and that they are the captains of their own soul, there’s hope.

Everyone living in Japan is a hero today, and when all the hype is washed away, we’re left with what matters the most–something that we all call hope.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management (Tokyo, Japan) where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

Lessons from the Disaster: Capitalism and the Japanese Culture

March 15th, 2011

The media has overwhelmingly praised the restraint and the calm demonstrated by the people in Japan during the disaster. Yet, little by little, we’re finding out that things aren’t what they seem to be.

Food stuffs are in short supply in Tokyo, partly due to shortages, but shopowners and retailers are claiming that the Japanese people are doing what most people in the world will do–they’re panic buying and hoarding. From gasoline, to rice, to water, to diapers, and toilet paper, they’re buying everything they can get their hand on. They don’t know when the next supply run will be made, so the best thing to do, especially after waiting for 2-3 hours in a line, is to buy as much as your hands can carry.

We don’t see wholesale looting, but once the supplies run out, who knows what will happen.

We’ve been touting about the great advantages of the market based economy, but that doesn’t seem to work too well in a catastrophe. People acting to preserve their own interest is exactly the kind of behavior that we would discourage now.

Some people get this. But ultimately, the market mechanism will be determined by those who don’t. Random acts of kindness are all over the place; but once we see a person in front of us in the line buying more than is necessary, it is in our nature to do the same. This is how Adam Smith works–the invisible hand. Then prices should go up, and more suppliers will want to fill the void.

People in Japan that we’ve been in touch with are pointing out the seeming paradox that NHK reporters can get in and out of the refugee camps, but supplies such as food, blankets, and medicine can’t. I recall all the supplies that were stashed up outside of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina waiting to be distributed, but never getting there. The Kan government seems to have failed, not only on the communication front, but in the most basic area of getting the logistics to supply its people. That’s why we have governments ( something that the military is supposed to do best; at least the US military does).

As the people of Japan become more and more aware that the suffering that they’re enduring is not as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami, but incompetent management by its government, one has to wonder how long the cultural niceness will continue. And as we debate here in the United States about lowering deficits and the greatness of the free market, I wonder how we can continue to ask the government to be responsible when we’re spending much of the time trying to destroy it by gutting its funding.

The lessons we learn from disasters are so often clouded by what we believed in the first place. If we think that the cultural difference in Japan is the reason they’re calm, then we’ll take that as a lesson and try to teach Americans to be calm in a calamity (not a bad thing). If we think that capitalism is great, it’s just government getting in the way, then we’ll look for more private sector goodwill and volunteerism to do what the government can’t. If we think that nuclear energy is great and safe before the accident, we’ll think of any excuse to say that the circumstances were simply too unique in Japan, and we’ve got it covered here in the US.

A nuclear expert, in a local radio interview on Friday, a day after the disaster, laughed off the announcer’s question about the possibility of a major nuclear disaster. He talked of the redundancy of the systems, the lessons from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, how the Japanese engineers knew what they were doing, blah blah blah… I wonder where he is these days.

Which goes to show that we simply don’t learn very much from these disasters after all.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management (Tokyo, Japan) where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

TEPCO, the Japanese Media, and the Gulf Oil Web Cam

March 14th, 2011

Perhaps the single most important check on the truth telling of BP after the Gulf Oil spill last year was the live web-cam installed that showed the constant flow of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. It was easy to see, to understand, and the camera doesn’t lie. We can all make judgments based on what we saw.

Four days after the disaster in Japan, we are starting to see the break-down in trust amongst the Japanese public, media, and government. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power) which owns the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor has been frantically trying to throw everything it can, including sea water at the reactors to cool them down. At the same time, TEPCO has hardly been the model citizen in terms of transparency. The frustration came to a head in a morning news conference in which the darkest side of Japan was revealed.

Journalists (if we can call them that) started making political statements and yelled at the corporate spokespeople, insulting them with questions that basically accused them of lying. “Are you apologizing now because a line was crossed!?” “Why are you apologizing now and not before?”

The Prime Minister didn’t do much to get his image up. He appeared again in front of cameras to boast that they formed a joint command center with TEPCO so that they can co-ordinate things better. I would think that people are more interested i what the government is doing to prevent a meltdown, and what contingencies he has in place in the event of the worst-case scenario. He also needs to tell the people how those in shelters will be getting blankets, food, medicine, and other materials, especially as the weather forecasts call for a chilly couple days including snow in many of the impacted areas.

Those in the Western world are amazed at how well the Japanese citizenry has behaved in light of the disaster. The calmness, the kindness to each other, and the lack of panic–these are all the traits that make the people special.

But that doesn’t diminish the need for transparency, leadership, accurate reporting, and responsible journalism.

How hard will it be to put a web-cam on Fukushima Dai-ichi’s reactors, or to live stream the videos that they already have? How hard will it be for them to share all the important live data that the experts use for making decisions?

The problem with smart government and company officials is that they think the public is stupid and that people will panic. That’s the official line of the Chinese Government, and has no place in a place like Japan. It is exactly at times like this that information needs to flow freely. Rumors fly not because there’s too much transparency. Rumors arise because people no longer trust the official line.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.


March 14th, 2011

The morning commute in Tokyo turned into a mess as both the national and private railroads canceled most of their scheduled trains in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Most commuters complained that they were not notified of the cancellations and were doubly frustrated after having to walk home on Friday or Saturday morning, many trekking for 4-5 hours.

The blame game can go around as far as companies mandating employees to show up and/or the train companies not doing a good enough job of communicating. I just watched a two man team on NHK’s newscasting desk trying to dissect the meaning of the rolling blackouts in “Group 5″ between 5 and 7 pm on Monday. They spent 10 minutes discussing why the blackouts didn’t happen as scheduled. What the people really wanted to know was which areas will be impacted, and what they should do.

Going back to the morning commute. Three days after one of the worst disasters of the century, I wonder out loud why millions of commuters are packing the trains, willing to suffer another day of uncertainties as to whether they can make it to the office and back.

Wouldn’t it make so much more sense to take some time off, spend time with family, and perhaps do the kind of things that the folks in Tohoku were unable to do before their homes and lives got washed away by the tsunami?

I watched on CNN as a man was picking up bits and pieces from his home, he being the lucky one that was able to find his home. He was collecting all that was important for him to survive over the next few days, or maybe the most important treasures that would keep his memories intact for years to come.

After going through 9-11 (I was on a flight from Newark to LA on 9-11), I asked some basic questions about my own life. I ended up adopting a Soprano theme, “Every Day is a Gift.”

As those who have survived the catastrophe try to put their lives together, I wonder what theme they would adopt. And whatever theme they do choose to adopt, I hope that their priorities will be changed forever, so that going in to office on Monday morning after a major disaster doesn’t rank at the top of their “to do” list.

Stay home, talk with your families, decide what’s important in your life, make sure your friends are ok, maybe even go north to help your country mates (why should foreign volunteers come to Japan to help out when its your country?), etc. It seems like if you start ranking the priorities in life, the morning commute simply can’t be all that important.

Just wondering…

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

Earthquake-The Aftermath

March 12th, 2011

I returned to LA from Tokyo on 3/1, and was scheduled to go back there on 3/31. The earthquake struck on 3/11 local time. I consider myself incredibly lucky.

The ultimate cost to the Japanese nation from this catastrophe will be hard to measure. Not only will it cost tens of billions of dollars, but the loss of human lives will undoubtedly soar as they start counting those that are missing. The big question mark is what this will do to the psyche of a nation, already suffering from two decades of stagnation, a sense of defeatism after being surpassed by China in its GDP, a younger generation that seems to have lost all hope, and a government that had been operating with little purpose, but stuck in endless and mindless political bickering.

As expensive a price as this may be, will the massive earthquake have an effect of finally bringing this nation together?

The early signs aren’t all that encouraging. The initial response by the Kan government was both weak and confusing. Asking for calm is good, but having no plan to deal with the disaster isn’t very calming. Having no sensible and clear channels of communication isn’t very calming. And with the national broadcasting NHK repeating the same things over and over while providing little useful information–that’s not calming. I get better analysis reading the New York Times or watching CNN than watching live coverage on NHK. The press conferences do little to alleviate concern.

There are people out there calling for help. They need shelter, food, medical aid, and a means to communicate. They need their government now more than ever. The power grid is now overloaded due to the shutdown of the nuclear reactors, another possible catastrophe.

The population is waiting for the government. The people are all willing to help and to chip in if necessary. Japan probably has more material goods than any nation in the world. It is a matter of the will (and getting the logistics in place) to deliver those goods to the people who need them. But at some point, they need someone to lead the way.

It’s the sincere hope of the writer, the nation, and the whole world that great leaders will emerge from this crisis who will not only help the nation heal, but give it some much needed boost. For a nation that rose from the ashes of World War II, nothing is impossible.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

Please understand me!

December 7th, 2010

I ran across a piece on MSNBC/AP about how many Asian nations have yet to sign the Hague convention governing the abdution of children across borders. This is about one parent kidnapping his/her own child(ren) from the other parent after a divorce or separation. It is one of the worst crimes imaginable. Yet, many Asian nations view that their citizens can openly defy laws of other countries that have granted custody of the children to the “other” parent. Surprisingly, Japan is one of those nations which has refused to sign the agreement.

Why surprising? Because Japan is considered to be very much an open society resembling Western Democratic nations? Or perhaps because it is one of the most successful examples of a parliamentary democracy where the people have one of the highest levels of education amongst all nations? Or is it because Japan is considered to be a nation of strong mores, where traditional values and ethics rule the land?

Actually, all of the above make sense, but the most surprising reason is because Japanese Asian diplomacy is dictated by the big problem of the “Rachi Mondai”–the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Koreans. That the world does not understand how deeply offended Japanese are of this major North Korean crime makes headlines all the time. The desire to play victim can be seen in the reporting, in the politics, and in the untouchability of this issue. Any politician who does not give this issue top priority is considered ant-Japanese and anti-family. The six-party talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear program must always have an agenda for Japan to talk about their kidnapped citizens. The government even maintains a web-site “Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea.”

So how can a nation that is so sensitive about its citizens being kidnapped be so insensitive when it comes to its own citizens kidnapping children from another country?

The last few months have seen the country react to events in Senkaku, the Hoppo Ryodo (Northern Territories), Okinawa (Futenma airbase), TPP Trade Agreements (trans-Pacific Partnership), and North Korea with shock and dismay. The Democratic Party of Japan was roasted for surrendering to the Chinese on Senkaku. Leaked videos of the collision made matters worse. One prefecture has hi-jacked the entire topic of national security. A surprise visit to the Northern Islands by Russian President Medvedev started another cycle of angry calls from the nationalists. China making a surprise decision to join the TPP talks freaked out the Japanese government that now they have to be part of a process they had disavowed. And North Korea’s bombardment of South Korea triggered immediate angry reaction from Japan because they hold Japanese citizens hostage.

The key word is “react.” None of the above issues can be resolved overnight. And the word “National Interest” is thrown around, but means very little here.

I just completed a 40-day trip to Japan, spending time conducting training in business communications and negotiations. The feedback I get from participants uniformly state, “I learned so much about not focusing on ‘positions’ but rather on ‘interests’ when negotiating.”

Perhaps it is time that the leaders of the nation show an example. The first line uttered by a Japanese leader often has little to do with Japan’s national interest. Rather it is a strong reiteration of the country’s position. In other words, it’s always about “Please understand me!” It’s no coincidence that people who ask for others to understand them are the last ones to try understanding the other side.

Perhaps it is not surprising at all that Japan doesn’t want to sign the Hague Convention. But it is certainly disappointing.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

19 Years

December 4th, 2010

Two days ago, FIFA announced the sites for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The winners were Russia and Qatar. The unsuccessful bidders were many, but Japan stood out for me, mainly because I just returned from Tokyo on Monday and because of a memorable TV drama I had just witnessed while visiting.

Last week-end while busily packing my bags, I had a chance to watch a most riveting program on Japanese TV about a Japanese diplomat in Sweden, Kennichiro Nogami, who tried to secretly negotiate the end of WWII for his nation in 1945. Once his role was uncovered, he was viewed as a traitor and had to feign his own death in Europe to protect his wife and daughter in Japan. The story happens in 1964, 19 years after the end of the Pacific War as the Japanese would call it. Nogami returns to Japan in secret one last time to make peace with his choices, and to see his daughter.

My knowledge of Japanese history being so poor, I googled Kennichiro Noguchi, thinking I would find a deeply inspiring story of a patriot who defied the nation, someone who had the vision and courage to do what others were unwilling to do. Instead I found the story of Seicho Matsumoto, a famous writer who penned a best selling novel “Kyukei no Koya“.

So the whole TV program was fiction. But the setting was riveting. Only 19 years after the end of a most devastating war, Japan was reborn from ashes. In only 19 years, the nation went from utter ruins to the host of the first Modern Olympic Games in Asia. They built bullet trains and the tallest structure in the world at the time–the Tokyo Tower. Six years later, they hosted one of the most successful World Expos creating an attendance record broken only 40 years later by the Shanghai Expo.

The question that faced Nogami had always been–is this the Japan he dreamed of? And with the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the background, it was hard to argue that the traitor wasn’t actually the hero.

Back then, Japanese cars were still the laughing stock of the world. But they dreamed big dreams. People with names like Toyota and Honda and Matsushita were decades ahead of the competition in thinking global. Trading firms like Itochu, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo sent their “shosha-man” all over the world. People were unafraid. It was the era of hyper-growth.

As we approach 2011 and look back 19 years, we see a Japan that had found its bubble economy busted (1991-2). The economic engine based on manufacturing was robbed of its energy by the mirage of a booming real estate and financial sector economy. The next generation of leaders became a generation of followers, doing nothing to innovate, but more to milk the most out of the goodwill that their forefathers had created for them.

A succession of articles in the LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times about Japan’s demise and whether the US may follow got me to think… What will we say in 2030, 19 years from now. Will we look back and think of the lost opportunity because we forgot how to dream? Or will we dig ourselves out from the ruins to become a great nation once again?

In a sense, the US and Japan are now on the same boat… just 19 years apart. Both nations lost their bids for the Olympics and the World Cups for at least the next decade. Both nations face massive deficits. Both nations face a tremendous crisis in governance, as minority parties are digging in, creating legislative gridlock not seen in decades. The public is pessimistic. In America, we are asking whether the American Dream is no more. In Japan, they are asking whether there is anything to dream about, as they watch China soar past them.

I wonder what the next 19 years will bring.

Joseph Lee is an Adjunct Professor at the Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management where he teaches Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution.

Why Toy Story 3 Matters

July 14th, 2010

The summer movie season has opened in earnest. I have a 9-year old nephew visiting from Japan, so I get to watch a lot of kiddy movies (of course, that’s the excuse I’ll use when I waltz into the theater this week-end’s opening of Despicable Me.)

I do admit that I’m a movie fan (perhaps not a buff, since I don’t know all the details of who won what in which year). And I’m most definitely a fan of any film with a Pixar logo attached to it.

This summer’s Pixar blockbuster is Toy Story 3, the three-quel to the original Toy Story. Now, Toy Story and Toy Story 2 were not my favorite Pixar movies. I’d rate Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and last year’s UP! ahead, but this year’s Toy Story 3 shows why once again, Pixar always makes films that are relevant.

Toy Story 3 happens in a world where Andy is grown, ready to go to college, and must get rid of his old toys. He needs to make choices (sound familiar?) of which toy to keep, which ones to throw away, and which ones to give to charity. He makes a decision, but unfortunately, this is not executed properly (this sounds more and more like BP), and his toys all end up in a day care center.

Initially, the day care center seems like a dream world for the forsaken toys—children will play with them once again.. they will feel useful, again (sounds like workers who got outsourced, but then found a home at the outsourcing agency). But then, the toys face the stark reality that these children don’t love them, they just want to play with them, and rough (think strikes at Chinese factories).

And even in this world of spent toys, there’s a dark leader (Darth Vader in a Pink Bear costume), who just like the Star Wars version, was turned dark by circumstances beyond his control. The fearless leader, Woody (Tom Hanks’ voice), who is motivated to act by watching a little girl interact with and truly play with her toys (with love), performs feats of Xtra-Toy proportions to save the day.

But then, at the end, just as Andy’s Mom has to watch her son go, Andy also learns that true love is by letting his toys go, giving away even his fav… Woody to the little girl who teaches him that sometimes, the boss has to let his people grow up on their own.

Without focusing on the bad meaning of “letting go” (how did HR people come up with that one?), the movie was truly about the process of letting someone go. Andy’s Mom seeing her child grow up and going to college. Andy, seeing that his toys were needed more, not by him as a nostalgic momento, but by a little girl who would give Woody as much love as he did. And Wood and Buzz and all the toys, knowing that they had to let go of Andy and grow out of his wings so that they can find their own world, so that they can make other children happy, knowing full well that they had done their jobs.

Now, if that’s not how a boss and employee relationship should be like, I don’t know where you can find a better example.

In the book Innovating The Pixar Way, Ed Catmull, Pixar’s founder, thinks back of how he had lost his energy to do anything after the completion of the first Toy Story. His life work had been completed, and nothing more challenged him. But in the subsequent years, as he saw the Pixar creative talent battle with the corporate side of the business, he realized that he had a much more important mission—to create an environment where the next Toy Story can be made, over and over again.

That was how Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 came about. It was about American ingenuity, grit, hard work, talent, and persistence. It was about a bunch of people who got together and wanted to tell great stories. It was about co-workers who truly cared about each other, who openly critiqued each other’s work (and sought such critiquing), and who dared to do the simplest and hardest thing in Corporate America—being honest to each other.

Through that process, Ed created a company where “letting go” meant patting someone on the shoulder not to say, “I’m sorry, you’re gone,” but to praise, “Great Job. Now go out and make it on your own!”

Joseph Lee is an adjunct professor at the Graziadio School of Business and Management and Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He also teaches MBA courses in Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management. Joseph provides Leadership Communication training to global Japanese companies.

Four Lessons from JAL’s Bankruptcy

January 29th, 2010

On January 20, 2010, the New York Times and all major Japanese papers reported the bankruptcy filing of JAL (Japan Airlines). The crane that once symbolized Japan’s powerful national airline is no more. Not even privatization could help an airline run into the ground by arrogance and incompetence.

But this is actually old news—everyone knew this was coming. The activities of the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan (ETIC), a new government body “with broad powers and a five-year mandate to revitalize Japan’s ailing regional economies,” were being reported on in the media every day.

We knew that the old CEO was a goner when Kyocera Honorary Chairman Inamori, a well respected old-timer, was dragged out of retirement into the frenzy. The appointment was supposed to add credibility to the so-called management team.

Lesson 1: Getting Bill Gates to run a bankrupt United Airlines doesn’t make too much sense, does it?

Likewise, the government’s plan of slashing 15,700 employees, mothballing all of JAL’s 747’s, and drastically reducing the debt were, perhaps, necessary steps, but hardly the foundation of a successful enterprise. In fact, we have no idea what JAL will be doing to continue as a viable player in the airline community going forward.

JAL was going to “hold shareholders accountable” by wiping out the entire capital. The only problem was that a bunch of those shareholders were individuals whose worthless stock gave them the only thing that mattered to them—special discounts to fly JAL.

The ETIC was going to ask hard sacrifices from employees by eliminating a third of the work force. They could have saved even more money by eliminating 90% of the work force, but then there wouldn’t be enough people to wash the planes. Retirees were also arm-twisted into accepting sharp reductions in their pensions. By focusing so much on teaching existing stakeholders hard lessons, perhaps the ETIC forgot that it was turning the airlines biggest fans into, well, mere stakeholders.

Competitive Fall-Out
I’m sure Delta and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines are lobbying hard for JAL not to dump all the Asian routes so that the sky won’t fall off the Sky Team label. All Nippon Airways (ANA), which was lobbying for JAL’s “good routes,” immediately did the brotherly thing by issuing a press release announcing the unfairness of a rival carrier being propped up by government money without any accountability. But ANA should be happy that JAL is alive. Toyota found out the hard way that being number one is not a guarantee of profitability.

Lesson 2: Competition is always good—it keeps management on its toes.

In the world of corporate governance, we love to use the words transparency, accountability, and independence as if they are sacred. They’re like the holy grail, but better. The members of ETIC, all experts in their own right, reported back daily on what they were doing. They demanded that all those key words be satisfied. But perhaps they forgot what stood behind them—transparency is not a goal, and neither are accountability or independence.

Lesson 3: The goal should be for companies to have sound managers making sound business decisions for the benefit of its shareholders.

Soon, the Japanese tax payers will be the shareholders of the collapsing crane. The US bail-out of GM will look like an investment in gold compared to the deal that the folks in Japan will get.

Capitalism Always Wins

I wrote a novel 4 years ago about the Japanese airline industry except the roles were reversed: A US airline was failing and was rescued by a Japanese company. The plot revolved around a major US airbase being returned to Japan as part of a big conspiracy by two airlines to dominate the trans-Pacific routes. My publisher in Japan has now moved up the release date of the paperback version of my book a few months to capitalize on the excitement over JAL.

Lesson 4 (perhaps the greatest of them all): There’s always someone waiting in the wings to capitalize on other’s misfortunes.

This is a post from Joseph Lee’s posting on the Graziadio Business Report.

Joseph Lee is an adjunct professor at the Graziadio School of Business and Management and Peter Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. He will start teaching MBA courses in Business Communication and Negotiation/Conflict Resolution at Chuo University’s Graduate School of Strategic Management starting in April, 2010.