Apply the Japanese 根回し’Nemawashi’ technique and get change right in one go

Nemawashi is a Japanese phrase translating to ” an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth. ”

After a long stressful day you turn on the light in your house to unexpectedly find your friends cheering ‘Surprise!’ waving happy birthday streamers in your face.

After the day you have had, perhaps your reaction would be one of “oh no” vs. “fantastic!” After actively suppressing your initial fight, flight or freeze reaction you might re-gain your composure and be able to conjure up a fake smile until the real positive emotion ensues hours later.

Lesson - People don’t react predictably to surprises!

Let’s translate this to a more business like context;

“Dear valued reports. Unbeknownst to you, we have been working really hard with external consultants to come up with solutions to challenges we neglected to make you aware of. Please believe us that that downsizing / outsourcing / reorganization / merger / Process change etc. is the only solution to these challenges.

How this message is perceived by employees “We won’t justify why we didn’t invite you into our decision making process even though we lead you to believe we recruited you for your skill as a professional decision maker and problem solver.”

In addition - We’ll also not be addressing the fact that you might be feeling undervalued and not worthy of our trust, but we want you to trust us anyway and remain motivated. Please don’t feel betrayed we need your commitment and motivation to help us bring about the change we designed for you without consulting you.

‘Surprise!’

I often wonder why IT leadership is so reluctant to give up this ‘surprise!’ based change tactic, as the results are inevitably always the same:

  •  Breach of trust
  •  Massive resistance
  • Downstream fall-out for many years post change.

There MUST be a better way to manage change.

Enter Japanese Nemawashi

Over the past decades the west has made giant strides in Quality improvement by adopting Japanese quality improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma, The Toyota production system and Lean principles. These can be applied to building cars, running an airline but also the services industry like IT.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work in Japan and learn first hand how the Japanese apply these proven concepts within their own context.

I was working with a large American insurance company assisting with the roll-out of several global ITIL based ITSM processes and new ITSM tooling, in tandem with centralizing the Japanese helpdesk. All of these elements were significant changes.

The Global organization chose a change approach, which would result in the Japanese subsidiary using the global service management tool within a few months, with the expectation that the Japanese organization would deal with any of the “dust” from the initial rollout.

Though we succeeded in getting the project ‘out of the gates’ on time, it became clear that our approach clashed with the Japanese way of implementing change.

We were nearly overwhelmed with request for more detail and concerns for customers at launch date.

Imbedded in Japanese Quality culture is the esthetic beauty of finding the ‘best’ way to do something and getting it ‘right in one go’, which means spending much more time planning and designing the change; getting everyone involved, enabling people to understand and buy-in to the ‘why?’. The results are that costly unbudgeted rework cost after launch is entirely avoided and customers are happy.

They know that rework is nine times more expensive than getting it right in one go.

Though Japanese have the reputation for being very hierarchical in their culture.  I learned that in Japan imposing your will on others without proper justification and thought out plans is considered ‘heavy handed’ or‘poor style’.

The risk of disappointing valued customers must be avoided at all cost, as it holds the risk of inducing ‘shame’ too.

The Japanese leadership meeting:

We were in a meeting, discussing project milestones, and trying to understand the subtle word play through a headset provided by the real time Japanese-English translators.

I was already made aware that jokes and other frivolous conversation was not considered respectful in Japanese meeting culture so I was actually shocked to see one of the managers actually sleeping upright in his chair while the CIO was making his point. I already had gotten used to seeing many Japanese taking power naps in their cubicles during lunch breaks but sleeping during important meetings? Surely this was unacceptable behavior by any standards?

Yet it was apparent to me that this behavior did not raise any eyebrows.

How could this be?

After the meeting I quizzed my American-Japanese colleague on the situation.

Initially he didn’t understand my concern, but once pressed, he explained that in japan many decisions are actually taken informally before the meetingthe meeting even starts by ‘Nemawashi’ consensus. Meetings are to confirm course of action, not a means to explore courses of action.
Thus the Japanese avoid the risk of ‘surprises’ causing resistance to change by applying a rigorous process of socialization at all levels within the organization. 

All parties are consulted and treated with respect to the valuable role they play in making customers happy.

This applies specifically to operational departments, as they are on the hook to actually provide the customer with a great experience and getting it right in one go.

So how can you directly start benefiting from ‘Nemawashi’?

  •  Include all people involved in the change. Nemawashi is not just for management consensus; it’s for operational consensus.
  • People are less likely to resist an idea they have helped define.
  • Don’t define the solution for people; encourage people to come up with solutions. You might not be able to control the outcome as much as you’d like, but you can be reap the rewards of improved adoption and performance and find people more willing to work with you instead of against you in future.
  • To identify issues and concerns, don’t rely on formal group meetings only; employees are often not comfortable speaking their mind in front of others.
  • Spend more time in one on ones and informal settings to really understand concerns, show up at the coffee machine and start socializing the problem instead of the solution before decision making.
  • Have you thought of reaching your modern problem solvers through social media? What better way to do Nemawashi than using an informal communication channel to socialize change?
  • It takes a lot of time for people to internalize the fact that there actually is a problem worth fixing, or that not changing is not an option. Only when this realization has fully taken root, will you be able to move forward.
  • Be patient! Don’t fall for the ‘we don’t have time to explain why’ trap. This short cut does not work!
  • Employees aren’t stupid; they always know that ‘something is going on’. Even complete radio silence is broadcasting a loud and clear message. lt gives rise to a wildfire of negative speculations. If you have a dialog with your people at least you have a level of control over unfounded rumors, speculations and assumptions.
  •  Leverage Nemawashi during the project-planning phase, once the project gets underway it is often too late to deal with resistance and valid concerns.
  • Double the time preparing for change and quadruple your success rate. It pays off!
  • Once you have broken people’s trust by shutting them out of the decision process, anything you will try to do to diffuse the situation after the fact will be considered suspect.
  • Give up the WWII ‘Loose lips, sink ships’ military style secrecy. Your employees are not soldiers, the professionals you have recruited are good because they challenge, question and innovate, they do not do well in a military hierarchy.

So I invite you to start using Nemawashi as a valid and powerful change management tool. Don’t ignore or underestimate the power of the grapevine but actively use it to gauge buy-in and identify implementation risks! It will be one of your most important change management tools!

Informal socialization is incredibly powerful, leverage Nemawashi or find yourself dealing with the fall out of broken trust, which will haunt and threaten the success of all your initiatives for years to come.

Would you agree?

PS: As a final note;

If you agree with this article but find yourself concluding that ‘Nemawashi won’t work in your company’, it might be you who is resistant to change. Try using Nemawashi to find out if your assumptions are correct ;-)

Paul Vos
- Sr. IT Service and Change Management Consultant