Why there is so much talk about Far Eastern philosophy in project management

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Categories: Modern PM, Philosophy


Kanban, Kaizen, Kaikaku, Gemba, Muda, Heijunka, Jidoka, Genchi Gembutsu. Why are so many recent project management buzzwords of Southeast Asian origin? A trend? Of course, yes. But there is more to it than just that.

It used to be that way before. In the 1980s. The older ones can (hopefully) remember. Those who feel old, like me, have experienced the aftereffects of it during their early years. And the millennials among us may know one or the other story. In those years Japanese culture was a huge trend. Why? Japanese producers suddenly were far superior to the western ones in terms of throughput, time-to-market and just-in-time. So much so that at some point even Michael Crichton wrote a book about it. Rising Sun, 1992. (And no, it's not really good.)

And what do throughput, time-to-market, and just-in-time have to do with philosophy?

Let us talk about the mother of all this success. And the mother was two fathers: Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno. The two have devised and developed the Toyota Production System. Lean Manufacturing has grown from this, which brings us to Kanban via Lean Management. And this Toyota Production System is not a framework, as PMBOK is, for example, but a so-called socio-technical system. So much more than just a guide. After all, the main work of Ohno has the subtitle Beyond Large-Scale Production.

By the way, if any of you get their hands on "Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production": be sure to read it! In contrast to Rising Sun, it is really good in my eyes.

Let us take a closer look at a few of those buzzwords

Behind the Toyota Production System, we can find a pretty simple philosophy and mindset. The most famous aspect of it is certainly Muda: the pointless activity, the waste. It is important to avoid it. And as so often: yes, of course, it is. Logically. Unfortunately, it is happening far too rare.
I often experience that much attention is paid to the introduction of processes that should prevent Muda. This is usually not necessary if I pay attention to avoiding the other two points:

  1. Muri, the unreasonableness, and
  2. Mura, the inconsistency.

This means that I constantly observe my processes, my entire system and adapt if necessary. And not just me, but all members of an organization, all employees of a company. So this includes flexibility into the system at all levels and - above all - in all places.

And how about "western" culture?

Here it is always the one big hero who saves the day (or the project). Even from the beginning of Western culture: Homer.
A competitor (Troy) goes through changes (robbery of the beautiful Helena) and threatens our own organization (the Greek city-states). A big change project is planned (soldiers are recruited, warships are built) and carried out (years of the siege of Troy). However, the competitor is steadfast and your own company is heading towards a solid crisis. Appearance of the great hero (Odysseus), who can turn things around with a heroic hero-deed (the Trojan Horse). The own organization is saved, the project team is disbanded, the hero pilgrimages a bit through the departments (Odysseus' Odyssey), but on the whole, everything is peaceful and quiet again. The good, old daily business.

And in the 1970s and 1980s, the corporate world looked exactly like this. For most of the time, everything went its usual course of events. Every few years, change was necessary. A big step. And most of the time this one step was a single achievement of legendary project managers. And in those times that was more than enough. Today the world looks different (I know, you all know this). Because some organizations have come to the conclusion that the ones who change fast and more consistently have a competitive advantage. And the tools that have been added to our tool case since the 1990s (keyword digitization) also support this faster and more constant change.

Back to the East

In Far Eastern cultures, things are seen differently. There is this famous study by Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, in which they showed Japanese and Americans short sequences of an underwater film and asked them what they had seen. The Americans described primarily larger, foreground objects, while the Japanese had mostly the big picture in view.
The same Nisbett also has studied with Hannah Faye Chua, whereupon Americans and Chinese turn their eyes when they are shown a picture. I know you guessed it already: the former immediately focused on the primary object, the second let their eyes wander over the whole picture.
And then there is the study with the picture taking. The participants should take a picture of a person. Westerners zoomed in on the face, Southeast Asians photographed the whole person in their environment.

By the way, you can find the article by Richard E. Nisbett on those studies mentioned above here: https://www.pnas.org/content/100/19/11163 - Copyright 2003 National Academy of Sciences.

And I do not want to philosophize about what that says, but I am driving at a very simple fact here: seen from the perspective of project management, in a world where things are changing ever faster and more profoundly - that is, in our world today - such an approach is a huge competitive advantage.

And what now?

Does that mean Far Eastern philosophies and approaches are better suited to project management than our Western ones? No. Yes. Yes and no. (Jein, as we say in Austria - a frankenword of Ja and Nein.) What does "better" mean from a project management perspective? A better framework is a more successful framework. And in our case, philosophies, attitudes, thinking is nothing more than frameworks. My two cents. And in our times when things are changing constantly and, most importantly, fast, frameworks that have that change inside their DNA and so can use that change for leveraging, are certainly the right thing for project management. Or what do you think?

Pictures from Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash resp. The National Academy of Sciences / Richard E. Nisbett.

Posted on: June 22, 2019 06:38 AM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Amazing ! I truly believe frameworks with change in their DNA while focusing on the bigger picture is more relevant in the current times

Priya, thanks a lot! Yes, in my opinion, those frameworks are more successful.

very good

We can't talk about the emergence of TPS without mentioning Deming.
I don't think that proves anything, but perhaps we could say that the best systems will borrow from any culture.

Wade, you are right. Deming is kind of a link between those two areas. Especially, when it comes to quality. Good thought, thanks for the input!
I think, the best systems avoid being religious.

Would this be related or similar in nature to something along the lines of "Thinking in Systems" (i.e. Donella Meadows and the like)?

Stimulating article! I've order a copy of Taiichi Ohno's book to learn further. Thanks!

Mark, this is something that I had not on my radar when writing this. Thanks for pointing that out! I've ordered a copy of "Thinking in Systems" :) I think this is definitely related to a system approach, yes.
And thanks for your kind words!

On a cautionary note; another aspect of Japanese culture that has infiltrated the project mindset is "Karoshi" - translated as "worked to death". In fact, many scholars have tied "lean production" to the rise of Karoshi in culture (starting from the late 70’s).

You don’t hear this term used that often, as it is obviously not a positive term or concept to digest. However, we all know the project mindset, "do whatever it takes to get the job done." There is a balance that must be found, and there is always a hidden cost to any philosophy that breeds lower cost and higher productivity.

Food for thought.

George, thanks for your comment! Excellent thought! I have made the experience, that "agile" in Eastern countries (like you said, do what is needed to get the job done) and "agile" in the US are two completely different things. And the different habits (and laws) regarding work hours are a part of this I guess.
Here in Europe most countries have 40 hour-weeks. And yes, overtime is common, but all in all this is not that much a topic here.

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