Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Samurai and Mr. Customer


Bustling train stations, white gloved taxi drivers, towering skyscrapers, neon nightlights, steaming bowls of noodles and beautifully arrayed bento boxes - these are some of the images that the latest group of Japan lean tour participants experienced last month. And on every tour I’ve taken for the last 10 years, participants always comment on the level of customer service in Japan. With nodding approval and delight, they remark on the consistency and excellence of this service and how surprised they are, that even at 7-11 type convenience stores they experience what they would normally expect from higher end stores. To gain some insight into why the Japanese extend such exceptional courtesy to customers we need to take a closer look at the country’s geography and history.

Japan is an island country of approximately 144,000 miles making it smaller than the state of California. It is extremely mountainous with the highest point being the dormant volcano, Mt. Fuji, at over 12,000 feet. Japan’s mountainous and rugged beauty comes at a cost - less than 20 % of the land is arable.


In ancient times, war played a central role in Japan with warring clans controlling much of the country. Clans were made up of related families and heading up each clan was a chief. Wars between clans were often fought over land. These wars eventually gave rise to a hierarchical structure in the country with two main groups – an elite military samurai ruling class and the common people.

The samurai were expected to lead lives according to a strict set of behaviors known as Bushido (the way of the warrior). Confucian in nature, this code stressed strong loyalty to a master, self-discipline, respect and ethical behavior.

The samurai class established the etiquette standards for the country and also enforced them. People at all levels of the hierarchical structure were conditioned to treat their superiors with extreme deference. Down through the generations, “proper behavior” and a high degree of courtesy and respect gave rise to the Japan we know today. Even the language of the country developed to comply with the etiquette standards. Although times have changed and many elderly Japanese might lament that their society is no longer what it used to be, relatively speaking we note the strong sense of loyalty that workers have to employers, the respect that students have for their teachers, the respect that people have for the elderly and the pressure on children to excel in order to honor their families.


It is from this historical, hierarchical past that the concept of okyuaku-san – the Honored Customer, arises. The “san” adds a degree of respect and politeness, emphasizing the fact that the Japanese have traditionally treated their customers as honored guests who merit a superior level of service.

To put this in perspective, consider that manuals are developed and given to new trainees in department stores to ensure a certain level of excellence and consistency. These manuals prescribe everything a new recruit needs to know from how to smile and look at the customer to how low they should bow when handing over that happy purchase! In a sense we can think of the lean SOPs we develop in our companies as one way of maintaining these levels of excellence for our own okyuaku-san.

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