In the U.S. time is money, so if a small error is made at work, or a minor miscalculation, oftentimes, it’s easier and more cost-effective to move on without investigating what went wrong. If it’s inefficient to struggle through troubleshooting, or if it costs more money than the problem is worth, we typically brush it off.
The same philosophy does not apply in Japan, especially in business. In Japan, if you make a mistake, the mentality is to investigate and learn from the mistake, regardless of its magnitude. The time it takes to figure it out may cost more than the actual mistake itself, but the Japanese place a high value on reducing errors and inefficient processes.
For example, in a retail store, if there is one dollar missing in the cashier’s drawer, many retailers here would say, “Don’t make the same mistake,” and move on. Because it would cost the business more than that missing dollar to figure out what went wrong. This is assuming the mistake won’t likely be repeated. But in Japan, although the cost to figure out a 100 yen (or one dollar) shortfall in the drawer may cost the company way more than 100 yen to figure out, it’s important this mistake is analyzed, learned from, and the process improved.
An improved process eliminates what the Japanese call “muda,” meaning “uselessness, futility, wastefulness,” and many companies, including Toyota’s well-known Total Production System (TPS), have adapted to a management system that eliminates such muda. The idea is for a streamlined process that eliminates any obstacles getting in the way of progress.
In the end, how you view muda is based on your own business values and processes. When working with international business partners, however, it’s best to keep an open mind. After all, my way of doing things is not the only way, and your way will probably be very different. But if we can respect each other’s unique process, observe and learn from each other, we’ll be a lot better off in our business relationships.