Toshinobu Kasai: Productivity matters: Davos perspectives on the future of work in Japan

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toshinobu-kasai-2The 47th World Economic Forum at Davos has officially kicked off. It’s exciting to see so many of the world’s leaders in action and hear their thoughts on a range of topics including the limitations of globalisation, and some that are particularly close to my heart: corporate responsibility and work culture.

In my previous blog entry, I introduced the idea of “hatarakikata kaikaku” or work-style reforms to boost productivity in Japan. This refers to Japanese corporate and governmental efforts to resolve the various problems underlying business culture in Japan, namely long hours.

I had a chance to chat more about this issue this morning at the Workplace Experience breakfast event organised by JLL. I pondered aloud the uniquely Japanese phenomenon of “service overtime” – whereby an employee willingly does overtime to provide a free service to his or her firm.
Enforcing unpaid overtime is prohibited in Japan, yet this practice is deeply entrenched. Peer pressure from superiors and other employees contribute to an atmosphere of invisible, but pervasive, obligation in Japan, Inc.

For instance, I recently read an article in the Nikkei, Japan’s flagship financial newspaper, that asserted that front-office people are often expected to fulfil “zatsumu” or “miscellaneous duties”, a set of responsibilities unrelated to their core job function. Similarly, there are a variety of internal social events held throughout the year that eat into company time. These are typically arranged by employees, making it challenging for them to focus completely on their core job responsibilities.

While I believe it is important for the government to address the issue of unjust overtime in the workplace, I also wonder if there might be other ways to alleviate these issues.

In the West, while employees also perform non-core duties, strategic outsourcing is normal practice for both core and non-core responsibilities. This enables employees to make the most of their expertise and professional knowledge by focusing on specific, specialised tasks. The majority of Japan Inc., however, still tends to carry out non-core services, such as corporate real estate, in-house.

I believe one significant reason for the productivity issues we face as a country is the misguided tendency to discourage external experts and to expect employees to provide services in-house, often at a high cost to their efficiency and productivity.

Changing and reducing this attitude of “in-sourcing” in Japanese companies and employees is one key area to look into in order to boost productivity in Japan.