We are all impacted by the culture we both come from and exist in. In which country and in what class we were raised in has a major impact on our responses to certain situations. We are all influenced by our history. Englishmen view the world in a different way than Frenchmen. Similarly where we work and to what we aspire also have key impacts on our actions.
Cultural traditions can provide both strengths, and weaknesses. They are a strength when they provide unspoken bonds to others of the same heritage and guidance in how to respond in given circumstances. They are a weakness in that they make us predictable. Traditions not only bind us; they can also blind us. They can limit our options and restrict our flexibility.
During WWII the Japanese tradition of Bushido initially led them to victory after victory, but, as the Allies held them and then started to reverse their conquests, it became a major handicap as futile suicidal mass charges led to a senseless waste of life. Further it led to the horrific treatment of prisoners of war. These were not isolated incidents that can occur in any conflict, they were a systemic process arising from their cultural heritage.
Similarly racist attitudes on the part of the British and Americans led them to underestimate the fighting qualities of Asians in general and the Japanese in particular: A bloody lesson that the western powers had to re-learn, over, and over again, in both Korea and Vietnam.
In business it applied to many manufacturing industry sectors. The prime example is the motor cycling sector. In the fifties western manufacturers, Triumph, BSA, Vincent, Ariel, Indian ruled the roost. They viewed Japanese manufacturers as mere copycat companies. Sir Bernard Docker, the chairman of BSA, then the largest British manufacturer, preferred to invest company money in government bonds rather than in modernizing his factories and products. Why? Because he was a financier and believed he could only get the return he need from bonds. The rest, as they say, is history. Now it’s Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki that rule the roost. The British and American cultural tradition blinded them to the threat, and they never found away to combat it.
The concept of total quality and manufacturing practices developed by Japanese industry is another clear example of cultural heritage. American and British companies traditionally under valued the training of their workers. It was seen as a temporary need at best, and an unnecessary cost in general. So training employees in statistical process control and other tools was deemed as ‘nice to have’, but not really essential. In many cases they wouldn’t even try to train them on new manufacturing equipment.
Two examples will suffice. In the early 80’s a trade delegation from Britain visited Japan and were given an extensive tour of the latest factories and demonstrations of the most effective techniques. Nothing was hidden, their hosts were only too proud to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise. At the end of the trip a reception was held at the British Embassy in Tokyo. During the festivities a group of British delegates took a Japanese expert to one side and asked him directly, ‘Why are you showing us all your secrets?” His answer was direct and revealing, ‘Because you will not use it!’ And in the main he was right. It took decades for British industry to loosen it cultural traditions about employee training and empowerment. And they still haven’t really shed them.
The other example concerns the different attitudes to training exhibited between British and German companies when training shop floor workers on new equipment. The British attitude was to make the training as brief as possible in order to keep costs to a minimum. The German approach was to give as comprehensive training as was available. Why was that? The answer was, ‘Because anyone can purchase this equipment, the advantage goes to those who can use it best!’
So, cultural traditions and mind sets are as important in business as in other walks of life. Understand and explore both your opponents and your own. Look for blind spots and then exploit or minimize them.