Working within the box and out of the box

Posted by mari on June 17th, 2008

Courtesy of NPRDennis has just blogged about Tim Kane’s observation when he first visited Japan in the 1980s-where he encountered a humbly equipped man sweeping the tarmac at Narita airport as if his life depended on it. Kane linked it to the overwhelming ratio of perspiration v. genius that adds up to excellence.

There’s something else there though. It’s symptomatic of how intensely Japanese individuals and organizations have come to focus on discovering value within their constraints. Toyota’s continuous reform (kaizen) program is justly famous for the way they look at change as a continuous stream, but a lot less is said about the implicit mindset that allows for what feeds that continuous stream. It’s the idea of working your framework so intensely and carefully and allowing the individual changes combine and “re” form the whole until you’ve eventually got a different box. But you didn’t start out insisting on getting out the box. In fact, it comes from a culturally mandated willingness to focus intensely on where you are and what you have. (The flip side of course, is that it can drive you mad to be so constrained, but more on that another time.)

What I was saying about the incredible Tokyo discipline to obey what can seem like a pettifogging rule of standing on the left is, I’m convinced, part of the same phenomenon-everyone is intent on getting the most out of every frigging commuting minute. It just wouldn’t happen that way otherwise. Same reason Japanese geeks are the most intense geeks anywhere. Or why Japanese classical concertgoers bring sheet music to performances. And why I am currently obsessed with us doing a better job facilitating the exchange when our project leaders can convey to donors the sense of incredible value and adventure that every project on our site represents. Here’s just a hint of what donors say when when the value gets uncovered. (It’s also why I try to wash and reuse our ziploc bags. It just seems un-Japanese not to.)

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