If you’re a Western consultant planning an engagement in Japan, or for Japanese clients, you might find a change of attitude and approach are in order.Stephen Redwood, a partner and consultant with PwC Consulting, recently worked with a team of Japanese consultants on a three-year project. He shared his reflections on the differences between the Western and Japanese approach to consulting in an interview with TechRepublic.

The major difference he found was the Japanese consensus-building approach, which differs greatly from the piecemeal style of Western counterparts. The Japanese term for the concept of consensus building is “nemawashi,” which literally means “root binding.”

“It’s literally that.” Redwood said. “It’s how you go about binding all the roots together so they grow in one direction.”

Here are some of Redwood’s reflections on Japanese problem solving, what he’s learned from his experience, and how it’s changed his approach to consulting.

East meets West
No stranger to globetrotting, Redwood has lived in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. He speaks German and some Japanese. In 1998, PwC asked him to go to Japan to head up its Strategic Change practice, which assists companies with strategy development, implementation of new organizational models, and the design and implementation of change programs. Once there, Redwood said the cultural differences were obvious.

For example, as he worked on projects with his Japanese coworkers, Redwood noticed a radical difference in the way they approached the problems at hand. Typically, American consultants divide the work among many consultants, going off on their own and coming back together with separate pieces to the puzzle, he said.

“The Japanese consultants tend to submerge themselves in a huge amount of data and look for patterns and insights,” Redwood said. “After that, they distill a few truths.”

Redwood said the consensus-building approach is also apparent in the way Japanese clients look at assignments. In both Europe and America, for example, clients will tend to pick a few problems and see linkages, solving multiple problems at a time.

“In Japan, they’re more likely to say, ‘What is the biggest problem we can clearly define,’ and then act on that, and then move on to the next problem that highlights,” he said.

Tension on the team
As an example of how these different approaches can cause strained relations, Redwood talked about a consulting project he worked on in which both the consultant and client sides were mixed teams of Westerners and Japanese.

“The Japanese team would want to spend a lot of time collecting data and discussing it as a whole team to arrive at a consensus about what the issues were,” he said. “The Westerners wanted to chop up the work amongst themselves, then come together and share the results.”

Within the client organization, the local executive was more comfortable with the Japanese consensus-building approach and was resistant to the Westerners’ fast-driving, quick-change approach, Redwood said. Meanwhile, the executive’s boss, who worked elsewhere in Asia Pacific, “really wanted to push things forward very quickly,” he said. “We had to find a middle road.”

“Westerners are very action-oriented and want to get on with things sometimes before they’ve thought them through properly,” Redwood said. “In Japan, it’s very important that you don’t take a big action until you’ve got the consensus of all the people that will be affected by it.”

The benefit to this system is that when you’re ready to take action, you can do so very quickly because your project team is on board, Redwood said. “You can be a lot more confident that the change will stick.”

Changed by the experience
Redwood said his experiences in Japan have changed him in many ways. He said he finds himself much more tolerant of differences in approach and has learned to take time to listen before jumping in with his own ideas.

He said Americans have a tendency to interact by talking “across one another,” and to implement changes using power and position. He said his experiences in the Japanese culture have shown him the power of consensus building.

“If you get everyone on board, you’re much more likely to get changes to stick,” Redwood said. “Very often in the West, we try and drive through changes by using position and power, and quite often they founder in the later stages because nobody’s listening to you.”

Overall, Redwood said he thinks he’s become more adaptable in his approach to solving problems and dealing with others. While people are the same in terms of their basic needs and the politics of organizations, the way in which people interact with one another is quite different, Redwood said.

“[Japanese] people know that the people who run the company really do want to try and keep them employed and have a sense of responsibility to them,” Redwood said. “In turn, the employees…work astonishing, prodigious hours and really do sacrifice themselves for the cause.”

Redwood said the reason for this sense of obligation and responsibility stems from the Japanese concept of “uchi,” which means home or family. For the Japanese, the term “family” extends beyond the American use of the word.

“It’s like a series of expanding concentric rings,” Redwood said. “First comes family, then employers and friends. The extent to which you are part of a family of people determines the extent of obligation you have to one another.”

Have you experienced culture shock?

Have you consulted for a foreign firm and suffered misunderstandings or stress due to differing methodologies? Have you implemented changes in your approach after you learned something from a foreign culture? Send us an e-mail detailing your experience or discuss it with your colleagues below.