How Japanese Managers Work With Their Staff

Mr. Hiromasa Suzuki
Emeritus Professor, Waseda University
Associated researcher at IDHE-ENS-Cachan, France Fellow Researcher


The relation between managers and their staff reflects the tradition of human relations in one particular enterprise and it may differ from an authoritarian one, where a boss decides all important matters to a collaborative one, in which the boss and staff work as a collaborative team. In Japan, large bureaucratic organizations like banks and insurance tend to adopt a hierarchical structure based on responsibility. In contrast, innovative enterprises are likely to adopt a rather collaborative relation between a boss and his staff workers. Historically, a well-known example of collaborative relation is illustrated by the beginning of ‘Toyota production system’. In the 1950’s, Toyota was a small enterprise lacking capital and technology, compared to American giants, GM and Ford. One of the major breakthroughs for Toyota came from the fact that production line workers were given the possibility to stop the line whenever they found defective parts. The logic of the top engineer of Toyota, T.Ohno, was that in order to eliminate any defect product, one should identify the cause of defect parts as early as possible. Workers on production line were the first to observe any anomaly in parts supplied by subcontractors. Therefore, workers on production line should be trained to discover any anomaly or defect product. In other words, workers became collaborators. In the heydays of American mass-production system, workers were simple muscles needed to execute determined tasks and all thinking functions were entrusted to the engineering department.


This tradition of team work is an essential part of the Japanese style of management. At the top, most strategic decisions are taken by a kind of consensus among all departments concerned. In a similar way, middle managers have not only to carry out the objective that the top management has fixed but also have to be initiators of proposals based on the problems or findings of day-to-day operations to the top management. That is, middle managers have two hats: one is a management function entrusted by the top management and the second one is being the captain of the team. This management structure is far from prevalent in Western government structures where top management decides all strategic options often based on financial results only.


In Japanese enterprises, the closeness between managers and staff workers is the key to team work: in fact, they often share similar educational qualifications but a different experience. Moreover, pay difference is very narrow in Japan. Such team work would be difficult to envisage in countries where there is vast social and economic differences between managers and staff workers.

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