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Order, Structure, Rules

on . TPL_WARP_PUBLISH . Posted in Blog.

Michele Gelfand, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, along with a large group of international colleagues did an extensive survey across 33 of the most developed nations to determine their attitudes toward rules. The scale ranked them from “tight,” where rules were plentiful and adherence was strictly enforced, to “loose,” where rules were more relaxed, and departure from the rules more tolerated. As you might expect, Japan ranked high on the “tight” side of the scale. One of the most interesting things about the study was the finding that you could predict where a country would fall on the scale today based on the population density in the year 1500 - so it might help to think of this as a natural consequence of lots of people living in a tight space. Under those circumstances, it's probably better to cut the chaos as much as possible!

The upside to tight rules and ritualized procedures is you have a country that, for the most part, is safe and clean, where the trains run on time to the second, and many aspects of daily living are predictable; a country where evacuees who had lost everything in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami could organize themselves into a small working community living in a junior high school gymnasium within just two weeks.  (The 1,000 newly homeless slept like sardines on a spotless gym floor, where even slippers were not worn, and organized into on-the-spot "neighborhoods" with bins for recycling, a box for charged free cell phones, neatly folded and sorted donations, not to mention a volunteer laundry service provided by the teenagers, free dental services by dentists who had lost their offices, and complimentary haircuts.)

For an example of how structure and order are used to organize visitors to the Comiket (comic) Convention in Japan, which hosted 560,000 people over 3 days, watch this short time lapse video. Note that in spite of extensive wait times, unwritten rules ensure that this young crowd, the size of a decent city, leaves no waste behind in the waiting block.

The downside to it is that there are rigid rules and rituals for almost everything. There is a set protocol for dealing with customers (from what you say to how you handle and package their goods) that does not deviate from a high class department store to a neighborhood shop. There are rules that govern when one goes to lunch and when one returns (many companies have a bell that rings to make sure everyone conforms to the ritual). There are rituals for every kind of meeting, defining who enters first, where each person sits, who takes the first sip of tea, and so on. Being casual about these things is seen as being boorish and unforgivably unpredictable.

This can create problems if you want to suggest a more efficient way of doing something. If the procedures say you take steps 1, 2, and 3, before doing 4, that’s the way it has to be done, and they’re not going to change it without first doing an analysis, a trial, and then a full procedural change where all documentation of the process is altered. Proposing something that requires flexibility will usually be met with dismay and insistence that it must be preplanned from A-Z.

What you can do:

•    Be careful that you don't cut corners just because the assignment seems dumb – it may be a test.

•    If you're a person who doesn't like structure, imagine it's a game. All games have rules, and if you're not willing to follow the rules, you can't play.

•    Find a mentor who is willing to teach you the rules and the loopholes.

•    Remember, every country follows certain customs “just because that's the way it's always been done,” not because there's a rational, up-to-date reason for it.

By Diana Rowland
For more, please see my e-Book, Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement


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