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Frontload to Offset Risk: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business

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Skydiving in Japan and Business

In 1976 I was living in Japan and decided to take up skydiving. I had already been in Japan for five years and had spent the previous three years traveling in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India. Somewhere along the way I developed a longing to jump out of planes - yes, even perfectly good ones.

Kyoto, where I lived, was not exactly a hotbed of skydiving. For that matter, it hadn't yet become much of a sport anywhere. Most of us were making our first 50 jumps with leftover equipment from WWII.  It took me five years, but I eventually found a skydiving club near Tokyo (yep, things took a lot longer before the internet).

I was the first foreigner and one of the very few females in the club.  Our instructor was a Japanese Self Defense Forces Sergeant who spoke no English. (I would say that is when my Japanese really jelled…)

Japanese culture permeated the training, and the lessons I learned then can be applied to aspects of Japanese business style now.

Take for example the time and finances required for the training.  At that time, for $25 (equal to about $115 today) and a half-hour training, you could make a jump in the U.S.  Do a dozen PLFs (parachute landing falls) and up you go.

Not, not so in Japan. The cost was $325 ($1,500 in today's dollars) and a minimum of two weeks training.  I say minimum because no one jumped until they had passed the incredibly arduous test and two out of every three would-be-skydivers quit, forfeiting their $1,500 without ever jumping, because the training was too stenuous.

Thus my first lesson.

Lesson 1: Invest in minimizing risk upfront, later you'll be glad you did.  

The higher the risk, the more important it is to mitigate the possibility of trouble.  Skydiving isn't exactly a low risk sport.  In fact, it can be very unforgiving.  But so can business decisions.

I'm one of the few jumpers I know with over 1,200 jumps who has never been hurt (or died) skydiving. Every time I see someone break a limb (or worse) I thank my semi-sadistic Japanese jumpmaster for the grueling training.  It was a sweaty, exhausting, boot camp hell in that hot humid summer, doing hundreds of PLFs off a six foot platform until they were absolutely automatic.  Likewise with making emergency procedures routine, screaming each point at the at the top of my lungs: "Santai tenken. San kosho!" ("Parachute inspection. Canopy malfunction!") followed by mock pulling of the belly mount reserve ripcord and punching out the reserve. (Like in Japanese martial arts, every point of the ritual procedure was accompanied by a short, crisp verbal bellow from the belly of the movement.)

So, two (or more) weeks of Japanese hell vs. 30 minutes of U.S.-style prep did what for me?  There's no way of knowing what might have happened if I hadn't been so well trained, but what I can say is that if something had happened, the consequences could have been dire.

Likewise, Japanese take a lot of upfront time to make decisions, analyzing consequences from every angle until it almost becomes analysis paralysis by U.S. standards.  The upfront investment of time and labor can be immense. But if things don't go as expected, they know the cost could be disastrous – especially in the unforgiving business society of Japan.

Once we've set our mind to it and we've come all the way to the drop zone, we all want to make that adrenalin leap, feel the wind in our face, and go home proud to be a "Can Do" person.  But do we really have to jump today? Or years later will we be glad we did the rigorous work to alleviate risk?

Learning to jump in Japan taught me to be an obsessive preparation freak.  I'm sure it drives my co-trainers crazy.  But my philosophy is that if you've looked at all the angles, and over-prepared for every contingency, well, then the sky's the limit…

What do you think?

By Diana K. Rowland


Read Part 2:Smile! You're the Example:  What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business

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