If you’ve read Frontload to Offset Risk: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business and Smile! You're the Example: What Learning to Skydive in Japan Taught me about Japanese Business, you already know that my skydiving training in Japan focused on the process. That you would (or for 2 out of 3 – would not) eventually make a skydive, seemed incidental.
Having ritualized procedures etched in your head has its advantage during a malfunction when you need to respond instantly and perform emergency procedures quickly, smoothly, and without needing to stop and think.
Of course, if you’re faced with an unpredictable type of crisis, having learned a ritualized process does you no good at all and can, in fact, create paralysis. But that’s another matter…
It’s fairly predictable that if you do enough jumps, at some point the parachute will malfunction – or let’s say the jumper will malfunction because that’s usually the source of the problem. Every jumper packs his or her own parachute and a licensed rigger packs the reserve every year (now every 180 days).
Always trying to get as many jumps as possible in a weekend, skydivers pack as fast as they can between jumps. And for many Westerners, packing fast means a bit sloppy if it’s the difference between making the next jump load or not. Some, in fact, will finish packing in the plane and lots of jumpers average one malfunction per 100 jumps.
But not in Japan. We packed with ritualistic, origami-folding care, as though the point was to make each fold perfect, beautiful. In the U.S. the point was to get it done to squeeze in one more jump!
Hence, my third lesson for Japanese business.
Lesson number 3: If you disregard the ritual in Japan, be prepared to pay the price
At the foundation of Asian social and business philosophy is the conviction that by learning and practicing structured methods through endless repetition, you refine "A Way" of staying in perfect harmony and balance, able to perform with ritualistic concentration and consistency.
In business, it means that there are ritualized rules or procedures for almost everything. There’s 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 you go to lunch and when you return (many companies have a bell that rings to make sure everyone conforms to the ritual). There are rituals for every kind of meeting and greeting. Being casual about these things is seen as being boorish and unforgivably unpredictable.
As I progressed in my skydiving training, it was time to put it into practice. No, not by going for a skydive, but by being strung up on a 20-foot metal A-frame in jumpsuit, boots, helmet, goggles and gear. I swear the gear must have been US military issue because the GI-Joe-green pack on my back was bigger than my torso and the front-mount reserve took up most of my front giving me the charming appearance of a pregnant turtle.
Normally in Japan, everyone moves and progresses at the same pace. But since some students could only make the training once a week or once a month, we progressed (or not, as the case might be) at a different pace. Since I lived over 300 miles away in Kyoto, I took the two-week training straight through. Thus it happened that I had never seen this part of the training and had no idea what to expect.
First I needed to do ground practice of my arches (like a big “大” because you are the most stable falling with your center of gravity – your belly button – thrust forward and all the rest of your body flung as far back as possible). This is not so easy with a rigid WWII pack on your back.
Furthermore, I was now also supposed to look at the ripcord and pull it without losing my arch. It was a dummy ripcord so I could practice over and over.
One cardinal rule my jumpmaster kept pounding in was, “Don’t drop the ripcord!” I don’t know if this was because ripcords weren’t cheap or because they thought it might fall on someone’s head, but it was part of the never-to-be-broken ritual. During a jump, once the parachute inspection substantiated the canopy had inflated, the ripcord was to be placed safely inside the jumpsuit.
Over and over I did my inverted turtle arches, yelled the count to four, pulled the ripcord, inspected the imaginary canopy while bellowing the checkpoints, determined my make-believe parachute had a malfunction and went through the emergency course procedures shouting each detail of the ritual as I did so.
Finally it was time to practice dangling like a horizontal puppet 20 feet off the ground. No problem. I had repeated this ritual 100 times a day for the past 14 days.
On command from the jumpmaster I did a hard arch, loudly counted to four, pulled the ripcord and (gasp – nobody told me!) instantly fell out of the sky, finding myself vertically suspended two feet from the earth, the chest strap strangling me, and the ripcord flying from my hand.
In a state of shock, barely able to breathe from the chest strap threatening to separate my head from the rest of my body, I nevertheless, somehow, miraculously managed to go through emergency procedures without a flaw.
When I was done, the jumpmaster silently walked over and picked up the ripcord, slowly marched over to me and shook it in front of my face. “YOU DROPPED THE RIPCORD! YOU DROPPED THE RIPCORD!” he thundered.
Yeah, fatal mistake. I dropped the ripcord.
Clearly I had lost the Zen moment by my blatant disregard for the ritual.
Taking your business lessons from different activities in a culture, make memorable stories. What are some of yours?