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A culturally attuned approach is required.


Leaders across Japan’s private and public sectors are trying to reignite growth and achieve levels of performance and productivity on par with global standards. From “Abenomics” to the 2020 Olympics, the case for change in Japan is firm and visible. Ever-increasing competition and a shift of innovation away from sectors where Japan was traditionally strong (from hardware manufacturing to services and software, for example) are pushing Japanese champions to globalize their practices. Slow domestic growth and sluggish modernization of the operating model mean that multinational companies must struggle to deliver the profits they once did in Japan. Many services that have been streamlined and digitized in the West, for instance, are still human powered, at a high level of customization.


But global companies trying to take a page from the usual change-management playbook may struggle in Japan. Domestic experience is limited, and a more effective approach has yet to emerge. Change management is a complex endeavorinspiring multiple perspectives. Research suggests that only a third of change-management programs globally achieve their original objectives. Employee resistance is a factor in a significant proportion of programs that fail.


A few core elements of change management are universally recognized: inspirational and effective change leaders to act as role models; a change story, with real meaning, to persuade leaders and employees; new mind-sets and behavior among employees; and the orchestration of change in an expanding, self-sustaining wave throughout the organization. But our experience supporting change efforts in leading Japanese organizations (and in multinational organizations in Japan) suggests that this approach must be adapted to the country’s specific conditions.


A change-management approach focused on “the last man standing”—in addition to the “change leader or agent” model at the core of most Western approaches—may be the one most suitable for consensus-driven organizations in Japan and other cultures. Leaders in Japan understand that change programs fail at the middle-management level, where just a few people (or even one) can impede the consensus-building process. We believe that change-management programs can increase their chances of success not by fighting a consensus-oriented culture (or by strengthening the top-down communication cascade) but by focusing greater effort on the potential blockers. A set of simple practices can increase the chances of success in major transformations.


Here we share our observations and lessons on how to drive change in Japan. The objective is not to treat the subject exhaustively but rather to provide empirical observations from our experience.