Nemawashi:A management technique

Nemawashi – literally meaning ‘going around the roots’ (ne = roots; mawasu = go around), is a Japanese word which is quite difficult to interpret effectively, although it may be often translated as “laying the groundwork”. Sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand, it is deeply embedded into the Japanese (work) culture.

P24Xmost of us are probably aware, ‘team-work” is the basis of any work that is taken up in Japan, be it business, sports, or anything else. ‘Individualism’, per say does not have a place in the Japanese society. In order for any team work to succeed, it is very important that there be a consensus amongst the team members, and nobody understands this better than the Japanese do. They go to great lengths to avoid any direct conflicts and try to ensure that any kind of decision making happens in the smoothest way possible.

‘Nemawashi’ is kind of a semi-formal consensus building technique, wherein the person who has a new proposal (be it a change in the current system, or an introduction of a new policy, etc) informally talks to the key stakeholders and decision makers and gathers support and feedback beforehand, much before everybody actually goes into a formal meeting to discuss the proposal.These “informal” discussions can be held in smoking rooms, golf sessions, lunch, drink parties (nomikais), even standing in the corridor, waiting for the elevator. From what I have experienced, it is definitely not an easy job in a set-up where even the so called ‘decision makers’ rely on and are influenced by others who may not be the actual stakeholders. Unacceptable, eh?

Over the years, I have come to understand that consensus here does not mean compromise. Instead, in the Japanese business scenario it is seen as a way to solicit ideas, suggestions if any and create a better understanding of what one wants to propose. This way, when all the key-stakeholders are involved, it becomes comparatively difficult for anyone to resist or oppose the idea, especially when they have been involved with it since its conception, unless of course if the idea not at all feasible, in which case it will usually be ‘rooted out’ in the initial meetings itself and will not/may not reach the big bosses.

The process is undoubtedly very slow, and at times has been very frustrating for me. It is ambiguous, obscure and very unlike how business is done in many parts of the world, where one takes an idea to a formal meeting straightaway and gets on with the proposal.It is often not seen as a “democratic” process by many as they feel there are a lot of “behind the scenes” discussions involved.

With all its so called “drawbacks”, Nemawashi has one great advantage, which even the westerners agree with – by getting everybody ‘on board’ right from the beginning, the method ensures that once a decision has been agreed upon, the execution is very rapid and free of any major obstructions, which may otherwise impede the process of implementation of an individual’s idea in the western world. In fact, very recently a lot of non-Japanese business entrepreneurs and management gurus have observed and proposed that this as an “effective management technique” to get one’s idea across and get it accepted, even in the western world.

It has given big institutions greater adaptability and has been a key factor in the success of so many of the Japanese companies, Toyota, being on of them. (The book – “The Toyota way – 14 management principles”, talks about this as an important ingredient for its success -> Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly).

So next time when you see your colleagues working at it, don’t be impatient…just wait till you see the results and you will be pleasantly surprised!