Hou-Ren-Sou: A Recipe for Japanese (Over) Communication

The Japanese word “hou-ren-sou” means spinach. Spinach is a vegetable you find at the authentic Japanese restaurant, as in “ohitashi” or boiled and chilled spinach with soy sauce and in “goma-ae” or spinach with sweet sesame paste. This “hou-ren-sou” is, however, a special term in the business management context and nothing to do with those delicious dishes. The three syllables of the word, “hou,” “ren,” and “sou” are abbreviation of the three management keywords regarding the Japanese style communication at the workplace. Almost all the Japanese freshmen are repeatedly taught, during on- and off-the-job training, the importance of the “hou-ren-sou.” Let’s see its recipe in more detail.

“Hou” for “Houkoku” or Reporting

You report to your boss the status of your assignment regularly, either verbally or formally. You report when you made a big progress, when you see an obstacle, when you messed things up, when you made no progress, when you go for lunch, when you go to the customer’s site, when you go home from the customer’s site, etc. The key is to keep your boss filled in with the latest and detailed status of your work. If you are asked by your boss ‘what’s the status of the work I gave you?’ then that is a sign that you are not doing enough reporting, or “houkoku.” You should give her a reporting before she asks you to do so.

“Ren” for “Renraku” or Informing

While you make sure your boss is well reported, you also need to make sure that all the people who may or may not be impacted by your work are informed in advance. This is the stakeholder management. You would never get a buy-in if you surprise them at a project kick-off meeting, telling them that the new project would impact their line of business. In the Japanese consensus building approach, all the stakeholders should be informed before anything is formalized. Otherwise, you will be considered as terrible at informing, or “Renraku.”

“Sou” for “Soudan” or Consulting

So you did a good job in reporting and informing. Well, that’s not enough. Whenever you make a decision, big or small, you should consult, or “soudan,” with a senior person. The person could be your boss, a subject mater expert in your stakeholder list, or a senior staff in the team. This works as an ad-hoc mentoring system, providing the junior person (you!) the lessons learned of the experienced and preventing him from making a careless mistake. By consulting with others, however, you are sharing the responsibility (when the work turns out to be a failure) and the credit (when it goes with a success.) Therefore, although this sharing of good and bad is a source of the strong Japanese teamwork culture, it also obscures the accountability in the organization. Well, I bet someone has already told you that, in Japan, the team comes before the individual, right?

Today’s Lesson:

Always overcommunicate with the Japanese


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