Why is there a seeming paucity of Asian management gurus?
February 8, 2012 1:14 PM   Subscribe

Why is there a seeming paucity of Asian management gurus?

I asked a chef, where do the best knifes come from? He said “Japan”. I asked a printer where does the best printing equipment come from? He said “Japan”. I asked a mechanic who makes the most reliable cars. He said “Japan”. I look at Consumer Reports or the German equivalent Test Berichte and a lot of the “highly recommended” products are from Japanese or other Asian companies.

But when I go into a bookshop looking at business and management books – most of them are written by North American management “gurus”? Of course, the issue of a different language cannot be discounted but why are most management books written by North Americans. Where are the Asian management gurus?
posted by jacobean to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Writing in Japanese?
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:16 PM on February 8, 2012

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

Those companies making all those great products? They are led by the folks who "can". Those books written by self-proclaimed gurus are the folks who "cannot".
posted by Grither at 1:21 PM on February 8, 2012

Sorry, that is a terrible quote, teachers are great, and we'd be in BIG trouble without them! But I think the idea applies in this case. The people writing the books are those who weren't successful in actual practice, so they are trying to make a buck by writing a book and suckering people into buying them.
posted by Grither at 1:24 PM on February 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Looking towards Japan for management ideas was definately a thing in the 80s/90s, though a lot of it was written by foreigners with mixed results and a heavy emphasis on the big elite companies.

You might want to check out Konosuke Matsushita's book. He was definately a "do-er".

I have occasionally seen the Book of Five Rings sold as a business guide, thought that's a little out there.
posted by Winnemac at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2012

Lessons from the Japanese management style aren't necessarily transferrable to Western (or just even just Anglo) management style. Publishers might not be interested in translating a book which readers wouldn't find to be useful, especially ever since the "Japan's going to take over the world!" meme fizzled out.

I also wonder if management books themselves might be more of a Western thing to begin with, but I don't know.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Everything you mentioned as a strength of Japan's is a physical product that's unlikely to suffer from culture barriers. A good knife is useful to people in every country in the world. The question of how to effectively manage employees is going to differ dramatically based on different cultures. So if you're in the US (for instance), you're naturally going to see a lot of books on this topic by Americans; they're the ones who are most able to speak to what works in an American setting.

Also, if I go to a bookstore in America, I don't see many books by anyone about anything written by people in Japan. I see mostly books by Americans, and a few from Britain and maybe some other English-speaking countries. I assume that bookstores in Japan mostly have books by people in Japan.
posted by John Cohen at 1:28 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Cultural: In the U.S. it's pretty common that if you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 company you write a book about your management strategies. There's no natural reason for that to be the case in all cultures. It's also common in the U.S. that the CEO makes 10s or 100s of millions of dollars and is a celebrity, around the world that's unusual.

2. Familiarity with U.S. Brands: Would you rather read a book about GE or about NTT? Quick! What does NTT even do? Your average U.S. citizen probably doesn't know and so won't care.

3. Applicability of Insights: U.S. CEOs are dealing with (mostly) U.S. employees, (mostly) U.S. customers and U.S. issues. ICBC may be bigger than almost every U.S. bank, but many of the issues that Chinese bank has to deal with are non-applicable or even comprehensible to a U.S. audience. Same thing with cultural norms regarding employees.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Japan doesn't have the highly individualistic celebrity culture that the US does. So while there are lots of Japanese management techniques that are widely used and appreciated in the US (kaizen, 5 why's) these are associated with companies, not individuals. They simply don't have the guru mentality.
posted by yogalemon at 1:49 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of 2bucksplus's 2nd point: a good nonfiction book engages the reader with a lot of specific examples. You might not often stop to think about how many assumptions the writer is making about what your life is like, but you probably enjoy a book more when it has lots of details than if it's just one long parade of abstractions. I don't know anything about Japanese work culture, so I can't even give an example off the top of my head of which details wouldn't translate from Japan to the US (or vice versa, or from Japan to another country), but I'm sure there are many of them.
posted by John Cohen at 1:53 PM on February 8, 2012

I think there are a number of different things going on here; I'll try to speak to what I have a handle on.

As Winnemac said, Japan indeed was in vogue a few decades back when it gained world leadership in some very visible product categories very rapidly. A number of books that claimed to explain Japanese management came out at that time.

The last few decades have not been great for Japan Inc. I think you can make the case that Japanese leadership in (electronics) equipment s and automobile industries have eroded greatly from their hay days in the seventies and the nineties respectively. Most people credit Carlos Ghosn (a Brazilian-French businessmen) with Nissan's turn-around. On the other hand, many fault Toyota's management culture for the quality of their response to the 2009-11 vehicular break problem that almost cost them their first place in North American car sales.

I would speculate that you'll find far more "Japaneseness" in small and medium sized companies (your knife manufacturer for example). Very few companies seem able to retain their culture and/or agility as they grow in size. Cars or (electronic) equipment manufacturers tend to benefit from scale. With scale (I think) you often tend to lose your uniqueness. Most "business management" books seem to present lessons gleaned from large multinationals and seem targeted towards them. I think it is also true that how you manage a large multinational corporation (if you leave out the product innovation aspect of it) is not very different from corporation to corporation. e.g. Apple's supply chain execution is probably best in class. But what they try to execute wont be very different from what Samsung probably does ...

There are also several things about Japanese work cultures that aren't so great. Work-life balance, place of women in the workplace, social acceptance of corruption etc.

I do admire Japan and what it achieved post-war. But I think the reality is far more nuanced.
posted by justlooking at 1:55 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

As stated, Japan producing the best "knifes" couldn't be more irrelevant (by the way, do you have a Japan bias???)

I think the above answers literally address the question, but consider that America is, in the entire scope of human history, the most successful and wealthy capitalist country. While this really doesn't have anything to do with the individual, and I personally wouldn't put any stock in someone being "better" at business because they're American, I can imagine why, speaking in very broad Japan-vs-America terms, there'd be more American management books.
posted by Patbon at 1:56 PM on February 8, 2012

Best answer: A few observations from someone who has lived in Japan for many years:

1. The whole concept of a "management guru" here is a contradiction in terms. Managers are not celebrities, and people in general are frowned upon for touting how great they or their system are.

2. Companies are run by consensus, for the most part. Even managers have to spend tons of time getting buy-in from everybody; they don't tend to make decisions by fiat. This is not the kind of thing that sells as a slick new philosophy.

3. Japanese companies are actually incredibly inefficient. Sure, their products or manufacturing process are efficient, but the actual corporate culture is not geared towards efficiency. It's geared towards putting in long hours. Very long hours. In fact, if someone was more efficient than everyone else, finished their job, and went home early, they would be frowned upon for not displaying their commitment to the company. So, there is no point in being efficient, since you have to stay late anyway to display what a team player you are. (This observation has been verified by every single Japanese person I have mentioned it to, BTW.)
posted by zachawry at 2:28 PM on February 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

Not quite what you're looking for, but Musashi alone is worth a thousand Druckers.
posted by michaelh at 2:30 PM on February 8, 2012

Maybe management qua management is less important than North American minds (and book-buyers) believe it is?
posted by penduluum at 2:39 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Guy Kawasaki is not from Japan, he's from Hawaii.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:40 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I thought his parents were immigrants or something, but upon reflection I don't know why I think that. Anyway, Musashi stands alone.
posted by michaelh at 2:44 PM on February 8, 2012

Anyway, Japanese management techniques were actually quite in vogue in North America during the last decade, techniques such as kaizen continuous improvement and kanban. The old name for these practices was QC, which actually was developed in North America and imported to Japan in the 1970s.

Anyway, if you go to the "business books" section of a Japanese bookstore, it is just as banal as the business books section of a North American bookstore, with tiles by Drucker, Welch and others, and the usual subjects such as "Who Moved My Cheese?" and "Rich Dad, Poor Dad."
posted by KokuRyu at 2:45 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Japanese like Drucker but I'm not sure that directly relates to what you're asking.
posted by notned at 4:44 PM on February 8, 2012

1) Because there is no correlation.
Japan does produce high quality products. But, frankly, it's a management nightmare for the most part. The levels of management at an average Japanese company is ridiculous compared to a Western company. Which leads to...

2) Because no one here cares.
Japanese products are generally much more expensive than counterparts produced in the rest of the world. Since the emphasis on American business is reducing cost, why would anyone want to hear from the company making the expensive stuff?
posted by Ookseer at 5:34 PM on February 8, 2012

Pretty much all successful Japanese CEOs will publish a book at some point. For example, Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten (the second-largest ecommerce platform in the entire world, and its operations are *not* limited to Japan) has published 成功のコンセプト: Principles for Success.

Japan does produce high quality products. But, frankly, it's a management nightmare for the most part. The levels of management at an average Japanese company is ridiculous compared to a Western company.

Do you have any evidence to support this?

Japanese products are generally much more expensive than counterparts produced in the rest of the world. Since the emphasis on American business is reducing cost, why would anyone want to hear from the company making the expensive stuff?

Do you have evidence for this?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:22 PM on February 8, 2012

It's racism. Pure and simple.

A subtle form of racism, to be sure. But it's racism. You will note that about 98% of North American business books are written by people who are white, male, tall, and conventionally attractive. It's not a coincidence.

People will tie themselves up into knots explaining why an Asian person couldn't or wouldn't write a successful business book. But it's all bunk. As KokoRyu notes, management books by Japanese people are quite common in Japan.

Of course, everyone will fall over themselves to point out that The Art of War is one of the most popular business/management books around. This is the business world equivalent of "I have a lot of gay friends" or "We have a black president."
posted by ErikaB at 7:30 PM on February 8, 2012

I'm a little disturbed that you seem to equate "Asia" with "Japan". There is whole huge continent out there-- the biggest one, actually. Japan is a tiny part of it. If you are looking for management books written by Asians in English, there are plenty. I'm going to keep this brief, because I feel some snark coming on, and that won't help anyone, but Ram Charan is a personal favorite of mine. He has written a few books that were well recieved-- even in America.

(I realize internet busybodies will quibble that Ram Charan works with a lot of co-authors. That's because he lives virtually full time on the road -- until recently he didn't even have a house or apartment, his secretary Fedex'ed him clean socks and underwear every day at whatever hotel he was staying at. The man is in demand-- he fixes companies. And he gave up a tenured professorship at Harvard to become a consultant. OK I need to stop now because I have typed and deleted some really mean things. Good luck with discovering new works!)
posted by seasparrow at 8:29 PM on February 8, 2012

Speaking only about Japan, I suspect the business and industrial cultures of Japan and the US are so different that any management advice that is relevant to one would be useless or bizarre to the other. You may be interested in this episode of This American Life which describes the history of NUMMI, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota. It was initially successful but in the long run didn't work as well as they had hoped, largely because of those cultural differences.
posted by Cheese Monster at 11:27 PM on February 8, 2012

"Do you have evidence for this?"

The years I lived in Japan and worked for Japanese companies compared to the years I lived in the US and worked for US companies. Here's an example:

There was a Japanese beverage company who was looking to expand into the US market. They had tested their drinks in the US and they tested very well. However they found the US market very sensitive on price and the only way they could get the price low enough for US distributors was to manufacture and bottle in the US. So they approached a number of US bottlers and had them run sample batches. The lowest rejection rate they got from the sample run was around 25%. Labels were on the bottles 1/8" too high or too low, or crooked, or there was glue visible or the printing was poorly registered, or bottle caps had scuffs, or any of a dozen other quality problems that would have kept them off the shelves in Japan, but were standard for US bottlers. The US bottlers were unable or unwilling to bring their quality up to what the Japanese were expecting so the company cancelled the plan.

Of course when I say nobody cares I'm being hyperbolic, but, yeah, nobody cares. With the exception of the brief love affair with Kaizen and other lean manufacturing ideas in the 90's, few in the US wants to do things the way they're done in Japan. Which is a shame, but there it is.
posted by Ookseer at 1:57 AM on February 9, 2012

It's not so much that there is a paucity of *Asian* management gurus as that the management-guru-industry, if we can so term it, is largely American.

The reasons are various, including things like Harvard being the place where MBA originated, and the US ending up with a culture where people read business books, buy business magazines, and go to business school. All of which might go back to the veneration in which business has always been held in the US, and the ready market for self-improvement in all its forms.

For the most part any Europeans or Asians that achieve guru-status actually got there after moving to the US. For example Peter Ducker and C K Prahalad.

If you're interested in understanding why industries cluster in different countries, a good framework for thinking about it is described here. Fittingly for this question, it's the work of uber-guru Michael Porter.

If nothing else you will get a sense that Japan excels in some industries but is far from a major player in others. (Pharma, aerospace, retail, fashion to name a few.)
posted by philipy at 5:56 AM on February 9, 2012

It's racism. Pure and simple. ... management books by Japanese people are quite common in Japan.

Even if they are common in Japan, that just shows that people in one country can give effective advice on a very elaborate set of social decisions that's useful for people in that same country. To suggest that the reason for the lack of Japanese business management books in America is "racism" reflects a willful inability to recognize any of the other cultural factors at play when someone from one country presumes to instruct people in a different country on how to do things. Please don't condemn people based on no evidence.
posted by John Cohen at 1:26 PM on February 9, 2012

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