Nemawashi is a very important concept you need to know if you want to understand how Japanese companies work. The way decisions are made, the way changes in the system are introduced in Japanese companies follow the Nemawashi process. In the old times Nemawashi 根回し was a word used by farmers when they had to transplant a tree: 根->root, 回->round; the literal meaning would be “to go around the roots, that means to dig around the roots of the tree we want to transplant. Let’s see the meaning of Nemawashi – 根回し used nowadays.
Let’s suppose a Sony employee has a great idea, he decides that it could be cool to eliminate the Sony Timer from a certain new device. The procedure in a European/American company would be to just make the proposal in front of everybody when having a meeting with the bosses. In Japan is more complicated, you can’t be so direct, because you could destroy the harmony. Before making the formal proposal you have to make sure that everyone agrees, this process where you ask for everyones opinion is called nemawashi (You could translated as “prior consultation”). I sounds stupid, but the advantages are multiple: if your nemawashi succeeds then your proposal will be accepted for sure, if there is some people who don’t like your proposal you can improve it adding/modifying stuff until everyone is happy, if your idea is “bad” it will be destroyed before the big bosses know; the nemasashi process implicitly deletes proposals that don’t have many success possibilities.
The Sony employee would consult all his department people, once he is sure his proposal is ok with everyone he will talk with the department boss/es . His boss would proceed one more time to do nemawashi, but at a different level, this time he would all the bosses from the same division, once all the bosses agree… If nemawashi succeeds it would continue until the big guys know about it (If it’s a big decision, or to the convenient level if it’s not so important). As I said before, you can see with this example that if nemawashi fails, the idea won’t flow to the top of the pyramid, but if everyone agrees it will continue moving and improving the original idea.
Once the process of nemawashi is completed, the department where everything started has the permission to make a formal proposal, and then start implementing the new idea/process/product/business. Nemawashi helps to keep the group harmony and kills discrepancies, both very important for Japanese people. Everyone have to agree.
But what the hell, this is slow! very very slow! Japanese companies are famous because they do things slow and patiently. It’s very difficult for them to make decisions, they usually make very little changes and everyone have to agree, many times even for insignificant things. For example, if I would want to change the font size from Technorati.jp‘s top page (Where I’m working right now) and I suggest it in a casual way they would look at me with a suspicious face and ask me “Who decided that change?”. I would answer joking/laughing “I decided”, and they would look at me laughing and thinking “What the hell is this foreigner guy telling us, he has no idea how nemawashi works”. I learned to do some nemawashi, asking everyone, then talk with my boss who would talk with the bosses above him… and if everything was ok the we would start thinking about changing our top page. All the process lasts some weeks, and even months, the good part is that we have usually scheduled everything almost six months in advance. If you don’t want to die before you finish a project in a Japanese company, the trick is to start nemawashi as soon as possible, that means you start showing your cards some months before you need to start playing.
Thanks to nemawashi, Japanese companies don’t usually commit mistakes, they always improve step by step, always going forward and makinb their processes near to perfect (This process of continuous improving is called “Kaizen”). For example, one company that has applied nemawashi and kaizen effectively during the last 50 years is Toyota, in 2006 they earned five times more money than the sum of all their 8 worldwide nearest competitors.