What People Miss About Problem Solving and Culture

I recently wrote an article entitled “Why Many Japanese Organizations Think Six Sigma is a Joke”. I know… clever. It was an article about how Japanese people and by association Japanese organizations have a cultural aversion to Six Sigma as a problem solving methodology. I cite some generally known characteristics of Japanese business, Buddhism, and other anthropological points regarding culture.

Some people loved it and others… well, they lost their minds. Feedback often went one of two* ways:



Me in the comments section

As true as their respective opinions may be, it was not the point of the article. This was an article about Six Sigma in the context of Japanese culture. Whether or not Six Sigma is better or worse than lean methodologies is irrelevant. Then, the missing piece I didn’t discuss came to me.

Culture and the Methods for Solving Problems Go Hand-in-Hand

The way organizations solve problems and culture is inextricably linked.

Solving problems can refer to:

  • organizational structure

  • methods for communication (email etiquette, whiteboards, etc.)

  • methodologies (Six Sigma training, Lean, Shainin, Kepner Tregoe, the A3, Triz method and on and on and on)

Cultures can refer to:

  • ethnic or national culture

  • corporate culture

  • generational culture

  • office culture

The intersection of problem solving and culture

Culture is made up of things like nationality, language, manner of dress, and things you like to do on the weekend. A specific problem solving methodology is a singular component of a culture.

One component of culture; email etiquette, remains largely the same anywhere in the U.S. That is because it is part of the “American Corporate Culture”(TM) a subculture attributed to the American white collar worker. However, this is not necessarily the case with Six Sigma or Shainin or Kepner-Tregoe. A Six Sigma Black Belt may work at a company where there is a subculture of Six Sigma (GE for instance). Then, the practitioner may move to a company where that subculture doesn’t exist. This is because the Six Sigma subculture is associated with GE and a large number of other companies but not with all American white collared work as email etiquette is.

Why did I just go through that tedious example?

Lean methodologies as they exist in Japan are a part of the large umbrella of “Japanese Corporate Culture”(TM). Some Japanese companies do it better than others (gross understatement). To that I say there are people of “American Corporate Culture” (TM) who can’t avoid typos in their emails (I’m looking at you Trish from HR). While implementation of lean varies from Japanese company to Japanese company, ideologically they remain the same.

The Catch

An interesting caveat to culture and problem solving is that any component chosen for a subculture must be compatible with the overarching culture that it exists within. Mandatory suits would not be a compatible cultural component in the subculture of “Silicon Valley tech start-up”. An over simplified example is language. For instance, if there were no Six Sigma training resources in Japanese there would be a cultural aversion to using Six Sigma training in Japan because it is not compatible with a fundamental component of Japanese culture. In a similar but less intrusive way lean ideologies are part of an overarching “Japanese Corporate Culture”(TM). I think this concept in general feeds into part of the rise of Lean Six Sigma in that Six Sigma isn't necessarily at odds with lean but in Japanese organizations it will have to conform to lean.


Like my analysis of culture? Learn more about Japanese culture through Nipponica's Course 1 for Japanese Culture Basics

*A third reaction to my original article was one of complete ambivalence.

#SixSigma #Lean #Japan #culture #japanese #ProblemSolving