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Delivering Bad News, True Transparency

Isao Endo
Professor, Graduate School of Commerce, Waseda University

The term “mieruka” (transparency, lit. “making visible” or “visualization”) has long been used in the world of business management, but has now come into wide use in other fields too, particularly government. The website of the Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office, for example, includes a section titled “Female Performance Mieruka Site,” which publishes data from individual companies, such as percentage of female employees, managers and executives, numbers taking maternity leave and childcare leave, and return rates after maternity leave. The site publishes data from 1,150 of the 3,552 listed companies (as of February 14, 2014). It is a means of promoting female participation by exposing the current situation, thereby prompting companies to speed up their voluntary efforts.

Kanagawa Prefecture has been implementing mieruka since 2013. Its website releases data on accounting and finance, public facilities, and facilities used by residents, in order to increase transparency and promote sound management. By making operations more transparent, it aims to foster things such as cost awareness.

Such initiatives are by no means a bad thing in themselves. It is important to ensure transparency and correct the information disparity between government and the public, by creating an environment in which information is open and accessible to all.

This mieruka, of information disclosure, however, is completely different from the system developed in the field of business. Mieruka originated in the Andon system built into the production lines of automobile factories. The name Andon comes from the Japanese word for a paper lantern lit by a flame.

Illustration: Yasuhiko Kagami

Auto assembly lines have cords, or pull switches, hanging alongside them. Workers on the assembly lines do not usually have to worry about these switches, but if they notice something abnormal such as a delay in operation or a defect in a component, they are required to immediately pull one of the cords.

When a cord is pulled, a yellow lamp lights up on the Andon (now an electronic signboard) suspended from the ceiling. In this way, other people on site are made aware of the operational delay or malfunction. The worker who pulled the cord has made the problem or abnormality on the production line visible in real time.

Having become aware of the problem, the shift supervisor immediately goes to the worker concerned. The supervisor listens to the workers in order to fully understand the situation before taking any necessary measures to resolve the problem. This occurs over and over again on a daily basis.

In Japanese automakers, it is said that quality is achieved through the manufacturing process. Even if a problem in the assembly process stops the production line, the problem is resolved on site and quality is ensured. Solving problems is never put off until later. It is this commitment to quality and patient on-site measures that produces the highest quality cars in the world. Mieruka is an essential means of achieving this.

The workers are the only ones who notice the problems and defects on the production line. Ignoring or hiding a problem carries the risk of an even bigger problem later. However small a problem or defect may be, it is important to reveal it, rather than keep it to oneself, so that others notice and come to help.

But this is by no means simple. Factory workers are reluctant to expose problems or defects in their own area. At the overseas factories of Japanese automobile manufacturers, even when a mieruka system is implemented, initially the workers do not light up the Andons very much. This is because they are worried about being blamed for the problem. It is difficult to be open about awkward or negative information.

And yet it is vital that such awkward, negative information be quickly revealed so that measures can be taken based on collective wisdom. Rather than the mieruka of problems and defects, Japanese automakers strive for mieruka of the precursors of problems and defects. Problems or defects do not just suddenly occur. There is always some kind of sign beforehand. By noticing and exposing these signs in advance, workers can prevent actual problems and defects. The important thing is to quickly reveal what is happening now and take suitable action right away.

The mieruka of historical information and data is no more than information disclosure. There is little point in releasing overwhelming volumes of information. To release information in quantities too big for humans to process is to create a flood of information resulting, conversely, in information becoming invisible. The mieruka currently conducted by most government bodies is still at this level.

The important thing is to narrow down the information to what is, for them, awkward or negative, and quickly make it visible. Then, utilizing collective wisdom, they should take pre-emptive steps to improve their administration. A system that exposes bad news is true mieruka.

Isao Endo
Professor, Graduate School of Commerce, Waseda University

Professor, Waseda Business School
Chairman, Roland Berger Japan Ltd.

Professor Endo graduated from Waseda University’s School of Commerce and received an MBA from the Boston College School of Management. He worked for Mitsubishi Electric Corporation and a U.S. strategic consulting firm before taking up his current post.

At Waseda Business School, Professor Endo lectures in Corporate Strategy and Operation Strategy and conducts practical research into Gemba Power. He is also engaged in business consulting as Chairman of the Japanese arm of Roland Berger Ltd., Europe’s largest strategy consulting firm. His consulting delivers results combining strategy formulation and implementation support. He serves as an outside director of Ryohin Keikaku Co. Ltd. and outside auditor of Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd.

Published works include: Forging Gemba Power [Gembaryoku o kitaeru] (Toyo Keizai, 2004), Visualization [Mieruka] (Toyo Keizai, 2005), Tenacious Management [Nebachikkoi keiei] (Toyo Keizai, 2006), Premium Business Strategy [Puremiamu senryaku] (Toyo Keizai, 2007), Reinstatement of Gemba Power [Gembaryoku fukken] (Toyo Keizai, 2009), Sketch of the Future [Mirai no sukecchi] (Asa Publishing, 2010), The Power of the Section Head [Kacho ryoku] (Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2010), Ruling the World with Japanese Quality! [“Nihon hinshitsu” de sekai o seisu!] (Nikkei Publications, 2010), The Rule of “Enthusiasm” in Growing Society [Nobi tsuzukeru kaisha no “nori” no hosoku] (Nikkei Publications, 2011), Business Strategy: A Textbook [Keiei senryaku no kyokasho] (Kobunsha, 2011), The Important Thing Now for Japanese Companies [Nihon kigyo ni ima taisetsu na koto] (PHP Institute, 2011), Recommending “IT Fasting” [“IT danjiki” no susume] (Nikkei Publications, 2011), Illustrated: the Strongest Gemba Power [Zukai – Saikyo no gembaryoku] (Seishun Publishing, 2012), The Angels Who Clean the Shinkansen [Shinkansen osoji no tenshitachi] (Asa Publishing, 2012), Gemba Power: A Textbook [Gembaryoku no kyokasho] (Kobunsha, 2012), Women Working in the Field–7 Stories of Achieving Brilliant Ways of Working [Gemba joshi – kagayaku hatarakikata o te ni ireta nanatsu no monogatari] (Nikkei Publishing, 2012), The Era of Action Disparity [Kodokakusa no jidai] (Gentosha, 2013), Making It Possible to Speak Up [Ieruka] (Ushio Publishing, 2013), Leadership by the Wise [Kenja no riidashippu] (Nikkei Business Publications, 2014).

Forging Gemba Power was selected as “Readers' Best Book of 2004” in the business journal Top Point. Visualization won the 6th Nikkei BP Biz Tech Book Award in 2006.