Takeaways from Japan on Running a Business
July 21, 2016

This is a guest post by Chris Arnold. Chris is a Partner at Authentic Form & Function, where design captivates and technology converts. He went remote 10 years ago for the work/life balance unattainable in the traditional workplace. You can follow him at @chrisfarnold on Twitter.

Travel can be a catalyst for many things: personal growth, relationship building, family connection, business reflection. It provides an opportunity to get away and simmer on some version of the bigger picture, whatever that may be for you. Japan has always afforded that for me in similar ways.

My most recent visit was a bit more unique than my first wide-eyed-American trip, having had the opportunity to serve as research support for the next Session Japan journey. Rather than aimlessly walking around without much context, this trip was more cohesive and comfortable.

Still, even with only a few months of total experience within the Japanese culture, the same core themes always seem to emerge as I fly away in reflection of my time in country.

Service, sincerity, and protocol.

As Is Expected

What’s struck me so squarely each time I visit Japan are its people’s propensity to be so incredibly genuine in their service. Nothing’s rushed, no one person is more important than another, and you are taken care of, as is expected.

At the same time, there are rules—and many of them.

If you’ve visited, you understand what I mean: the relentless thank yous, welcomes, and excuse me moments. Hostel owners, chefs, brewers, all walking outside to wave goodbye. Trash truck drivers bowing in apology for slowing you on your way.

It almost seems unreal at times, and yet, you come to realize it’s a culture built on service.

For those that have traveled to Japan, you may also recall the term “dame” accompanying two arms crossed like an X. The ruthless “dame, dame” reaction (pronounced dah-may) comes from the Japanese response to (foreign visitors, in my case) doing something wrong.

Perhaps it’s a rule you weren’t aware of, an inopportune time you’ve arrived for afternoon food—where a spot is closed, but the door wide open—or some other cultural understanding that’s been misunderstood.

When a rule is broken, or something is unacceptable, you know about it. As a people, they are unwavering in that sense.

Japan is incredibly sincere and patient. Yet, they are also entrenched in rules that remain true to their customs and practices that allow them to provide the best experience possible, for everyone.

A Country, Like a Business

As I pondered my most recent visit on the flight back, I found myself wondering what we can learn from the Japanese that can be applied to our remote and completely dispersed company, Authentic Form & Function.

We’re a modern web design and development shop, and like other businesses in our industry, we juggle communication, timelines, deliverables, project management, and at times, travel. With Japan in mind, I thought, where can we better serve our relationships with grace and sincerity, and where do we need to be more ruthless with our rules?

Some of the biggest struggles in client service comes from the client’s disregard (or inability) to meet deadlines or provide sufficient feedback. Some things may be unavoidable, but most issues that arise are not.

As a business, we’re constantly aiming to improve upon our own internal approach to every new project opportunity. That notion conjures up a few questions:

– How can we be sure our clients feel respected, but in turn also respectful of the way we have chosen to run our business?

– What repeatable best practices and rules could we build in to eliminate occurrences of service hiccups?

– How far fetched would it be for us to borrow cultural concepts from Japan to become a better digital partner overall?

I love being in Japan for its kindness and service, but I also respect it for its rules and protocols. And because of that, I keep going back for more.

Travel Takeaways

When planning travel, there’s an early stage millennial part of me (‘83 represent!) that wants it to be the best experience of my life. I want to capture the best photo, have the most amazing story, even come away with some sort of spiritual awakening.

In a world that’s so look-at-me-now, I’ve come to realize some of the best experiences emerge from a single takeaway tucked inside a quiet observation. In this case, something that surfaced surrounding our company, its productivity, and perhaps a new way of looking at a business challenge.

That to me is the root of what’s so important about travel: how the experience coming from time away might better equip and inform moving forward.

It doesn’t have to be big. And it doesn’t have to be popular.

By simply placing ourselves in a situation where we have the opportunity to flounder and flourish in a new destination, we come closer to something we never knew existed.

Photos by Sarah Addy