Is the Way to Change in Asian Cultures also changing?

It is said, in Asia it is all about face. The truth is the politics of face in any human endeavor is universal and not just confined to Asia. In Asia, as elsewhere, marinating is needed to soften long-standing workflows and decode black boxed processes.

Outsiders can and do help to make things transparent with unbiased ideas to catalyze improvements. But cultural differences for change can leave the unwary who try, using so-called tried and true approaches may face very high risks.

Continuous improvement programs, like six sigma with metrics-based performance dashboards, spring to mind when we talk about process improvement. In Asia, these are widely adopted especially in automotive and high-tech industries, so lessons in that arena are not new.

Not unlike elsewhere, many in not so well organized Asian industries still developing, have entrenched traditional work practices that work against innovation. In spite of this, Asians have the fastest growing economies, so to keep them afloat and practical we must look to things like competitive benchmarking and best practice leveraging as the cultural change ingredients.

It is also too easy to fall for the trap to homogenize Asia. The one thing in common, however, is dense populations with intense competitiveness the entrenched trade way of life. In many developing countries education is also limited to a few. This means traditional workforces, with breadwinners also social security providers for families. resistance to change is high, as it translates to more hardship.

That begs the question of how to change the strategic control of the culture which also includes a high level of daily embedded religious activity. It is often easier and still the preferred way to keep workforce controlled by fear and not by developing people to be more organically collaborative to grow.

At the heart of this are things like long-standing ways of employment with often very tough worker penalty clauses. e.g. salary cuts for behavioral issues, such as poor timekeeping and poor KPI delivery etc. As for vendors, late delivery penalties, are imposed, as a norm. This “Might is Right” model when systemic change is needed, invariably works against best practices . That makes change management, that requires creative collaboration, not easy at all.

Confusing this are regimes with the false positives of benevolent paternal practices, that see management’s maintaining consistent classes and social fabrics for conformists workforce. This is all to often based on a join in and turn up lifestyle incentive that also ruthlessly puts people out at the first sign of problems. Surprisingly unlike highly developed convention cultures loyalty remains very high.

At the sharp end where it matters most, making process improvements means taking risks and testing new ideas. Hence in such cultures, unlike a continuous improvement ethos, ideas are never forthcoming. Or when they do they remain unworkable until a great deal of bottom-up work is done.

Even then the time needed to get any sort of acceptance is often ballooned out as change issues are invariably ill-defined up front . Then attempts to have open discussions to explore the options and get the changes agreed can fail with even the slightest hint of risking punishment which can include losing face.

In Supply Chain driven business cultures, as things are found to be wrong, the paradox principle kicks in to put them right. This idea that human condition cannot accept confusion does not work in Silo cultures where the “I’m alright Jack and “it’s not my problem” paradigm prevails. Then when people are faced with things being wrong they just say nothing and wait and see with a non-committal or semi-conditional “it’s up to you”, acceptance.

For the change management agent, despite any rhetoric of a better life in the sales or business case stage, there is rarely any teaming inventive considered or inbuilt into contracts to encourage successful change programs. Consultants who then uncover roadblock issues are between a rock and a hard place, with no means to influence as their time extends and money is threatened or cut. They are at the mercy of the engagement managers who rely on inexpert acceptance for sign off.

To make this point more clearly, more often than not in the highly focused businesses in Asia the change management capability is just not the same as US or Europeans know it. So in spite of promises to the contrary, when the chips are down the rules change and the adviser is left to take total responsibility. The makes no sense commercially, with a lose- lose positions and outcomes.

The unacceptably long gestation then occurs as issues do not get sorted out in timely ways . It can get even worse if failures are blamed on the advisor especially when Managements who abdicated taking direct management responsibility for the change itself, rely upon the word of their so-called loyal staff who have vested interests in keeping their job.

In matrix cultures, it is, of course, much easier and less of an issue. Management and functional teams are more instinctively alert to recognize supply chain issues and accept any need to fix them. The absence if this is often missed in setup planning and requirements due diligence in silo cultures.

If a capability is not an ingredient in improvement and growth projects planning then they will struggle to listen to process heartbeats. In the early stages, this is a vital element to get a clear understanding at the As-Is business process analysis stage and to see what is needed for the To-Be and how to get it.

To have a chance for success cross-functional responsibility must get the full process understanding. By focusing the thinking on the change to supply based horizontal activity helps removes traditional roadblocks inside hierarchically managed verticals. Hence dis-aggregation of vertical teams, with key players moved to adopting parallel influence, is the key to forming empowered teams to lead and sponsor end to end innovations.

None of this is new and relates to any social cultures. We all know to make changes a change to the thinking foundations must be addressed first. “Change the mindsets and the hearts will follow”

In Asia however, even with contracts and scope tightly managed, conservative bottom-up cultures and lifestyles that blend with productivity equivalence must be recognized as significant and factored in. Then it change happens and happens well.

Edited from First published July 13th, 2012

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