Introduction to the Japanese Edition of the LeSS Book

(translation by Aki Enomoto)

This article was written for the Japanese translation of the LeSS book. The Japanese translation was added after the English one

Intro to Japanese edition of Large-Scale Scrum (English)

I still remember the first time I visited Japan about 15 years ago. For a European, who was living in China at the time, Japan was a different planet. Trying to understand Japan has taught me a lot about the country and myself… and LeSS. I’m grateful for this and would like to share a few of these learnings.

Respect for people

Having lived in several countries and traveling much too much has increased my interest in national culture. About ten years ago, I decided to explore the effects of national culture on agility. I read everything I could find about national culture. One of them was a book called “dealing with the Dutch.” The book explained Dutch culture to expats living in Holland. Something it mentioned, which I hadn’t realized but is probably very true, is that Dutch people cannot stop have an opinion. Even worse, they always want to share (force?) their opinion with others. They do this in a very direct way, which many Dutch consider to be transparent and honest.

I never doubted that the Dutch directness equates honestly until I lived in China and worked in Japan and Korea. These experiences made me realize that the Dutch directness is not honesty but probably rudeness. Dutch people are so consumed with expressing their opinion that they forget to consider the person they are expressing that to. They don’t take the other person into account.

A couple years ago, I visited a traditional Japanese company. I don’t Japanese and they didn’t speak English, but my colleagues said it is good if I’m there. They gave me detailed instructions on what to say, where to sit, where to watch, and what to do. The amount of conventions that I had to follow made me very uncomfortable. But in retrospect, all of them were about showing respect. Showing respect to the people you are visiting, talking to and working with.

Respect for People is one of the Lean pillars and originates from the Toyota Production System. I don’t think I would have understood that principle in the same way without having spent significant amount of time in Japan. I still have a vivid memory I have is watching a Japanese woman apologize to a beggar on the street that she isn’t able to give him anything. Showing respect, no matter what position you are or whom you are talking to, always respect the people you are talking to. Thanks for teaching me that.

Self-managing teams

Outside of Asia, people frequently ask me whether Scrum works in countries like Korea and Japan. Their reasoning is that Scrum is based on non-hierarchical systems and these countries have strong hierarchical society so it can’t possibly work. However, after spending a lot of time in Japan and Korea, I don’t agree with that reasoning and can clarify that.

A mistake that people make is equating hierarchy with management style. Hierarchy is the amount of power a person gives to a person that is socially above him. Management style is what you do with that power. Hierarchy can help self-managing teams as long as it isn’t combined with a controlling management style.

Hierarchy can help a LeSS adoption. This might feel strange, but makes sense. What happens when you adopt a non-controlling management style in a hierarchical environment? That would mean the manager sets expectations, shares vision, and perhaps set goals… without deep involvement on how people achieve these goals. A hierarchical relationship can benefit self-management because in this case, the team would not request additional instructions as it is clear they are expected to figure it out themselves.

No surprise that Toyota and Lean have a strong team focus. When you read the works of Taiichi Ohno then a lot of his management style is clear in goals and expectations and but not controlling.

Systems Thinking

My last observation that I’d like to share is more recent. The last years I’ve taught a lot of Certified LeSS Practitioner courses in the world. Systems thinking is one of the topics that I cover during this course using systems modeling as one tool. Recently I had a course in Tokyo and two weeks later a course in San Francisco. The difference between the two courses was like night and day.

In the Tokyo course, after explaining the notation of systems modeling and agreeing on a dynamic to model, the people quickly filled up the entire whiteboard. In the San Francisco course, the opposite happened. The people had a hard time agreeing on a dynamic to model, wrote two variables on the whiteboard and got stuck. They would argue about a detail and wondering how to proceed with the exercise. Of course, these are generalizations and are not always true, but still the contrast was surprising.

Why would this be? Of course, I can only speculate and relate to cultural theories that I’m familiar with. Eastern societies are more collective (hence self-managing teams working really well), long-term and holistic while western societies are more individualistic, direct cause-effect thinking, and short-term focused. This domightes clarify the difference in how easy it is to get started using systems thinking.


I’ve visited Japan often enough to say that it is part of me, it has changed me and my thinking forever. I’ve also visited often enough to know that I can never truly be part of Japan. It is a unique society with its strengths and lots of drawbacks. When I didn’t visit Japan for a couple of months, I miss it though and I suspect that I’ll continue to be there regularly for the rest of my life. For LeSS in Japan, I have high hopes. It will go slow and steady but there is a definitive cultural fit. I hope it can help transform Japanese product companies. And personally, thanks to the country and the people for all the insights you’ve given me.



















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