Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Japanese vs. Western models of decision making

I was reading a book about The Toyota Way last year (sorry, can’t remember which) and something that stuck with me was a section on Japanese versus Western decision making*. The diagram was something like this:


The crux of it is, Japanese companies like Toyota spend more time preparing for a decision, and less time executing. Western companies reach a decision earlier, and then execution has all sorts of problems. It’s also important to note that Japanese companies often reach the “end goal” sooner.

Preparation involves building consensus, but that doesn’t mean it’s all talk. Japanese companies pioneered set based design and prototyping, which allows them to try out a huge number of ideas cheaply. By the time a decision is made, they’ve “thrown out” about 90% of the work they’ve done!** However, once the decision is made the execution goes smoothly.

It is easy to see how Japanese decision making maps to businesses with a clear distinction between preparation/pre-production and execution/production, such as traditional manufacturing. It can be difficult to map to pure product development. Keep a few things in mind.

  • Consensus isn’t just discussion and design. Big-Design-Up-Front is not preparing for execution. BDUF is a woefully incomplete form of execution. Building consensus means actually implementing things in order to rapidly learn.

  • Consensus isn’t a democracy. Toyota has a very hierarchical structure and people have very clear responsibilities. The goal of consensus-based decisions is to make better decisions, not to achieve some Platonic ideal. Difficult decisions are still made, but the role of the executive is to manage the consensus-building process, rather than “just hurry up and making a decision.”

The Japanese model is built in to cross-functional teams. Consensus isn’t achieved by the heads of Engineering and QA signing some agreement in blood. If that agreement ends up not being a good idea- and it almost never is!- you end up with the Western execution experience. On the other hand, cross-functional teams have much more interactivity and iteration going on, and overall execution is much faster.

People will get upset. Take responsibility for your decisions, and acknowledge some people will get upset by them. However by making sure their concerns are thoroughly heard and discussed before execution, you will make sure they don’t keep pulling things off-track.

Anyway, there’s lots of good writing on this topic, and I highly suggest checking some of it out if it interests you. This is just my software development-centric take.

* I’m just calling these the Western and Japanese models of decision making. They are clearly not the way all decisions are reached in the respective countries. In fact these generalizations may not even be true anymore. Whether Japanese or American companies behave this way is irrelevant. The names are just proxies for different types of decision making.

** Obviously the work isn’t thrown out, since they’ve learned so much from it. But if the effort were raw materials, I suspect 90% of it would end up in the trash, depending on how a set is developed and culled.

5 thoughts on “Japanese vs. Western models of decision making

  1. Kenny says:

    I think this is pretty key in a lot of areas of work (not just software).
    A big big barrier though, is the perception of “wasted work” (which as you rightly say isn’t actually wasted), especially from professionals/experts.
    From my rather limited experience and reading, it seems that many people who are perceived as experts or professionals in their field don’t want to be see as not knowing something – and the act of trying things out and throwing things away is often seen as “not knowing”.

    This might be a cultural thing, but I get the feeling that if you cant somehow deal with this “self inflicted status of competence”, then you will often fall more in the left side of that diagram.

  2. JJJ says:

    I had some discussion with my father about that difference, because they had been talking about it with my parent’s best friends who happen to be Japanese.
    Apparently this is totally true and your doodle nailed it quite well.
    But I think there’s some very important info missing. From what those japanese friend told my parents, it seems that this longer preparation time is mostly caused the japanese language which is very complicated and quite abstract, so they have to talk a enormous lot to be sure that they understand each other.
    It is sometime really difficult to reflect on the japanese way of doing things as we almost always underestimate the surrealistic cultural rift.
    I’m not saying that about the conclusions you drew here, honestly I don’t have the experience to judge them but I trust you and just find them very interesting, I just wanted to share with you that info I got from that discussion.

    Cheers from belgium (and pardon my awful english).

    1. Thanks Jean! Thanks for the interesting info. Your description of Japanese reminds me of a study (,8599,2091477,00.html) in which researchers found that some languages (like Japanese) are low-information-per-syllable, but are generally spoken faster, resulting in about the same information-per-minute. I’m not sure if this translates into technical domains as well, and I know nothing about oriental languages. From living in Iceland, though, which has a strange process of adopting new words into the language (, I know it can be tricky to describe certain things. But I would describe their model of decision making as distinctly Western, however :)

  3. AE says:

    Thanks for this great summary! that diagram also made a big impression on me, and I’ve been trying to find the source again for a while – do you know where it’s from?

  4. Hi AE, unfortunately not. The actual image is from wikimedia commons: Unfortunately I do not recall which book explained this concept so clearly and contained this diagram.

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