H is for Hou-Ren-Sou

“Well, this is weird,” you might think, “What is this?  Surely there are bigger ‘H’ fish to fry, such as Hello Kitty, Hygiene or – ulp – Hiroshima.  But I’ve gone for the more abstract Hou-Ren-Sou for several reasons:

1) For variety: mix up the Greatest Hits with some of the B-sides, y’know?

2) Fear not, I will be making multiple passes at the A-Z, so like Agent Smith, Hello Kitty is inevitable.  And Hiroshima.  Yeah.

3) Despite being quite an unknown entity to the foreign community, Hou-Ren-Sou is a pretty important concept in the Japanese workplace.

So, what is it?  Hou-Ren-Sou is a portmanteau of three Japanese words: Houkoku (報告), meaning ‘report’; Renraku (連絡), meaning ‘contact’, and finally Soudan (相談), meaning ‘consult’.  Some envisage it as a venn diagram, some a cycle…however you link them, the three are very closely intertwined here into a very important buzzword that means, well, ‘Report, Contact, Consult.’

Consider, for example, a project that a manager wants done.  What do you expect will happen?  If you’re thinking that the manager with have a meeting with subordinates to give out the details, what is expected, and when the deadline is, then the subordinates go and work on that project then hand in by the deadline, then you are thinking Western-style business.  Think about it: that style of business is very ‘independent’.  It is neither right nor wrong, but it is not the Japanese style, because it is not Hou-Ren-Sou.

Now let’s replay that with our Japanese goggles on: the manager wants a project done.  The employee will work on it up to a degree, maybe an initial draft, then…yep, you guessed it REPORT the progress so far to the manager.  The manager then gives advice and asks for amendments.  The employee takes the project away again, bouncing ideas off of peers: in other words, she makes CONTACT with other employees to assist in the project.  And now, armed with all this new advice and a beefed up project, she returns to the manager to CONSULT the changes.  So…job done?  Not quite!  The Hou-Ren-Sou may begin again for a fresh cycle if necessary, and will keep cycling until the project is completed.

Sounds complicated?  It is, a least to the uninitiated.  For most Japanese, however, Hou-Ren-Sou is second nature, having been impressed upon them since elementary school: their homeroom classes when they talk about the day’s events and class-related stuff like, I dunno, whoever gets to feed the turtle next has it’s own little sprouts of Hou-Ren-Sou showing.  At it’s heart, it’s basically Teamwork of Steroids: keeping everyone who should be in the know informed of every stage of the process, absorbing input, and constantly bouncing ideas off one another until the end product.

The plus points?  The end product will likely be far more superior to that done the Western-way.  The ‘Here’s the details, let me know when you finish’ approach my get results quicker, but may not yield the results the manager has in mind, as some practical difficulties arise midway through a project that the manager didn’t envisage, but – guess what! – the employees never report this and push on, all gung-ho and independent-like.  The Japanese style has at least kept everyone informed every step of the way, so every angle has been analyzed, buffed and polished.  Also, if the Japanese project fails completely, it’s much easier to wash your hands of responsibility.  It was a team effort, after all!

The minus points?  Well, as you might guess, the whole process gets completely drawn out. The phrase ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ clearly hasn’t reached Japanese shores, because even seemingly minor bits of work may pass many pairs of hands and eyes before landing on a manager’s desk.  Such a process may make project-building more bulletproof to errors but it is woefully inefficient.  Also, it sucks out the life and spontaneity of a project at times.  A single person’s singular vision may be bold and daring but impractical.  Passed around two or three, it may lose a bit of it’s pizazz but gain more in terms of practical use.  Pass it around ten people, and the project becomes bland and dull, covering all the bases, losing all sense of personality as everyone pushes their fingerprints on it.

But, as I said, neither approach is right nor wrong.  And do all Japanese companies follow Hou-Ren-Sou?  Of course not, no more than I unfairly bracketed Western companies as ‘independent’.  This is, if anything, yet another one of those classic indicators that says a lot about Japanese society, how it operates and thinks, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are.

Am I reading too much into it?  No, because I draw the line at the fact that Hourensou also means ‘Spinach’ in Japanese.


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