The field of intercultural study owes much to Dutch professor
Geert Hofstede’s research. One of his important contributions with practical business relevance is that he defined
a cultural characteristic he called Uncertainty Avoidance (UA), described as “the
extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations”. It can have interesting
implica- tions on the quality and reliability of products made in a country.
No Chance for Chances in Japan
Anyone who has ever traveled to Japan will immediately recognize
the concept of Uncertainty Avoidance. This country’s culture has very little tolerance for any kind of ambiguity.
Leaving Tokyo Airport, one can see large displays showing the current tempera- ture with half-degree(!) accuracy. Buses and
trains are expected to follow their schedules to the minute, and even small delays will become the subject of concerns and
discussions. Business meetings follow elaborate procedures, often take a long time as seemingly little details are
scrutinized, and end with all parties signing detailed protocols to leave no room for misunderstand- ings. Similarly, when
presenting a proposal one needs to give the Japanese side ample opportunity for investigation, risk assess- ment, and clarification
before discussing next steps. These examples reflect a strong cultural characteristic: for the Japanese to be effective,
they first strive to eliminate all uncertainties.
This extreme UA preference has helped Japan in achieving its
leading role in all aspects related to product quality. Made in Japan, once a
synonym for cheap and poorly made products, today is a recognized symbol for excellent product quality and reliability.
It can be eye opening to experience how the Japanese UA mentality shapes their quality philosophy. Its influence can be
seen in almost all their business practices and reaches far beyond methodologies. At the heart of it is the Japanese
belief that a risk they do not understand, and thus cannot manage, is a risk they cannot tolerate.
Project managers in more uncertainty-tolerant cultures like the
United States often employ a triage-like risk management concept, categorizing risks as either unacceptable, manageable, or as
irrelevant. The latter is often a judgment call: if a risk has a low probability of occurring while common wisdom or past
experience say that it will likely not cause a problem, project leaders may choose (sometimes without any further analysis) to
assume that the risk can safely be ignored.
This concept is foreign to the Japanese who will not tolerate
any “assumed non-risks”. All risk factors, no matter how large or small, will have to be identified, assessed,
and managed through- out a product’s lifetime in Japan. This approach naturally enforces a much more systematic risk
assessment and tracking process, promoting superior product quality and reliability.
The Japanese share their
strong attention to details with other high-UA cultures such as South Korea,
France, and Germany, albeit to a lesser degree.
In product development, critics often label the resulting behaviors as perfectionism, implying that it leads to
“over-designed” products and long time-to-market. One but needs to point to Japanese product development cycle
times, frequently among the best in the world, to debunk this myth.
Note that uncertainty avoidance does not equal risk avoidance.
The Japanese and others are very willing to take calculated risks as long as they understand them well. They will often
develop a “Plan B” as part of their risk management.
Lastly, it is important to note that a high UA preference does
not necessarily stimulate a strong focus on product quality. For instance, many Latin American cultures have a low
tolerance for ambiguity. In their cases, UA mostly shows in the role hierarchies and formalities play in the countries’
societies rather than in product development and manufacturing.
So, are there any among the world’s emerging economies
whose UA culture might also promote high product quality? One stands out: China.
Up until recently, it lacked the technology required to achieve high standards. That is changing fast.