This past February, Japan’s telecom giant KDDI invited Scrum Inc. to deliver Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner training. Dr. Jeff Sutherland and I traveled to Tokyo to teach these classes.
KDDI also hosted an evening event for 100+ of Japan’s most prominent business leaders with presentations dedicated to innovation and revitalizing Japanese business. It brought together the “grandfather” of Scrum, Professor Nonaka, and his research partner Professor Takeuchi. At that event, Dr. Sutherland gave a speech highlighting how Scrum increases productivity by breaking down work silos, increasing transparency, and focusing on employee happiness. I was honored with a place on a panel where I spoke about the current worldwide state of Scrum as well as the future of the Scrum framework that these luminaries inspired. Prior to taking the stage, I got to enjoy a conversation with Professor Nonaka where we discussed the similarities and differences between Scrum and other modalities of product innovation. This conversation is a sincere highlight of my career in agile.
While in Japan, I also had the opportunity to visit with our Toyota clients in “Toyota-shi”, or “Toyota Motor City” where we delivered a Scrum leadership workshop. This is the birthplace of the principles that gave rise to Lean which drove the company to the leading position it holds today. The tour of their production facility did not disappoint! Watching a system in action that influenced Scrum was a real treat – especially when a line worker pulled the “andon cord” and we watched them fix a problem on the line without stopping it completely.
Japan was a bit of a culture shock to me coming from New York. It’s the quietest, cleanest, politest place on earth. Their trains are pleasant to ride. The streets and stations are immaculate. No one yells or even speaks loudly. Eating in public is taboo. The greetings, good-byes, and casual conversation are all meant to make the participants feel positive. This all stems from their solution to dealing with overpopulation on an archipelago with only 25% habitable landmass – ritualized courtesy.
In that courtesy, Japan finds tremendous strength and comfort. The challenge for them is that the blanket embrace of rituals which support a hierarchical society lead to conformity and this conformity when transferred into business has led to decades of stagflation. When I was young, Japan was the country that brought the world dozens of new technologies: the Walkman, the VCR, the CD player, countless video games, etc. Today, this is no longer the case; Japan has taken a backseat to the USA, South Korea, Germany, etc. And this is where Scrum can truly help not just a single company, but an entire nation.
At its heart, Scrum – as it descends from Professors Nonaka and Takeuchi’s paper, “The New New Product Development Game” – is about innovation with customer input. Scrum and agile adoption are at nowhere near the level it is in the US and Europe. The Japanese recognize that innovation is the key to their nation’s future. It is this resurgent interest in innovation that is driving Japanese corporations to become curious about Scrum and will take me back there every quarter for the rest of the year. And I can’t wait to see the sun rise over the Pacific again.