It was a Sunday night at a quiet and emptying train station, close to the end of shifts. I was met by a man in an immaculate uniform and as sharp-looking as he would have been at 9am on a Monday morning.
He was taking the trouble of speaking with the occasional passengers as they passed through. This was the Japanese railways in a nutshell - not just efficient, not just putting on a show, but made up of people who felt every day what it meant to be part of the country’s railways and one of the world’s best organisations.
I was on a two week exchange trip to look into the inner workings of the JR Group. Since the privatisation of the Japanese railways in 1987, the seven for-profit firms that took on the national assets and operations have managed to turn its railway into the country's most successful and admired organisation, one that’s become renowned globally. Famously, JR Group handles 7 billion passenger journeys each year.
Education and skills
From the JR Group perspective, the foundation of its success is safety, enacted through its strong safety manifesto, and reiterated in connection with every part of the operation, and central to its mission and values.
Secondly it’s the concept of investing in resources. JR Group owns the trains and the infrastructure, so doesn’t have to deal with any of the tensions that other national operations can have. And thirdly, education. Of the 18,400 employees, a good proportion are in older age groups and the organisation is very conscious of the need for continuity and not losing any of the knowledge and values learnt over the course of long careers. On-the-job training therefore, forms an important part of knowledge and skills transfer among employees.
All types of education and development is tracked like a personal medical record for each member of staff. The group education is impressive. All employees spend time at the General Education Centre at Nagoya. This isn’t the occasional day of update training, or even a special week for the top executives. People will stay for two months alongside the teachers who live there with them. There’s all the facilities that people need for an extended stay, the canteen, the gym and other leisure activities.
It’s a way in which the business doesn’t just pass on learning but makes the JR Group an important part of employee lives, embedding culture and values. Staff learn together rather than as competing individuals, with a sense of being part of a bigger organism and making progress as a whole team. Self-development is offered online.
Staff learn together rather than as competing individuals
JR Group has more than 3,000 people taking 30 different areas of operations and business each year. I asked how they incentivise people to give up their time to do this, is it reflected directly in pay or prospects? But no, they say, the take-up is based around concept of being better for their immediate colleagues, not letting the side down and not falling behind.
So here’s the crux of organisational efficiency being achieved: incredibly specific and high standards for every aspect of the operation, whether that’s in maintenance, control rooms, customer service or cleaning trains. Everyone knows to the finest degree what’s needed from them, and they follow the standards because they want to, and believe that paying customers deserve it.
Yes, there’s a significant East vs West cultural difference here, but it’s a powerful example to see how important a sense of purpose is to JR Group workers is. The success isn’t delivered through enforcement or overworking - there’s discipline, but it’s based on the ways in which people get a great deal from their sense of being part of something bigger than themselves and their individual career which the UK could learn from.
The success isn’t delivered through enforcement or overworking
Another cultural difference is recruitment and career progression. Staff turnover at JR Group is less than 1%, so essentially once you’re in - and employees tend to join aged between 20 and 28 - then it’s a job for life. Their position and progress tends to be dictated to them by managers, theyre rotated and they have the opportunity to prove their worth in that role.
In the UK, if you want to try a different kind of role you leave for another job role or career route, which makes for more of a disconnect between the HQ and frontline staff, while in Japan there’s progression and rotation between the two.
Imitating Dr Yellow
One of great achievements of the JR Group is public perception. The Japanese still see the privatised services as their national railway (with any other providers labelled as the ‘private railways’). The country as a whole is very proud of the quality of their trains, and this makes a crucial difference to recruitment, operations and efficiency. Talking to conductors, they joined because they’d always wanted to work on a Shinkansen.
The Dr Yellow phenomenon says it all. There are Dr Yellow branded t-shirts, hats, shoes, soft toys; parents will take time out to take their children to see Dr Yellow pass by. And it’s basically just a maintenance train that runs every 10 days.
Talking to conductors, they joined because they’d always wanted to work on a Shinkansen.
The UK has a far stronger heritage in the sector as pioneers, and not so long ago jobs on the railways were also a dream. So if there’s one critical lesson, it’s about the power of culture, that it’s the soft perceptions that really make for hard efficiency.