After a couple of years in japan, some of the sights that were striking on arrival fade into normality. It’s then down to visiting friends and relatives to remind you what is different here compared to back at home. And so, judging by my entirely unscientific survey of recent visitors, one of the most eye-catching sights for Western eyes is that of the teams of glowstick-toting old-timers that can be encountered providing traffic and pedestrian waving services at roadwork sites across the country.
Behind the amusement, the Western response is pretty clear. According to the logic of (economic) efficiency, the employment of these “human signs” is an unnecessary expense that serves no real use beyond what is already achieved by the use of traffic cones. Take a look at this article for one typical response: Source:JAPANTODAY
Even though there are plenty of flashing signs to warn drivers that late-night construction is taking place, there is always a worker directing traffic and doing the exact same job as the sign. It’s a completely pointless expense.
So what is going on here?
To understand this phenomenon it helps to understand that in Japan the customer is not just a king, but a god – お客様は神様です. In a culture based around respect for position, the customer is seen as a superior and as such must be treated with a certain deference. This means not only a functional meeting of their needs but also an acknowledgment of the position in itself. The entire experience should pay homage to the relationship.
So whilst the employment of people to guide people around road works may be difficult to justify on functional or purely economic terms, it makes more sense when you think about it in terms of this relationship. Those who are inconvenienced by the road works are seen as customers. As such it is polite to acknowledge them and to apologise for the inconvenience. Importantly, as this is a relationship, it is important that this happens face-to-face and not just via a sign, which would in itself be a sign of disrespect (in those rare cases where are there no actual people present it’s notable that models or images of people are used as replacements).
Whilst I don’t expect this practice to spread to Western construction companies at any time in the near future, there is perhaps a wider lesson here about the importance of people in maintaining relationships and creating positive customer experiences. Despite paying lip service to the consumer, at many Western service companies staff numbers are being reduced, with those remaining expected to cover the same function with fewer hands. The importance placed on human contact here stresses how customer satisfaction often means looking beyond these purely functional or economic criteria. Whilst Western customers may not have the same expectations as those in Japan, companies that are willing to provide a human face will surely benefit from a deepening of relationships, making their customers feel good now and providing a solid base for weathering future storms.