What do bike riding in Japan and organisational performance have in common?

I’m in Kyoto (Japan) at the moment with my family, and enjoying exploring a city bursting with tradition. We are living in a Japanese ‘wide house’ which is a whopping 2.6m wide.  We think it’s luxury after the studio apartment in Tokyo!  We have been provided with four bicycles for our stay, and the first thing I noticed was no helmets. If it was just my husband and I, I would probably celebrate the return to ‘80s style bike riding, but I had my kids to consider.  Would they be safe?  Would this be one of those travel stories people back home would say ‘well, she should have known better!’?

But I noticed when we started to ride, that drivers acknowledge and make room for cyclists, and cyclists appear more aware of the vehicles around them. You see, a funny thing happens when we take away rules and regulations – for the most part, common sense prevails.  People drive safely, they look where they are going, and they seem to just know they are accountable. From Psychology, we know that when we increase an internal sense of ownership, control and community – a sense that ‘together, we need to make this work’ manifests.  There starts to become a set of ‘rules’ for ‘how we do things around here’ which funnily enough is akin to organisational culture.  Whats more? Ownership increases and people start to care about their behaviour because they can’t just stand back and criticise the powers that be.  They are the powers that be.

Japan is a country with a wealth of culture and tradition and expectations.  It’s impolite to eat in the street, to talk on your mobile phone on the subway, in fact even the noise of keys tapping as you update your Facebook status on the bus is considered impolite.  Stepping onto a crowded subway car in Tokyo during peak hour, the silence is overwhelming.  With so many people in the one space, there is a need to be considerate. Cleanliness is also extremely important, and it’s everyone’s responsibility.  I watched a man bend over and pick up a tiny scrap of paper from the ground on a busy train platform.  He could have complained to someone about how the government should keep public areas clean, but instead he just did his bit.

When common sense prevails, culture thrives and so does community.  I have been awed by the number of people in both Tokyo and Kyoto who have gone out of their way to ask us if we need help, to give us directions, and even to leave their tasks/jobs to walk us to our destination.  It is incredibly humbling.

Ironically, increasing controls, measures and KPIs to drive performance may actually be decreasing accountability, organisational culture and team building – the very things needed to drive sustainable performance and productivity.  Where could you cull the rule book and let common sense prevail?  How could you engage your team in making and implementing these changes?

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