I’ve recently been traveling through Japan, covering all the way from Nagasaki on Kyushu island in the south up to Sapporo in the north. Three weeks. 2500km. By train. Needless to say, Japanese trains are awesome: They’re fast, they’re clean, they’re cheap (at least for tourists), and they will take you pretty much anywhere. But by far the most remarkable thing about them is: They’re on time. All the time. Without exception. Planning to take the 9:00am Nozomi Superexpess from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo? You can bet that people will line up on the platform by 8:50 (in neat, orderly queues, of course, inside the freshly painted markers on the floor). That the train will be there by 8:53. That hundreds of passengers will have stepped off, and you, together with a few hundred others, will have boarded by 8:58. And that the Shinkansen will quietly pull out of the station at 9:00am on the spot. Not one second earlier. Not one second later.
This marvelous spectacle, this perfectly choreographed ballet, is repeated thousands, probably tens of thousands, of times every day, all across Japan. It doesn’t matter if you travel by high-speed rail on one of the busiest routes in the world, on the infamously crowded Tokyo subway, or on an old, diesel-fueled commuter train in the middle of nowhere. It just works.
Having just landed at Vienna airport after three weeks of blissfully zipping around Japan, I got on an ÖBB RailJet Express which, supposedly, was bound for Innsbruck. Next thing I know, we’re 15 minutes behind schedule after less than 10 kilometers into our journey. I’m silently wishing godspeed to those poor wretches who are actually trying to get all the way to Tyrol. I hope they’ve packed supplies for a long trip. And their winter jackets. I, meanwhile, hop off at the next stop. Needless to say that I have already missed my connection at that point, and am left with nothing else to do than contemplating the marvel of railroad travel back home.
As I’m sitting there on cold, hard bench a gloomy platform—in St. Pölten, of all places—I’m beginning to ask myself: How come? I mean, why are some societies, some countries, some groups of people, some organizations, exceptionally good at certain—often quite intangible—elements of what they do?
Public transport being on time is one example, of course. In and of themselves, train delays a minor nuisance that people all over the world (except, it seems, in Japan) have grudgingly learned to live with. Just like with the weather, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about them, right? But if you consider the company you work for, or any other organization you’re involved with, there is a lot of stuff that matters, and that you may have some influence over: Think quality. Think sustainability. Think design. Or think about how individuals within that organization interact with each other: How do they handle mistakes? Conflicts? Do they trust each other? Are they happy to come to work?
All these things, and a lot more that’s even harder to state explicitly, can be summed up as what we broadly understand as an organization’s culture. Or, as I would put it a bit more flippantly: “What is it that we (collectively) care about?”
The Japanese society, collectively, cares about their trains being on time. That’s why passengers line up so neatly as to allow for speedy boarding. That’s why the schedules are designed resiliently, with a particular margin for error built in. That’s why they emphasize precision in the training of their train drivers, and that’s why they constantly invest in the maintenance and improvement of their infrastructure. The people working for Apple, on the other hand, truly care about design. Those making Waldviertler shoes care about sustainability. The folks at the New York Times care about the truth. And so on, and so forth.
What’s interesting about that, particularly in the context of organizational development, is that culture typically is neither created purely from the top down nor from the bottom up. You can ask the question, for example, whether engineers deliberately join apple because they want to work at a place where design is a priority. Or whether Apple’s design-centric culture shapes what people focus on once they come in. Of course, both can be true at the same time. As anyone who’s been through a “mandated” top-down culture change will tell you: It doesn’t work that way. You can’t just stick a poster on the break room wall that says “We care about quality!” and expect that error rates will miraculously go down.
That’s exactly where leadership has to play a crucial role—but not only at the top. Quite the contrary: Especially when you move from being an individual contributor into a broader leadership position you’re increasingly in charge of exemplifying “what we care about” and also of holding others accountable to that. For example, if we want to foster a culture of, say, “quality”, it can be quite hard for people to conceptualize what that means for their day-to-day behavior. But if you, as a leader, or as a peer, start to double proofread your e-mails to get rid of nasty typos, and to also point out (in private!) to others when you feel that they delivered a sub-par performance, you begin to make that abstract concept tangible and actionable.
On my first Shinkansen ride, back in 2016, I was scolded by an elderly Japanese lady—albeit in a nice, respectful way—for not standing in the correct line on the platform as the train pulled in. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but that was her contribution to upholding a culture of punctuality. By reminding this one sloppy tourist of the proper way to do things, because we care about them being done that way, was a tiny, but important, act to thwart the erosion of an established cultural norm. Little reminders like that won’t make ÖBB trains more punctual over night. They won’t magically improve the quality or the design of your product. But by pointing out, explicitly, what it is that you care about, you can slowly and sustainably move things in the right direction.