What Omotenashi, the Japanese approach to customer, means
Raju Kutty of Purandara Laser Technologies narrates his first encounter with Japanese manufacturing two years ago and explains what he learned from the experience
23 Mar 2018 | By PrintWeek India
Six years after starting my die-making business, I had reached a crossroad. It was time to replace my used laser with a new one. I needed a reliable machine with a low cost in use.
When it comes to a laser machine, a die-maker has limited options. There are two German companies and maybe an Italian one, besides a host of Chinese firms. I had decided that the German brand I had been used so far was my only choice. But I did not have the cash to invest in a new machine.
Then my friend Shyam suggested an alternative — a company in Japan who makes similar machines.
I decided there was no harm in checking out the Japanese company before we decided on the German one. So, I and my colleague Kiran set out to Tokyo, accompanied by Shyam, who by this time, was working as an agent for this company.
Coming to Japan
As we left the Narita Airport, we were accosted by a young Japanese man who bowed and extended his hand to Shyam, introducing himself, “I am Motoaki Yamada.” He was young and he was the CEO of the company we were exploring.
He again bowed and told me, “You can call me Moto.” We shook hands. There was another person, who introduced himself as Asomi Watanabe. We walk into a sprawling parking lot towards Watanabe’s car (a Honda, of course).
The drive into downtown Tokyo is scenic. The roads were not as big or wide as those in China or in the Middle East. The drivers were all disciplined. I asked Moto-san to make a local call, to my classmate Riju Pillai, who lived in Tokyo at the time.
I was not sure how my meeting with Riju would go as I was seeing him after 20 years, but, as fate would have it conversations with him changed the course of things completely.
Riju promised to meet me at my hotel. As soon as I came down to the lobby after a quick bath, there he was, conversing with my Japanese host. My host suggested that we take the metro to find a restaurant. Soon we reached a little restaurant and this is where the fun started. We quickly found that we were to sit on the floor, sort of cross-legged. If Chinese restaurants were mostly awash in red, I noticed the Japanese ones were mostly brown. We were soon served Japanese beer and sushi.
Kutty: "It was pin-drop silence inside the metro"
The sushi was surprisingly delicious, considering our state of mind when we learnt that it was raw fish. I was too tired to think about the next day and was happier talking to Riju about the good old times. In between, we would exchange pleasantries with our Japanese hosts.
Riju seemed to be speaking reasonable Japanese, considering the way our hosts were getting along with him. My host was surprised that we were still in touch after all these years and I could see him talking something, particularly in earnest with him. Then Riju asked me about the purpose of my visit. I told him. Then he asked me about the cost of the investment. I raised two fingers towards him and he asked, “Two lakh?” You can guess the correct answer. His eyes popped out, as I corrected him.
He turned to my host, the young CEO of the company. They spoke while I directed my focus on the sushi. Riju soon turned to me and asked, “Da, ivarentha parayane ninakku pidikittiyo?” (Dude, do you get what he is trying to tell you?) I shrugged my shoulders. Riju said, “Da, he is requesting me to tell you not to judge his company by its size. It’s small, but if you give him a chance, he will do everything he can to see that your faith in him is justified.”
This intrigued me. The man was not indulging in marketing jargons that we use all the time. He was trying to sell his sincerity and authenticity. It felt different.
Now, Riju gave me more information. “The Japanese are like this,” he said. “If you give them a chance, they will go all the way for you. They can think only in one direction – the long term. For them, every customer is a partner whose success in business is their responsibility.”
I took in the words with a sense of wonder. Riju asked me to go around the whole company, without simply focusing on the laser machine and its technical features. He told me to try and reach out to the people at the company shopfloor, evaluate how happy they seemed to be in the workplace, and find out whether the company treats people the right way.
These things had not occurred to me as this is not how we tend to think as we evaluate capital investment decisions.
Japan at work
The next day, we set out to meet two die-making companies in Tokyo. The first company was a small die-maker who made free-hand dies, typically for commercial print jobs. The first thing I noticed outside the plant was something that looked like a big generator. I was told that it was a plant that treated the fumes from the laser machine. This was a common sight at Japanese die shops.
My colleague Kiran took a look at the tool room. All sorts of benders, manual lippers, notchers, circle benders were in the tiny room. Kiran told me this is how a tool room should be. It was a complete tool library where every type of bend could be perfectly created. The perfectionist in my colleague fell in love with the place. It was an inspiring sight.
The die boards looked neat and aesthetic. The plywood was of extremely good quality, which I found to be a Japanese make. We had not seen Japanese die boards before and mentally made a note that we should be looking to buy those for high-quality work. The finish of the laser machine and the cutting quality were satisfactory and neither of us could find much to complain about.
Then we visited another die-maker called Takahashi. This trip had us floored. It was a small building about four-storey high, housing the company run by the second generation Takahashi and his mother. All the rule processing machines, laser machines were manufactured by Moto. All these equipment only for blister dies! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The tooling looked so beautiful. A blister die with layers of laser-cut die board, rules bent and fixed on the top layer, craters around the insides is a sight indeed. We had done our share of blister pack dies but to see a company doing only this one type of die was amazing. Back home, we had to make every type of die that we could, in order to survive. Anything else would be unthinkable. Such was the pressure on the business. Here it was completely different.
The laser room had the machine, die boards stacked vertically on a side, and one single operator running the machine, fine-tuning the laser cut, then transferring into the tooling. At our company, we had three people doing this job. The operator was working silently, completely ignoring us. Zen-like. Complete focus on the task at hand. Zero distraction.
A vague thought occurred to me that only such people can make a really good laser machine. The human brain was like a precision laser. This attitude of laser-like focus on the work at hand was obvious wherever we went.
Focus. Specialise. Perfect your craft.
This was what they were doing. This was the most important thing I observed that day. For them, it was not about reaching the top or making more money or achieving higher status. It was simply about getting better at your job. For Takahashi, it was about making better dies.
The next day, we left for Osaka on the Shikansen Bullet train. I have to admit the silence on the train was unsettling. The only thing to do was to wait for the train to reach Mount Fuji so that I could take a photograph. It duly came, pictures were taken and soon enough, we were at the Shin Osaka station. Moto’s father Toshio Yamada was awaiting at the station and he took us on his multi-utility vehicle (a Toyota this time), through the strikingly beautiful city of Osaka to his company. I had been told earlier that this gentleman was a machine builder and a hardcore engineer who built the first machines himself!
They had a company nearby preparing die boards for other die makers where we were to conduct trials with the cutting files that we had brought. We spent time testing the cut, checking out the software interface, how easy it is to import files, arrange them and send to the machine. Again, we did not find much to complain about. The trials were largely uneventful.
Kutty: "Quality of laser cut is always evaluated at the bottom of the die-board
Soon we were at the company. This was a complete jolt and I realised why my host made the initial comment about not judging the company by the size of the plant. We entered a small workshop where we saw an elderly couple working on metal sheets, with a couple of CNC machines to bend and tune metal, all from Fanuc. Moto introduced the couple as partners of Yamada-san. They were working on the metal frames for the machine. Again silent, Zen-like, just a smile to the customer from far away and then back to work.
I was underwhelmed, as I am used to seeing machines being made at big shopfloors by hundreds of employees. I told this to Kiran. My colleague, on the other hand, was completely impressed when he saw the partner of the company working directly on the machine. He also pointed out to me how the CNC machinery and material being used were top-notch.
The main factory, which was across the street, was equally underwhelming. We could see a few lasers in various stages of assembly and maybe a couple of young technicians. I could feel myself sinking, thinking of a life or death investment with such a team who couldn’t speak a word of English.
At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing the quality of what went into the machine. The laser generator, CNC controllers, servo motors were all from Fanuc. Top quality stuff, extremely reliable and just what the doctor ordered for a company reeling from machine breakdowns. I ask Yamada-san to explain the functioning of the laser. He struggled with his English and I just gave up.
I decided this was it. There’s no way I was committing to this. I would just go back to my room, try to hang on for the next day and then fly out.
Funnily enough, the more I sank, the more I could see Kiran getting charged up. He was excitedly going around, checking the laser nozzle, the X and Y axis beds. I could actually see him suggesting to Yamada-san that the nozzle design should not be like this; it should be like this instead. And Yamada-san was nodding, taking notes. Kiran told me, “Sir, they know what they are doing. This is the type of people we should be working with.”
I was not that convinced yet, though my faith in Kiran’s judgment was absolute. My unhappiness must have reflected on my face, because the elder Yamada looked me straight in the eye and said in broken English, “Please believe us. We make a very good machine for you. Service we arrange from Fanuc India.”
I got what I wanted. The old man had zeroed in on my problem. He talked to someone over the phone and then told me in his typical broken English “Now, I talk to Fanuc, Japan. They call Fanuc India and inform us.”
Moto also jumped in. “Raju-san, I give you the machine for x-amount of Yen.”
Like the Godfather said, make an offer he cannot refuse.
Another phone call from Fanuc and I made up my mind. I said once I was back in India, I would visit the Fanuc India centre in Bengaluru and evaluate for myself the service infrastructure. If I am convinced about their ability to support me, then they have their first laser in India
The Japanese approach to customers
All that happened two years ago.
My laser is now more than a year old and touchwood, we are happy and back in the game. The Japanese were true to their promise. Even now, a message Whatsapped to Moto-san elicits a response immediately. It has been unbelievable as we are accustomed to being promised the moon and being delivered substandard meteors.
Six months into the installation, we get a mail from Moto-san. They had been working on the modifications that Kiran had suggested while we were at the factory. These were on the bed settings and the nozzle. Those parts were made and they modified their next machine which had gone to Korea. They had prepared another set and were flying to Kochi to fix it onto our machine. No charges, obviously. This is how seriously they took customer feedback. We realised that we had unknowingly given them a couple of ideas to improve their machine and they had acted on it immediately.
The moment they hear about a problem, they immediately get into action, talking on the phone, to a technician, to Fanuc, and within minutes, they have a solution. They just don’t create room for you to suffer. Again, Zen-like.
This customer service culture was summed up to me by Riju: “Customer service (The Japanese word is Omotenashi, which is popularly used in the hospitality industry to signify attention to customer comfort) in Japan is unique unto itself. The goal of Omotenashi is not just money; it is to satisfy the customer with the sincerity of the service being given. Therefore, Omotenashi is not a fixed service, but rather, the provider adjusts his service to customer needs.”
I find the approach to be authentic, no ‘synergising the customer’, no ‘customer-centric approach’ jargons, which are anything but customer-centric. This is genuine customer service. not just marketing blah blah.