People who already work or are planning to find work in Japan are bound to encounter cultural differences. One of which is the Japanese concept of ‘Horenso’.
What is Horenso?
‘Horenso'(報-連-相) is an abbreviation of ‘Hokoku'(報告-report), ‘Renraku'(連絡-contact/inform) and ‘Sodan'(相談-consult/ask advice). It’s pronounced the same way as “ほうれん草 (spinach)”. And much like spinach makes Popeye stronger, ‘Horenso’ is believed to make the Japanese business world stronger and easier to navigate.
How does Hosenso work?
For the sake of the example, let’s imagine that you receive a task of collecting, sorting and counting apples. You are to collect all apples that have fallen to the ground and sort them into ‘damaged and unusable’, ‘slightly damaged but usable’ and ‘no damage perfect’. Then you have to count the apples and store the good ones and dispose of the damaged ones.
You learn all this at the initial briefing.
Most people who have experience working in Europe or the US would not think of reporting back every time they find an unusually small apple or one that is not damaged, but still not ripe to eat. In Japan, however, you are expected to do just that.
A Japanese ‘salaryman’ brought up in the system, would report to his direct manager every few hundred apples. And consult with the said manager most times he has to decide which apples to throw away.
The manager would, of course, do the same to his superior. And this would continue all the way up the command chain.
In the ‘western’ working culture, this is often seen as ‘micromanaging’ at best. Or worse, a waste of time and resources.
In both Europe and the US is able to work on ‘own initiative’ is often an asset, an employee is encouraged to demonstrate.
Then why does the Japanese use it?
What is good about Horenso?
Ideally, it should encourage teamwork and maximize performance while minimizing the risk (caused by individual failure).
If you replace apples in the above example with something more valuable, it becomes apparent why it is potentially more effective to use ‘Horenso’.
Think of it as a ‘save’ function in a video game or the ‘undo’ command in MS office tools. Both should ease the weight of making a crucial mistake of the worker and let him or her focus on the task at hand.
The feedback the worker gets from his or her superiors should also make the job easier.
And if worse should come to the worst and the project fails, it is usually the superiors who take the blame.
How to do a proper Horenso?
・Give frequent progress updates.
Depending on the job at hand, and the scale of the project, the interval of the updates can vary. The norm is to do a status update on the start of the day (state your goals for the day). And a progress report at the end of the day.
・Report any mistakes immediately.
Instead of trying to fix the mistake or somehow halve the damage it has caused yourself, report the mistake right away and wait for feedback.
Try to leave your personal opinion out. Focus on reporting and informing on facts.
・Inform your team members.
Try to share as much information on the project as possible. Luckily nowadays, there is a multitude of tools available that help us do that. Be it google services for the general office work or Github for IT Jobs there are several ways to keep the team updated.
‘Horenso’ is a standard at most Japanese companies and everyone who aspires to get a job in Japan should, at last, have a basic understanding of it. Depending on the nature of the work, the way the concept is applied might differ.
For example, at a modern, IT start-up, the tech lead might ask you for verbal heads up every few hours. Everything else would be easier to check for trough version control tools.
Whereas in a more traditional office you should expect to write daily reports.
Even if you are not convinced of the benefits of ‘Horenso’ and think the time writing reports is time wasted better spent working on the project. And you are happy to bear responsibility for all your mistakes (should you make any) alone, it still might be worth giving ‘Horenso’ a go. If nothing else, it might end up being a valuable cultural experience.