The Idea of Wa in Nemawashi:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Nemawashi and the idea of “Wa”. “Nemawashi” literally means to “dig around the roots” so that you can successfully transplant a plant from one location to the other. Nemawashi is considered to be an important part of Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment) as a means to get group consensus. Toyota puts great emphasis on building consensus. In fact, Toyota defines “Genchi Genbutsu” as “go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals at our best speed.”

Why is building consensus such an important thing? One logical answer is that if you do not have consensus then you do not have buy-in from everybody, and your goals will not be achieved. My best understanding is that this is all about “Wa”. “Wa” can be translated from Japanese as “group harmony”. This is a very important cultural concept for the Japanese. The idea of “wa” is so important to them that the term “wa-fu” means “Japanese-Style”.

Dig Around the Roots:

The idea of nemawashi comes from the world of gardening. The gardener transplants a plant with great care. This would mean that the dirt around each root is carefully moved so that the act of transplanting does not shock the plant. This is an act of care and attention.

Nemawashi serves the most important role of not disrupting harmony in the organization. Nemawashi is a process of building consensus. The main idea of nemawashi is to get buy-in from everybody involved and this can be often done “before” the idea is formally introduced in a larger group setting. This can be done as a one-on-one casual chat over lunch or playing golf, or as an informal sub-group meeting with 2 or 3 people. These kinds of conversations are open and allows for the voices of both parties to be heard. The proposal can be polished based on the initial feedback so that when it is officially presented, it does not get rejected. A good nemawashi would have feedback from all of the key influencers before the idea is introduced in a formal group setting. A good nemawashi goes through several iterations so that each feedback, concern or hesitation, is carefully addressed. Sometimes one has to go back to the drawing board based on the strong opposition from a key-player. All of this is done before the idea is formally introduced. The “roots are loosened” through this process so that the idea (plant) can be safely transferred to be deployed. The nemawashi process can be a lengthy process since each person making the decision is given a chance to separately weigh in, and the appropriate modifications are made and consensus is again obtained.

It is interesting to note that in the Japanese culture, there are few surprises allowed in a meeting. This is against the idea of wa. The meeting is conducted to formally agree on things that are already informally agreed upon, and to report/share statuses. The key players in the meeting are already made aware of all the important matters in advance of the meeting. This clearly shows the respect for wa. In contrast, in the western world, the meeting is a means for people to talk about things and sometimes debate. This approach in the Japanese world would make everybody uncomfortable since they are debating in the open and the harmony is disrupted. All the discussion and debate is done offline in a much smaller group setting. This way nobody has to publically concede or compromise.

One of the systems used to document the nemawashi process is the Ringi system that uses an A3 size document. This document clearly states the purpose of the project, the current state, the ideal state, the proposed countermeasures, the cost information etc. All of this is contained in the A3 size paper. This is not the same as the A3 thinking in Lean. The Ringi system is simply a proposal approval system.  This is also referred to as Ringi-sho system.

Final Words:

My purpose for today’s post was to give some background on the concept of nemawashi and to explain the philosophical and cultural importance of nemawashi in Japan. The concept of nemawashi is strongly rooted in the concept of wa – group harmony. I will finish this post with an interesting anecdote (in his words) from Don George at National Geographic that further explains the idea of wa.

In my lecture I’d recounted one experience I had at the very beginning of the trip after checking into our hotel in Kyoto. I was in the lobby elevator, headed for my room on the ninth floor, when two beautiful kimono-clad Japanese women entered and pressed the button for the fifth floor. As the elevator rose, we exchanged pleasantries in Japanese. When it stopped on their floor and the door opened, they both bowed to me and one said, “O saki ni, shitsurei shimasu”—essentially, “Excuse me for leaving the elevator before you.”

My unspoken reaction at the time had been, “Well, since your room is on the fifth floor and mine is on the ninth, you really don’t need to apologize for getting out before me.” But of course, that was beside the point. We were sharing the experience of being in the elevator together, and they were breaking that happy harmony by departing before I did. And so in consideration of that, it was only proper to apologize.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Goal of Lean.


4 thoughts on “The Idea of Wa in Nemawashi:

  1. Love Nemawashi, it’s sort of my job description. When I talk about ‘Wa’ I sometimes use ‘Bushido’ instead, as if a whole seperate concept. It’s a traditional Japanese stereotype for honour, (like Katsumoto’s serene village in The Last Samurai), but I find people get it straight away. Although literally an appreciation for harmony, I describe it as more like a cultural mores, built deep into the bones, or filling the air, whichever metaphor suits. Have you done Hansei, yet?


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