The significance of decisions in general is, in a lot of cultures, tied to power and authority. Inevitably, making decisions can be used and seen as a manifestation of such power and authority. Yet, in some cultures, authority is expected to make decisions based upon consensus, and this, surprisingly, is something that the Japanese are very good at.
Japanese companies’ decision-making process differs quite a bit from other cultures, and, perhaps especially, from what one initially would have thought it to look like. As it happens, in the Japanese corporate environment, decisions are made through a process known as “Ringi”, which essentially is a consensus-based bottom-up approach to decision-making.
Meaning of Ringi
The meaning of the term “Ringi” can be separated into two parts; “Rin” meaning the act of submitting proposals to the supervisor and consequently getting their approval, while “gi” stands for deliberations and decisions ( ” Ringi System ” The Decision Making Process in Japanese Management Systems: An Overview).
According to Srilalitha, The Ringi-system is a circulating system that goes through four stages; proposal, circulation, approval and record.
The first stage, the proposal, is oftentimes instigated by some kind of lower manager, then discussed and perhaps reformed during different meetings along the way among the employees. The reasons why ideas are often proposed by lower-level management (although the idea may have originated at the top) are; because they are closer to the issue in question, it is considered a managerial chore as opposed to a higher executive one, and, since the managers can use the opportunity to show off their skills to their superiors (11) ” Ringi System ” The Decision Making Process in Japanese Management Systems: An Overview.
Sometimes, before the decision is to be discussed formally, employees are gathered at more informal meetings. These make out what is known as Nemawashi; the quiet and informal procedure that lays the foundation for a decision to be made. (Nemawashi (根回し), a Japanese concept worth researching) The Nemawashi, if successful, ought to gather support from all sides.
When the whole process is to be formally started, a Ringi-sho will be drafted. The Ringi-sho is the formal document containing the ideas that will then circulate among the different parties for approval. When it is ready, the next stage will be set in motion, and it will thus circulate among the departments that would be affected by whatever ideas are suggested, and they will affix their seals in order to show their support or ideas. Consequently, at any time, the managers may have to modify the document and then resubmit it – taking into account others’ concerns. Eventually, this will lead to the actual approval. When the approvals have been gathered, the final steps are the swiftest ones: in the Ringi-procedure, the role of the president of the company is solely to approve what has already been decided upon through the whole decision-making process (11) ” Ringi System ” The Decision Making Process in Japanese Management Systems: An Overview. As mentioned, this final step is usually very swift, as the decision is based on consensus and is most often not questioned (although the president obviously has the authority to make decisions if he/she so wishes).
A unique stance
When regarding different ways of communicating, leading and deciding in companies, Erin Meyer’s culture map could prove to be a useful tool. The culture map consists of different scales that one can use to showcase what one may experience while dealing and communicating with people from a given culture. This is a tool that is best used while comparing with, or measuring against, another culture. Each scale consists of two dimensions: Communicating (Low-context – High context), Evaluating (Direct Negative Feedback – Indirect Negative Feedback), Leading (Egalitarian – Hierarchical), Deciding (Consensual – Top-Down), Trusting (Task-based – Relationship-based), Disagreeing (Confrontational – Avoids confrontation), Scheduling (Linear time – Flexible time), Persuading (Principles First – Applications First).
As is stated by theprojectabroad.eu, the positioning of a culture on the “deciding scale” is very often close to the positioning of the country on the “leading scale”. However, this is not the case when it comes to Japan; since although its decision-making process is indeed bottom-up and consensual – its leadership is in general hierarchical. Japan can thus be claimed to be unique with its Ringi system. Still, the culture map can be used to showcase where German culture and Japanese culture may differ.
Pros and cons of the Ringi-system in a European setting – and how should Europeans behave with Ringi?
The Ringi system has been both acclaimed and critiqued. It’s been praised for its democratic nature, as well as its ability to render decisions easy to implement (since everyone already has participated in the decision-making process). Because of this, decisions should become well thought-out in the end. The main criticism against the system is usually that it is extremely time-consuming, and that it may be considered problematic in an international setting – after all, the decision-making procedures differ from culture to culture. Yet, Srilalitha Sagi claims that it is “one of the important decision-making processes prevalent in contemporary management practices to succeed in the global markets.” (9) ” Ringi System ” The Decision Making Process in Japanese Management Systems: An Overview). “Ringi System” The Decision-Making Process in Japanese Management Systems: An Overview Srilalitha Sagi, International Journal of Management and Humanities (IJMH) ISSN: 2394-0913, Volume-1 Issue-7, April 2015.
So, what is needed for it to function in a German setting? Firstly, there are some conditions that need to be met in general, such as having a good organizational culture. Furthermore, as is stated at Nemawashi (根回し), a Japanese concept worth researching, the actual key to making the Ringi system work, is in the people involved in the decision-making – so communication is of utmost importance.
Since Japan (although tending to seek consensus in decision-making) is a hierarchical society at least in a corporate setting, it is important for Germans (and other Europeans) to not only communicate clearly in these kinds of processes, but also to do so with a respect for, and understanding of, the importance of rank and certain cultural features (for further reading see: )
Finally, one can use Meyer’s culture map to compare where Germans and Japanese may differ in a business context, and from that point of view design how one communicates and what to expect when dealing with employees/business partners from the other culture. For example, both Germany and Japan are more hierarchical than egalitarian, while they lean towards a consensus-based decision-making. Still, Japan is at the far extremes of both of these scales while Germany is set more towards the center of them – indicating that clear-cut communication may be of importance to prevent misunderstandings; perhaps especially if one does not understand a lot about the Japanese culture and/or communication style. The Japanese are, after all, considered high-context on the communication scale, while Germans are positioned at the opposite end as low-context. Thus, the Ringi system may seem confusing for European employees at Japanese companies when they at the same time have to deal with a high-context communication style within a hierarchical leadership – yet, the procedure itself, being based upon utmost consensus, should not come across as all too foreign to Germans.