A Culture of Inefficiency

July 13, 2016 · 0 comments

The web site Mental Floss recently reprinted a series of helpful instructions written in Japan for Japanese tourists planning to visit America (http://mentalfloss.com/article/55140/10-japanese-travel-tips-visiting-america). These ten sometimes funny, sometimes confusing bits of advice ends with this:

“In Japan, there is great fear of failure and mistakes in front of other people. It is better to do nothing and avoid being criticized than to taste the humiliation of failure. As a result, there are things we wanted to do, but did not, and often regret.

“In America, you can make mistakes, fail, and it doesn’t matter. It is a fundamental feeling that to sometimes be incorrect is natural. In addition, rather than thinking about mistakes and failures, Americans have curiosity and say, ‘Let’s try anyway!’ ”

The Japanese are surprised by the fact that we’re not afraid of failure, even embrace it. Meanwhile, from a similar missive, the Russians are perplexed by our positivity, expectation of happiness, and our insistence on smiling all the time (http://mentalfloss.com/articles/63896/17-russian-travel-tips-visiting-america):

“Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, ‘Are you all right?’ Russians will inquire: ‘Are you ill?’ We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we ‘aren’t sick,’ they ‘stay well.’ We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.

“However, it would be wrong to believe that the Americans with their smiles only create the illusion of well-being and that their smiles are stretched with false joy. This is not so. Americans: they are a nation that truly feels happy. These people get used to smiling from the cradle onwards, so they do not pretend to be cheerful. The desire for a successful happy life is inculcated from childhood.”

The common thread is that we Americans go about our lives with unbridled enthusiasm, smiling our way through mistakes in a constant effort to find happiness in everything we do.

So if Americans are perceived from the outside as being these hyper-enthusiastic, problem-solving, risk-tolerant people, why then do we, in reality, suffer from a culture of inefficiency, a culture of fear that says, “Oh, we could try it a new way, but what if it doesn’t work?” And I think we’ve all worked with the person who’s there to maintain his or her job—that’s what this person does in the organization, simply not get fired.

Even though we maybe are more risk tolerant than other cultures, we’ve certainly experienced the other side of it, and recognize the validity of caution—some sense of trying to do the right thing—not trying to fail, but accepting when we do.

We do understand that not everything we try will work perfectly the first time, but we need to get into the habit of failing fast, and failing in ways that will teach us something. We’re not going to try to do the stupidest thing we can, we’re going to try to take the best options we have available to us and learn a little at a time as we go, exploring the territory between start and done rather than drawing a straight line and trying to force our way through. By fixing the little mistakes as we go we can prevent those little mistakes from accumulating only to cascade into some sort of gigantic disaster that can’t be untangled at the end.

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