In the fifteen years that I worked in Japan, I was late only once. To be late was unthinkable and the ultimate transgression in business. The one time it happened, I was off by an hour for a big dinner. Everyone had waited as they watched their meals go cold. Nobody had dared to start and I was horrified on arrival. This was material for nightmares.
Recently in the US, I was meeting an elderly Lao couple. They had been in America for more than 30 years. I was ready to declare them completely Americanized if they were to come on time. Granted, traffic is a good excuse for being late, but arriving nonchalantly a full hour later confirmed for me that they were still true to their upbringing.
Not to make cultural judgments, but I often wonder how development can happen without a more precise sense of time. In most cases, business is run by the minute, not the hour and without deadlines of some sort, plans can easily derail or simply be forgotten. Communication and coordination needs a common clock to run.
Cultures of course are not monolithic. Behavioral norms seem set in stone, but we should also look at the exceptions. Before we know it, a tiny ink spot changes the overall hue and we quickly call this the new normal. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a local team that is not only the exception in my experience, but is also exceptional.
The team members don’t just come on time in the morning, they are early. One in particular says she hates weekends because she can hardly wait until work starts again on Monday. She loves the office. This is a team of teacher trainers and they have the schools and students in their hearts. That’s why they’re able to set their own deadlines and make things happen. They tackle knotty problems using their power of observation and innovation. I am flattered that they can see and understand things now that I cannot. Yes, they still need guidance and need face-to-face communication, but they respond because they want to learn. While technically being trainers, they are students in the best sense.
I can testify to their sincerity and dedication because of what happened one day. In an attempt to go beyond the generic teleprompter response, I asked them to explain what their motivation was. Why try to improve education?
As each took their turn to tell their story, they choked up and broke down in a cathartic disclosure of all the opportunities that had passed them by. In a family of ten, an older brother went to school at the expense of a younger female sibling. One woman’s father was paralyzed and nearly comatose so she couldn’t give herself permission to use family money for school. Someone else talked about being slapped for the wrong answer or humiliated by wealthy classmates. They had been robbed of opportunity, but now have been given a chance. They have the chance to make it better for the next generation of students.
I assured them that they had come home. They had found their safe harbor and that if they were committed to work and learn and keep the vision in their hearts, they could do phenomenal things for education. This is a new culture that can be cultivated to grow.