When my friend first introduced me to what is now my favorite yakitori restaurant in Tokyo, he told me a story that I still remember to this day.
Long ago, he would frequent another establishment where he used to live. It was a small place, owned by an old man who had been making yakitori for decades. Often, he would see the old man’s trusty apprentice standing behind the grill, carefully turning each stick and sprinkling salt. It was a mundane task, but it was done with absolute focus and precision. Each step and each detail had meaning, and if the process was not perfected, then the taste would not be either.
Years later, my friend moved to another area of town. While exploring the neighborhood, he stumbled upon a bustling yakitori restaurant. Curious and hungry, he stepped inside and ordered a beer along with a few sticks. When something about the taste seemed familiar, he began asking the chef questions. Turns out, this chef was in fact the apprentice at the restaurant he used to frequent. The apprentice had perfected his master’s process, and had gone on to start a restaurant of his own.
Amazed at the level of perfection that the apprentice had achieved, my friend saw an opportunity to franchise. A yakitori restaurant like this could bring bliss to taste buds in every major city around the world. With more money in his pocket this time, he offered to put up all the capital to open restaurants in Singapore, New York, and London.
But to his surprise, the chef declined.
“There is no way I can teach a foreigner to create this taste.”
The Japanese’s dedication to perfection is what makes Japan such an incredible country. There is a reason why Japan has the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants in the world. That perfectionism is also the reason why the trains are always on time, the streets have no trash, the taxis are spotless, and the service is second to none.
For the apprentice to perfect his craft, it took years of preparation. That kind of patience is unique to Japanese culture, and also appears when doing business here. One way to grasp how things are done is to understand how projects are completed. In the U.S., 20% of the work might be research, while 80% is in the execution. But in Japan, 80% of the work is in the research, and just 20% is in the execution. While it may take longer to get the ball rolling, once it does it is hard to stop and the outcome is known.
Both sides have their merits. The Japanese only need one dress rehearsal, and because of all the preparation, the play is perfect. On the other hand, because organizations don’t want to fail, they don’t benefit from the learnings of experimentation. The play is neither better or worse than expected. It is exactly as imagined.
Unfortunately, when we strive for perfection so much that we leave little room for experimentation, we also hinder innovation. So while perfectionism is Japan’s greatest strength, it is also its greatest weakness.