Today we are going to look at a different kind of innovation.

It’s not technology. It’s not patentable, and I’m not sure it’s scalable. But it is important.

It turns out that the story behind a Japanese viral video can teach us a lot about the future of work. It’s an example of Japanese innovation at it’s best

I think you’ll enjoy it.


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Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

I have a special story for you today. 

No guests. No playful banter. Today it’s just you and me and a story about Japanese innovation at its very best. And it’s also the real story behind a famous video about Japan that you’ve probably seen a dozen times on the internet and on western news shows.

But like so many stories about Japan, the media gets this one wrong; or at least get it incomplete. They leave out the part of the story that actually teaches us something important about Japan.

But there is something pretty amazing going on once you dig into it, and so that’s what we are going to do.

The story I’m talking about is the so-called “seven-minute miracle” of the Shinkansen cleaning crew. If you live in Japan, you’ve probably witnessed this personally, and I’ll put a link to the video in the show notes for any listeners who have not already watched it.


The Seven Minute Miracle

The Shinkansen is both an engineering and an operational marvel. There are times when JR East is running trains three minutes behind each other at 320 kilometers per hour. To make this work requires an insane commitment to schedule. A departure is only considered to be on-time if happens within fifteen seconds of its scheduled time; no earlier, no later than 15 seconds. And most trains arrive within six seconds of their scheduled time. 

Part of making this work means that at Tokyo station, each train has only a 12-minute turnaround-time. It takes about five minutes to get the current passengers off and the new passengers on, which leaves seven minutes for cleaning. 

In those seven minutes, a crew of 22 people clean 1,000 seats, wipes down all the tray tables, exchanges seat and headrest covers, turns the seats 180-degrees to face the new direction, cleans the floors and bathrooms, empties all the wastebaskets, collects any forgotten articles from under the seats or in the overhead racks to turn into the lost and found, adjusts the window blinds, and generally makes sure everything on the train is neat and tidy. In seven minutes.

And the cleaners do it all with an efficiency and grace that seems more like the mastery of a craft than the execution of a duty. When they are done, usually with time to spare, they assemble on the platform at the front of the train and bow in unison to the passengers who are about to board. 

Sometimes the passengers even clap. 

And a few minutes later, a new train arrives, and this is repeated for each of the 120 to 170 Shinkansen trains that depart Tokyo every single day. 

It’s amazing to watch, and a few years ago CNN picked up the story, and the whole world was, quite rightly. impressed. However, the CNN story focused on how Japanese employees are so efficient and take pride in their work.

And that’s not quite true. I mean, these employees clearly are, and Japanese workers certainly can be dedicated and efficient, but anyone who tells you that Japanese employees are just naturally dutiful and efficient has clearly never had to manage Japanese staff. 

In fact, even in this celebrated case, it was not always so. This is a relatively recent development, and looking at the innovations that began in 2005 can also tell us a bit about where the gig-economy is headed and the kind of innovation that Japan can bring to the world. 


The Making of a Miracle

The company responsible for the seven-minute miracle is Tessei, and in terms of corporate culture, they are about as far away from a startup as you can get. They were founded in 1952 as a cleaning subsidiary to the JR rail-monopoly and were handed over to JR East when JR was broken up in 1987. 

Back in 2005, both the Japanese character, and the Shinkansen schedules were very much the same as they are today, but things were not well at Tessei or in their cleaning crews.

The job was considered dirty, dangerous, and dead-end, so it was hard to both recruit and retain employees. Morale was low. Performance was poor. Delays were frequent.  

Tessei management responded to this the way managers worldwide tend to respond to these situations. They increased training and supervision and upped the number of checks and inspections. Unsurprisingly, this had the effect of pushing morale down even further. The delays increased, and so did accidents and customer complaints. 

At this point, JR East sent in Teruo Yabe to take over business planning at Tessei and he began to change things. In fact, he began doing things that seemed to go against the very concept of efficiency. 

The previous goal was to make the cleaning crews almost invisible. To the passengers, this rapid cleaning was to happen almost magically. Yabe turned this idea on its head. 

He began a program that he called “Shinkansen Theater” 

He changed the uniforms from the pastel tones designed to blend in with the trains’ interior to a bright red that ensured that the cleaners would stand out. The passengers could clearly see that the cleaners were there and what they were doing. Which is the first step to appreciating what they are doing. Waiting to board is much less annoying when you understand why you are waiting, and hey when you think about it, cleaning 1,000 seats in seven minutes and doing a good job of it, well that is pretty impressive. 

Yabe made other changes as well. For example, he allowed the cleaners to speak with the passengers, were before they had been prohibited, in the name of both efficiency and lack of training. Most of the questions passengers ask cleaning crews turn out to be related to cleaning or the station layout, and the ones they can’t answer? Well, no one seemed too bothered by an honest “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Importantly, however. it turned out that allowing this communication not only did not distract the cleaners from their job, but It increased the passengers’ understanding of and appreciation for the job they were doing. 

In fact, about this time, something rather remarkable began to happen. As the Shinkansen passengers began to see what an amazing job the cleaners were doing, the passengers began picking up after themselves, and the amount of trash left behind for the cleaners to clean up, began to drop. 

Yabe also made important cultural changes. He encouraged employees to report the best things about their coworkers to their managers. He took suggestions from the employees and developed a career path by which part-time cleaners had a clear path to a full-time job and the full-time cleaners could enter the management ranks. 

Efficiency improved. Training costs dropped. Employee morale and retention skyrocketed. And within a few years, Japan’s seven-minute miracle came to be. 

And Yabe-san, Tessei, and the cleaning crews have received well-deserved International recognition for what they achieved. Rail operators Fromm all over the world come to study these cleaning crews, and Harvard Business School has developed case studies to document and understand this incredible turnaround. 


The Story Behind the Miracle

And that’s great.  But there is something very important and innovative here that tends to get overlooked. 

On one hand, this is the kind of just-so story about Japan that the foreign media loves. It’s positive and uplifting and at first glance, it seems to be one of those stories of diligence and efficiency that only happens in Japan. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 

I mean, it’s easy and somehow satisfying to attribute the diligence of the cleaning crews and the tidiness of the passengers as something uniquely Japanese. But it’s not. This was a change in behavior.  Neither the Shinkansen cleaners nor the passengers were doing this in 2005 but they were in 2010, and they still are today.

So what really changed?

The real innovation here did not involve introducing efficiency. It involved introducing multiple inefficiencies that enabled greater, sincere human connections, and those connections are what lead to greater efficiencies.

OK. That’s a lot to unpack so let’s step through it. Almost every change Yabe-san introduced risked decreased efficiency and quality of service in the short term. Having the cleaners distracted from their jobs by talking with passengers, decreasing measurement and oversight. Even making the cleaning crews more visible to the customers went against the hospitality and travel best practices which hold that this kind of work is to take place out of sight and all friction for the customer is to be removed. 

But everything Yabe-san did increased the possibilities for human connection. Not the usual, scripted staff-customer communication or the usual manager-staff meetings, but inefficient, unnecessary communication not directly related to completing the task at hand. 

Rather than managing for control and compliance, he was managing for transparency and connection.

Internally this not only resulted in a skyrocketing of morale but an outpouring of creative ideas. The Tessei staff not only came up with innovations that improved their own jobs, but helped design the shape of the bins on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, and they came up with the idea for the nursery and baby areas in Tokyo Station.

And, of course, it was this feeling of human connection that resulted in passengers cleaning up after themselves because they did not want to create extra work for someone they had just seen working so hard.  

It led to people realizing that we are all on this train together. Yes, it eventually made processes more efficient and less expensive, but more importantly, it actually made life a little bit better for everyone involved. 

And that is innovative. That is innovation at its finest. 

This innovation changed the image of cleaning crews all over Japan and unbelievably it’s made a cleaning crew internationally famous and a source of national pride. 


Exporting the Miracle

So can this be replicated outside of Japan?

Well, Yabe-san himself is doubtful. He credits much of the program’s success to a kind of employee will that you don’t see much of outside of Japan. 

But I am going to have to respectfully disagree with Yabe-san on this. If we look into what this innovation actually is, if we break it down into systems, we’ll see that is it not uniquely Japanese at all, but something universal.

Naturally, there is tremendous interest in replicating the seven-minute miracle overseas. When the French national rail president visited Tessei in 2014 he gushed that “We need your cleaning crews in France!” 

While I’m sure the sentiment is appreciated, this misses the core of what made this innovation work. It’s not the people. I mean, yes the people are, in fact,  awesome. But the innovation is the system that was deliberately put in place to allows and encourage them to be awesome. If you took those cleaners and dropped them into the French system, they would be behaving like all the other cleaners there within a year.

You see, it’s not that the Tessei cleaners are more efficient than their Western counterparts doing the same job. It’s that they are absolutely not doing the same job. 

They are performing similar tasks, but their jobs, from the employee’s perspective, are completely different. 

More than anything else, the Shinkansen cleaners were given trust and psychological safety. Inspections and oversight were scaled back. The focus on training and monitoring was reduced. Their opinions we listened to and acted upon. They were given a clear path to not only continued employment but to management as well. 

It was only after all this, after management proved that they sincerity valued and trusted their employees, did those employees feel secure enough to value their own work and to make real connections with each other and with the passengers. 

Only then did the efficiency increase and the magic happen. 

The challenge for many imitators is that this commitment can’t be faked or half-assed. The staff has to know the company is sincere and fully committed. Remember, the efficiency improvements at Tessei only happened after Tessei committed to major and permeant structural changes at the company. 

Tessei completely changed the way it ran in order to prove to their cleaners that they were valued. After that, the cleaners rose to the occasion, and to be fair, they rose well beyond the occasion. They really are awesome. 

But companies who dabble?

Those who try out colorful shirts and suggestion boxes for a little while to see if efficiency improves? They are doomed to fail. Employees are smart enough to know when a company is just trying to squeeze a bit more work out of them. 


The Problem with Business Process Innovation

You know, maybe I am kind of agreeing with Yabe-san after all. This is an innovation that will be hard to export, but not because of the staff. I’ve managed plenty of both Japanese and Western staff over the years, and I find that most people really do want to take pride in their work if they are given a chance.

It’s just that so much of modern business innovation is focused on strategies that make it harder and harder for people to take pride in their work.

Outsourced support, the e-commerce supply chain, and the whole gig economy are all based on improving efficacy by standardizing and commodifying jobs and then relentlessly tracking every possible aspect of performance. Protocols are designed and implemented in software to minimize the amount of time customers and staff interact. 

 This, by design, eliminates the need for staff to build direct connection, trust, or long-term relationships. In many platform-based companies, most customers and gig-workers will never interact with anyone who actually works for the company.

And In such an environment, taking pride in your work and going the extra mile? Well, it makes you a sucker. You’ll just burn out faster and be replaced sooner. 

Tessei’s innovation is a direct reversal of all of this 

Having pride in one’s work is almost magical. It improves morale. It decreases turnover. It improves efficiency and innovation. But having pride in a job is a two-way street. If a job is not respected by the company, it will not be respected by the employees who do it. 

Yes. Today the Shinkansen passengers respect the cleaning crew enough to pick up after themselves, and today the cleaners respect their job enough to put their whole selves in it, but in both cases that respect had to be earned. 

But, of course, not all companies are gig-economy companies. Not all companies are trying to outsource non-critical functions to low-cost suppliers. There are many where staff-customer interactions have not yet been outsourced or optimized away. 

So maybe there is a chance that these companies can commit to their employees in a way that lets those employees put their whole selves into their jobs.

Tessei’s innovation is not one based on technology or new processes. It’s based on an understanding of how people interact with each other and what we all aspire to be. 

It made operations more efficient. It decreased costs. It improved morale. It turned a railway cleaning crew into an international sensation, and it made life a little bit better and more enjoyable for everyone involved. 

And that. That is innovation at its very best.



If you want to talk more about work that you take pride in or helping others do so, I would love to hear from you. So come by Disrupting /show175  and let’s talk about it. If you leave a comment I guarantee you I’ll respond.

But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups and innovation know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.