Building on Chapter 4’s Short on feedback theme…
Amid growing tensions between a joint U.S and Korean launch team in a US-based facility, the first US venture for the Korean company, I was asked to conduct a series of cross-cultural coaching sessions. Polite consensus by the leadership was that the problem was “cultural”—Koreans not understanding Americans and visa-versa.
Most of the American team were well seasoned —handpicked because they had been top performers in their previous jobs. Likewise, the Korean team members were highly experienced—but this was their first overseas’ assignment.
What surfaced during our discussions was that the new American management had been searching for documented policies and procedures to guide them in decision-making and day-to-day work. For example, those who had been former Toyota staff looked for a model similar to the Toyota Way, while others who had worked for Ford Motor Company sought manuals of standard operation procedures (SOPs). As a result of not finding guidelines, some of the Westerners were concerned that the Koreans were deliberately withholding vital information as a form of control and power even though the Korean and Americans were to be considered equals in decision making and project oversight.
Probing deeper, I found that the Korean managers, although limited in their overseas experience, were sincere in sharing responsibility and relied heavily on the American staff. What also surfaced was that there were, in fact, no formalized procedures or processes. In part this was rooted in the Korean mindset discussed in Chapter 2; Korean projects remain flexible and continually change. This, of course, was a stark contrast to the American teams who were groomed in a western production model.
What I also uncovered and shared with the Western management was that the Korean management actually respected the Western production model. In fact, there was an expectation that over time and based on know-how the American teams would fine tune the transplanted process and standardize procedure for the US operation.
Several years ago during a group workshop which I hosted for Korean and Western senior managers, the discussion quickly focused on one-way communications. The local American teams voiced puzzlement over receiving little or no feedback on any reports or studies they provided to the headquarters in Korea. For example, at the direction of HQ the local team devoted considerable effort to the benchmarking of competitors and compliance testing but received no feedback. This, of course, led to considerable frustration, because in their previous employment the Westerners had been actively involved in high profile projects with considerable feedback and follow-up.
Summing up their frustration, they felt that information flowed only one way. Korea would request, and their job was to simply fulfill.
Collecting his thoughts, a senior Korean participant pointed out that local input was respected, but he, too, rarely received direct feedback for the work performed in the local office. In fact, what comments he did receive centered on achieving deadlines or were questions and requests.
Continuing, the Korean manager explained that despite what might seem to be an endless flow of reporting back to the HQ, he personally felt that senior management reviewed those options and took them into consideration. In fact, Korean leadership placed high levels of trust in the local teams and their judgment.
Listening attentively, I added that in Korea the formal communication channel was usually top down. The role of staff in the ranks was to execute, not question, and then report their findings to leadership. Seeking to change that model would be a challenge. Instead I suggested another option– both teams meet weekly for a joint lunch meeting. The local Korean team could share news as it surfaced and add their perspective. In turn, the American team could use the opportunity to present new ideas and approaches to ongoing projects. Over time they would at least improve inter-team communications, leading to better understanding.