The End of Perfect?

April 10, 2011 4 min read

While I was living in arguably the best hotel in Singapore for a year, I mustered my courage, approached the manager and finally told him that I thought there were some things that this hotel and staff could learn from Japanese hoteliers. I expected anger, but I got resignation. He told me: “My friends who own and manage hotels around the world accept that we will never match Japanese hotels in service or consistency. It is impossible.”

Japan has always been the one place on earth where you could expect perfection. I’m sure there was a time when Japan wasn’t any more perfect than any other place on earth. But for decades, most of us have watched the slow decline of perfection in our cultures — except for automobile manufacturing, where over the last three decades US carmakers have actually caught up to Japan in building an almost flawless car. In most endeavors and certainly in attitudes, perfection is rarely the goal anymore.

I’ve been a professor long enough to remember grading student papers created on typewriters — they were filled with carets and line outs and margin notes. Students couldn’t be expected to retype a whole page just because a word had been misspelled or an article forgotten. They were, however, expected to catch the errors and make proper editorial notes before submitting. Then, the advent of word processors changed all that; we professors expected the final draft to be almost flawless.

With intervening generations of internet, blogs, and iPhone communication, my colleagues and I have often bemoaned that every year the standards of perfection sink lower and lower. Students are hardly to blame for this change. Student’s exemplars of the written word — professional writers and publishers — have very different standards now. 

Once errata statements were something that publishers avoided at all costs. A magazine with a “not” in the wrong place could land a publisher in court for libel. But the standards of perfection have changed. To avoid lawsuits today, a publisher of a website or blog simply has to correct a mistake in a reasonable amount of time after being notified of the problem. With more business communication on Blackberrys and iPhones, misspellings, abbreviations and grammatical errors are tolerated … if noticed at all. These days, a fully formed thought in an email can sometimes be the object of derision in some corporate cultures.

Compare this to my experience as the dean of a business school in Japan a few years ago. I watched as bright, talented Japanese employees would spend full workdays crafting single short emails to their customers. Every word was checked and rechecked by the author and then by an upward cascade of supervisors before it could be sent. I was simultaneously impressed by the precision and saddened by the lack of efficiency. I felt that the talents of many of my people were being wasted. I tried to insist that the quality of the idea was more important than the exact Japanese punctuation. But my entreaties fell largely on deaf transcultural ears.

In the aftermath of Japan’s recent crisis, I have heard the argument that Japan’s focus on day-to-day perfection allowed more important “bigger picture” considerations to be overlooked. Certainly before the earthquake, the power system and day-to-day operations in Japan were probably as efficient and perfectly executed as anywhere on earth. But the minutia of the workaday world can — and probably did — get in the way of envisioning a response to the largest earthquake and tsunami in recorded Japanese history.

As the country rebuilds itself, will the same focus on perfection remain? Or will we see some changes?

In the immediate wake of the triple disasters in Japan last month, perfection has already given way to practicality. Trains don’t necessarily run on time; equipment doesn’t work as it should, meetings are canceled at the last minute; hotel clerks don’t bow and say their lines with proper precision; for the first time in years of my flying on Japan’s domestic airlines, a flight attendant approached me as I boarded and asked in Japanese if it was okay if they didn’t make all the safety announcements in English — in the past, the sight of a foreign name on the passenger roster was enough to guarantee bilingual broadcasts.

When I lived in Japan recently, my apartment was in a very tall building in Tokyo. After the first major earthquake in that location, I remember the room continuing to sway long after the quake was over. The building was recovering its equilibrium. Even more surprising was that once the equilibrium was reached, I could hear gears and machinery in the walls locking in the building’s new position. 

The questions on many minds now are: Can a new equilibrium be found in Japan that will allow for flexibility without “locking in” potentially stultifying precision? And, if there must be a choice, will the nation find a new balance that emphasizes less meticulousness and more litheness? If so, Japan may experience better growth rates and even more creativity. On one hand, I would like to see that. On the other hand, where then in the world will we go to find perfect?