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Jim Benson


What We Know: Honne. What We Say: Tatemae

Building a culture of information flow

Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 13:02

Editor’s note: This is episode two in the Respect for People series. Click here for episode one.

When we build any working system, we need to understand and appreciate how people naturally exchange information. They withhold some things, say some other things. Some of this is fear, some is etiquette, some is politeness, some is avoidance. Can we build systems to actually provide people with the information they need and the right triggers for action?

We were working with a startup with about 160 people. They were listing out the areas of their tech platform they wanted to reengineer. We laid out all the work that could be done and evaluated it for impact, effort, cost, and expertise.

We came up with a lot of results.

We came up with a direction.

But something didn’t feel right. So I drew a box and told them team (about 30 people) to put the stickies with the part of the system that scared them the most, made them lay awake at night, or that they knew would explode and bring the whole thing down one day.

The box soon had three stickies.

There was a pause.

People took two stickies out.

One issue. One area of abject fear.

It was in none of our previous lists of work.

“Why is that not in any of our previous lists? Why haven’t we discussed this?”

We can create our own context.

Everyone was quiet. The ticket was Honne, i.e., everyone knew the truth but didn’t want to be the person who expressed it. The actions of the entire day were the dark side of Tatemae, i.e., a psychologically unsafe environment, where people were afraid to speak, led to the withholding of crucial discussions.

That one section of the code database could literally destroy the company at any minute, and it was the core of their system. Changing it would be difficult. It would force people to admit that mistakes were made (big, expensive, intentional mistakes). It was the beating heart of the product, and surgery on it could make the system go into cardiac arrest. Impacts were extreme, fear was high. Product terrorism ruled.

In that meeting, for only a moment, we’d built a bubble of safety where people could have the real discussion by putting that sticky note in that box. We built, however small, a system for surfacing Honne in a world of information-stifling Tatemae.

Watch the video “Honne and Tatemae—Episode Two in the Respect for People Series.”

Dialogue, duologue, diatribe: It’s only talk

Information is money, it’s product, it’s business, it’s power, it’s kindness, it’s the raw materials of what we create, and it is the products we create.

Like trade, when it moves freely, people tend to thrive. When it is withheld, people tend to suffer.

Culture drives how information is delivered, when it is delivered, and how it is interpreted.

A kiss on the forehead from Don Corleone didn’t mean he was happy you stopped by.

When we are building systems of work in a modern environment, we need to ensure that information flows smoothly and purposefully to all who need it, when they need it. The trick here is that information doesn’t flow linearly from station to station along a conveyor belt; it flows (i.e., is processed) through human beings.

People take information, they process it, and they pass it along via voice or email or instant message or software code or spreadsheets or memos or... you get the idea. So many different media conveying so many different messages in so many stages of understanding. So much vital information flowing through different individuals’ realizations (Honne) and what they feel safe to say (Tatemae). Each station transmuting information in healthy and unhealthy ways.

It’s personal

In any relationship, there are things you think or know (Honne) and things you say or project (Tatemae). Often they are the same; sometimes they are not. In the West we have many words for these two concepts: politeness, composure, political correctness, etiquette, and so on. But they all boil down to one thing.

What are things I can say in my current setting that will help, and things might I say that will be unhelpful or destabilizing?

In lean, the andon cord is a clear expression of understanding that a problem has reared its head. In the fast-paced world of work, Tatemae on an assembly line would never include yelling, “Lookit that... a problem!” even if we wanted to. It is not part of the social contract of the assembly line. However, creating the cord or the button or the action that drives that conversation makes it part of acceptable discourse.

By using the andon, we make something usually withheld (Honne) into something expressed and even expected (Tatemae). The structure of the system made socially awkward communication just part of doing your job, thereby removing the stigma.

When we are building positive systems, we need to ask ourselves some key questions:
• What information is often withheld or poorly communicated?
• Where is the stable of six-ton elephants that refuse to be discussed?
• What conversations generate fear?

Build the system

Tatemae is very important. Understanding what information, attitude, responses, and so on will help maintain evenness and flow in the organization is crucial. If everyone runs around yelling they don’t like this or don’t agree with that, only endless meetings can result.

People will naturally create cultures to not hurt the people they care about or to protect themselves. Threat, fear, and poor management scale faster than any aggressive cancer.

Tatemae doesn’t care about lean or your value stream or visualization. It is straight up socialized fear in the workplace. It’s shared. It’s status quo. It’s cultural. It’s viral.

Either you own it or control it... or it controls and owns you.

So the system you create needs to build the Tatemae of production. Knowing roles, knowing how value is delivered, knowing how you personally fit into the system, knowing how you can improve. All those are the light side of Tatemae.

When withholding information hurts the team or the organization, that is, in turn, the dark side of Honne. When we are able to have our own observations and know how to helpfully present them (even if they are upsetting), that is its light side.

You must build your own humane systems of work, understanding that information flow is always personal. If people do not have the mechanisms to communicate, information flow will be uneven. Uneven flow kills careers, ruins quality, and causes more rework than we could ever calculate.

Build systems of healthy Honne through healthy Tatemae.

First published Sept. 3, 2019, on Medium.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.