Live each day as if you’re in a time-based competition



WE read a report recently from the mainstream, traditional media about a railway company in Japan apologizing deeply to its patrons for an unexpected departure of one its train services 20 seconds ahead of schedule! Even in the absence of one, single complainant, the train operator issued a formal statement that they were “deeply sorry for the inconvenience to passengers after the 9.44.40 a.m. Tsukuba Express pulled away at 9.44.20am.”

The Guardian opines, “it was an admission that would no doubt raise a sardonic smile among many commuters, and perhaps have them dreaming of relocating to Japan.” For many of us, Filipinos, even for one who thinks he’s a promising nuclear scientist, it won’t be easy being a naturalized Japanese, unless you’re proficient with the language and are married to a Japanese.

Weighing in on the issue with mock contempt, The New York Times says, “it may have been the most profusely regretted 20 seconds in history,” while “living up to Japan’s reputation for being precise as well as contrite.”

Assuming there were passengers who were affected by the 20-second delay, it might not have mattered at all as the next train was to arrive every four minutes as scheduled and as known to its 130 million passengers a year.

But why apologize in the first place? That is what we often hear the Japanese saying – gomen ne (I’m very sorry) – everywhere to everyone whom they might have accidentally upset with the slightest offense.

Japan’s railway system is known around the world for its punctuality and no individual rail worker would dare tarnish that reputation. To further affirm this, the first few buzzwords that came to me were “time-based competition,” “just in time” and “respect for people” – which are essentially the ingredients of the Toyota Production System. Well, maybe not much about ‘respect for people,’ as the Japanese are also known to have fear of foreigners, as demonstrated by one recent incident when a railway conductor was reprimanded for his platform announcement blaming foreign tourists overcrowding some trains and inconveniencing the Japanese, its primary customers.

Nevertheless, the Japanese railway management is often apologetic to its passengers – be it for a premature or delayed departure of one of its trains by a few negligible seconds. If the train is delayed, you may almost certainly expect the railway management to issue written individual excuse letters that you can show your boss, business partner, or even a suspecting girlfriend or wife, to prove your tardiness was the train’s fault.

In Japan, it seems no one is allowed to screw up. That’s the unwritten rule. Even at a young age, if a Japanese boy stole some candies from a neighborhood store, his parents would be horrified and terribly ashamed, short of doing a hara-kiri. That’s an act too remote for a Filipino politician or a noisy blogger to imagine anyone doing for having committed such an offense. To make amends, the parents and grandparents would rush over to the storeowner’s place bearing an expensive gift like a $100 cubic watermelon, while bowing and apologizing profusely.

Imagine for a second that the management and staff of our MRT system are all Japanese. Wow! Thanks for dreaming of Sumitomo’s return as our maintenance service provider. We needed that a long time ago. No thanks to B.S. Aquino 3rd and his cohorts in the previous transportation department for making a monumental mess of the MRT. Please excuse me for that rant. Anyway, it doesn’t happen every week.

But as we all know, the Japanese are generally extra-diligent about doing their job. Even the Yakuza and homeless people are practicing 5S good housekeeping and applying the virtues of kaizen in their respective turfs – such as in a prison cell or a public park, respectively.

Now, can you imagine anybody from the Philippine government seriously doing his job and trying to reduce the number of signatures required for a business permit, or to cut the waiting time for approval, for example? I’ve been to many government offices, from small barangay (villages) to national agencies, while begging for their decent service to taxpayers like me, which I always thought was the whole point of “government service.” Like the last time, when I was discouraged because the bureaucrats in one agency were either too busy with their high-priority tasks, which included but not limited to talking, playing computer games, if not staring blankly in space.
Seriously, in our jurisdiction over 7,107 islands, how do you think business organizations would make up for delays for hours, if not days?

Assuming we are talking about everyday products or services such as food delivery, then what’s the best approach to appease customers affected by the delay? One home-delivery quick-service restaurant knows what’s best – give away P200 gift certificates to customers when the service comes later than expected. Given that the service is always late, you end up having more than 20 certificates in your desk drawer at any given time. That’s about P4,000 worth of frayed nerves, grumbling stomachs and dagger looks at the motorcycle-riding delivery personnel who constantly failed to deliver the goods within the 30-minute promise. Thankfully, these poor people are decent ones who manage to still sound friendly you can’t afford to mistreat them, even though they’re unable to apologize sincerely like a disgraced Japanese train operator does.

If there’s one thing about time-based competition that could make Tropical Hut competitive (for instance), assuming that it would like to be one, then it must proclaim that it can do a 20-minute delivery of its time-honored, famous hamburger to beat the 30-minute industry standard.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts on Elbonomics.


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