Japan: A Family Visit


Author: Tamotsu Ito

Positive Deviance Facilitator, Six Sigma - Master Black Belt, and Business Consultant



As the international goal of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) adopted at the United Nations Summit in September 2015, "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” is recognized as an issue on a global scale. On the other hands in Japan, women's social advancement has been the 28th ranking among the member of 29 countries in the 2017 survey by OECD. Also, the understanding of women's social advancement and its achievement are greatly different from region to region, depending on their unique cultural background.

This was a project in a family business company that is located in an area that is said to have a strong trend of predominance of man over woman in Japan. And, because of poor performance at the company, they invited a professional turnaround manager as the new president from outside. And they started the turnaround program and succeeded in a few years, but still, they had many problems at the same time.

The business operation by a male society that was formed under the former owner president continued even after changing to the new president, and there were very few female managers in the whole company. However, in the call center division, many of their employees were female, and low employee satisfaction rating and high rate of employee turnover were more marked than other divisions. In addition, it was difficult to quickly replace employees who left their jobs, and constantly busy conditions had accelerated higher rate of employee turnover.


Define: What is the problem in community?

The employee turnover rate of the call center division in the previous fiscal year was 22.1%. Therefore, Human Resources Department launched the following problem-solving project team on "high rate of employee turnover".

Problem-solving project team:

Owner: Head of Human Resources Department

Leader: Recruiting Representative

Members: Call center staff (Team X with the highest rate of employee turnover)

Employee turnover rate: “Number of retired people” per “headcount on budget”

A PD facilitator as a consultant of the turnaround program was assigned to this project later. When the recruiting representative as project leader started a kick-off meeting, the members from call center said,

"Our colleague has left, and we are so busy. Why do we have to spend time on this project!"

"Even if we are asked about the people who left from this company, I do not know that!"

And knockout punch, "This is a company issue, right?"

The PD facilitator thought that the members were 100% correct from the standpoint of the members. At the same time, the PD facilitator remembered the story of Mother Theresa. She said, "I will not participate in the march against the war, but I will participate in the march for peace." So, the PD facilitator asked a flipped question to the members.

"What matters to you is your colleague retention, not employee turnover?"

The atmosphere of the fighting meeting had been changed a bit. However, the members said that,

"It may be so, but is that also a company issue, right?"

The PD facilitator thought about employee satisfaction, but at the same time, he remembered the story of Mahatma Gandhi. "Why do you take a third-class in railway?" "Because there is no fourth-class car in India."  Subsequently, PD facilitator asked a flipped question again.

"What is important for you is 'ease of work' in your workplace?"

As a result of this flipped question, the members had changed their attitude. They understood that this project was for the members who were having problem with “ease of work” in their workplace, not for the people who left from the company.


Determine: Who are “Positive Deviants”?

Fortunately, this company measured employee satisfaction once a year, and the ES score of 13 questionnaires related to "ease of work" was used as a project result (output) index. And we got agreement about the definition of this project with the head of Human Resources Department by setting employee turnover rate as outcome indicator.

Using this ES score, we tried to find groups or individuals with a slightly better ES score in the same work environment or situation as the call center with low ES score.

PD Group

At first, we analyzed the ES score of five teams which were responsible for other products in the call center. As a result, we found Team U with a slightly higher average ES score, despite the same situation of “ease of work” in each team such as personnel system and employment regulation. Of course, that ES score was lower compared with other departments.

PD Individuals

Furthermore, we analyzed the ES score by age and sex and saw that the average ES score of the 30-year-old female employee was remarkably low and had wide variation. At the same time, we noticed that there were some people with a modest ES score. However, even though we had ES scores with data attributes like age and sex, we could not identify individuals from the data. So, the PD facilitator asked the PD question to the members as follows.

"Are there female colleagues in their 30s who lively works despite they are also busy in their life events such as marriage, pregnancy and child care?”

Then, the members raised two names. We did not know whether the two who had relatively good ES score had really corresponded, but we respected the experience and intuition of the members.

Like this way, we determined the PD group and PD individuals.


Discover: How does “Positive Deviant” make small hidden success?

PD Group

We had a group interview session with the female staff of Team U. The PD facilitator asked about their uncommon behavior or strategy with less resources. They looked confused by these questions and spoke about their daily work, but we could not find any special things like PD behaviors or strategies. Because they did not have any opportunity to interact with other teams officially and did their daily work inside the team, they did not know how other teams worked.

So, the PD facilitator watched their daily work situation from the balcony overlooking the call center for several days and pick up some facts the following.

Common Behavior: The Managers

The managers of each team in the call center left their seats frequently and returned after a while. After they returned to their seat, the PD facilitator asked them what they did. They had interviewed with applicants or follow-up meeting for their staff with low skill.

Uncommon Behavior: The manager and female staff in Team U

The manager of Team U also frequently left his seat, but he went with his female staff into a small meeting room. After about 10 or 15 minutes, they returned to their seats. One day, after he returned to his seat, the PD facilitator asked him what he did. He said, “I heard from my female staff that her child will take surgical operation in next week.” In addition, he always had a quick chat with his female staff about their life events such as marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare. After the chats, he made an action for them according to the personnel system of the company, but in almost all cases, he was only able to listen them.

This was the only uncommon behavior in PD group in call center division that the PD facilitator discovered.

PD Individuals

The PD facilitator had an interview session with two PD individuals, but the PD facilitator could not find any uncommon behavior in their work that differed from other female staff in call center. However, the PD facilitator felt that the time of the conversation they had with their husbands or families seemed to be relatively long.

The PD facilitator also asked their colleagues who were living in the neighborhood about them. Their answer were along the lines of:

"Oh, their husband is a nice guy."

Here, we flipped again. We guess that the PD behavior were not in themselves, but in their husbands or families.

Family Visit to PD Female Staff Home

Finally, we decided to visit the home of the PD female staff. Fortunately, a PD female staff and their husband allowed home visits.

However, even in an interview with her husband, the PD facilitator could not find any uncommon behaviors. Her husband said,

"It's just only like this, having a tea and listening to her work from my wife. I may not have any special skills about listening and speaking."

What was PD behavior?

The manager of PD group and the husband of PD staff were just having a chat with the female staff. What was PD behavior? The project leader and PD facilitator had a discussion, but we had no idea. So, we asked the members:

"About “ease of work” you feel, is it important that your manager, husband and family listen to your hard work?"

Then, the responses from the members were the following comments:

"Why don't you know? But my manager never knows that!"

"Before this, when I tried to talk to my manager, I could not ask him to talk!"

"Oh yeah! Even though I'm exhausted from my work, my family said 'Are you ready for dinner?'"

We delegated the discovery of PD behavior to the members. PD behavior for this community in this project is that “manager, their husband and family listen to female staff.”


Design: How can we involve the community to copy “Positive Deviance”?

How can the managers listen to female staff?

Under the leadership of Human Resources Department, we conducted coaching and active listing training for the managers of call center. We planned to introduce this training into the personnel system step by step.

How can their husband and family talk to female staff about their hard work?

We conducted an idea contest after their daily work using 25/10 crowd sourcing with over 20 female staff who were member of project and volunteer. They enjoyed it and created many interesting ideas like "sports festival", "workplace visit" and so on. Finally, “newsletter for family” caught the attention of the members. We invited a staff of public relationship into this project, and they worked for “newsletter for family” enthusiastically.

In addition, we planned a series of short stories to introduce the work of this company with the model of real employees. It was based on the concept of entertainment education.


Monitor: Have we sustainably solved the problem by “Positive Deviance” approach?  

Unfortunately, before the next employee satisfaction survey, the PD facilitator's consulting contract had been expired with this company. Therefore, the PD facilitator could not recognize the results with ES score for “ease of work” and employee turnover. But this project was a great opportunity to experience a lot of the essence of the positive deviance approach.

Flip, community, asset-based, self-discovery, behavioral and/or social change…

PD is best understood through action and is most effective through practice.