The ‘areas of improvement’

Neatness, order and presentation. It could well be the mantra of Tokyo. The places, the processes and the people all fit the description (with the exception of the faces pressed up against the window on the train – needs must I suppose). Neatness, order and presentation all in fact, at the expense of other desirable qualities.

Take for example, the morning bus I ride from the station to my workplace. It is peak time, 7:35am. The queue for the bus is arranged neatly in twin lines; one for those willing to wait for a seat, and the other for those who would rather just get there and don’t mind standing. The bus is contracted express direct to my factory, no stops. Everyone in line is a company employee. The bus has just pulled in and is empty. The warden waves the ‘sit queue’ on first, counting the passengers with his clicker. At some stage someone in the line is too chicken to get on for fear of missing out on the seat they patiently waited for. So they stop. It’s all so neat and orderly. The line is still immaculately presented. No one grumbles even though there are invariably at least half a dozen spare seats. The first few people in the ‘standing queue’ fill the remaining seats, then the bus fills with standing passengers. The warden clicks away. At some point a sly person in the queue stops, not because the bus is full, but because he wants to sit in one of the empty seats left over on the next bus. He anticipates the chicken. He thinks no one notices his intentions, and even though everyone does, the queue simply and politely comes to a halt.

No one is the least bit upset. Except me, and I do the Westerner thing and simply exit the queue, walk around him, and get on the bus. I hear the clicker as I am counted on. The warden even politely nods a ‘good morning’ at me. No one thinks anything of it. In fact, a few locals who appear to be in a rush, or are pretending to be in order to avoid this crap, board also, outside of conformity, but in perfect civility.

The bus is full. The next empty one is behind waiting to pull in. Time to go! Negative. We simply wait. And wait. The engine is off. Re-positioning my grip on the overhead handle causes a creak which makes me self conscious. Then the warden moves into a position next to the bus, visible to the driver through the wing mirror. He looks at his watch. 7:39….7:39….7:39….7:40. He leaps into life, making circular waving patterns with his arm, as if cranking an engine was the latest dance craze for 60 year olds. The driver takes his cue, turns the key and departs.

●Common sense: why doesn’t the warden count the passengers on to the extent that the bus fills? He knows how many seats there are, and he knows how many can stand. He is literally already counting people, only to then toss this golden information to the dogs. What is his KPI?
●Efficiency: surprisingly lacking. But the order of the timetable wins out over the efficiency of leaving when the bus fills.

Woes are not over. I have already come 40km by train, in less than 30 minutes, and now I must endure another 20 minutes to cover the remaining 6km. The bus driver is clearly in little hurry. He is already at work. Every time the bus takes a left or right turn, the driver warns the passengers which way and to hold on please. Even negotiating start stop traffic, there is always a ‘I’m going to go forward now’ and ‘I’m stopping now’ commentary, in Japanese of course. Actually, I quite like this touch. While outrageously unnecessary, it is super courteous and doesn’t cost anyone anything. It’s somehow reassuring that the driver is aware, and it feels weirdly as if you are in control of the bus yourself. It is an extremely polite thing to do, and he uses the polite form of the language. He even wears white driving gloves, and a fancy chauffeur-like uniform.

But then it comes unstuck. Yes the road is slightly narrow, but I will eat my work shirt with chopsticks if anyone can demonstrate that there is not enough room for two buses to pass each other without coming to crawling speed. Trucks seem to do it just fine. But the bus drivers, they go glacier on you and gradually edge past one another, all the while nodding and bowing at each other. To balance the glacier, my blood boils. No one else seems to care in the least.

●timeliness: there may be a strict departure time, but there is no specified arrival time, so departure is slow, and transit is retarded.
●continuous improvement: where is the sense of urgency from the other passengers? Is there no desire to improve what is in actual fact, a gross waste of a vast swathe of their life? ARE THEY LEMMINGS? This is the land of process continuous improvement. The Toyota Production System, kaizen, the seven wastes and techniques to minimise them! Didn’t reach into this cranny. Gamansuru – endure.

The bus arrives, and frustratingly continues straight past the work entrance gate, 100m further down the road before stopping at the designated area. The bus driver says thank you precisely once for each passenger alighting from the bus. This is the only moment in his work life where he nearly breaks a sweat. The liberated passengers backtrack the 100m and are greeted by security guards saying good morning to each and every person as they enter the site. (This is normal here – in another of the offices there is a security guard and 2 receptionist ladies, and they sync up their good morning into this default morning song. The man’s deep voice ‘ohio gozaimas’ is balanced by the two ladies’ voices, of which one is higher and the other is lower. The overall effect is a 3 tone rhythmic good morning which must go on for at least an hour every day. It is somehow mesmerizing and hypnotic). Again, I love this touch. This tiny daily moment is so well presented. He is excellently dressed and in the act of humbling himself to say good morning, he elevates the listener. My mood picks up.

Believe it or not, this post was going to be about holidays to Mount Fuji with gorgeous pictures and amazing descriptions. But I started typing and this post came out instead. What the? Next time!



One Comment Add yours

  1. lentilboots says:

    I’m so glad to hear about someone else’s experience with the bus system!
    The buses I have taken also periodically stop for a few minutes at random stops so they can keep to timetable. In Sydney you can count on the bus to be late or sometimes early or sometimes never come, because the timetable is a rough guide.
    My theory is that performance is valued more than efficiency. And keeping good relationships (or the appearance of good relationships) is more important than efficiency. Once I realised this, I could relax a bit in my work meetings and let people talk around things for 3 hours and just zone out until it comes to the point 😉

    But I do like that if I check my watch and realise I’ve only got one minute til the bus arrives, I’m ok because public transport is guaranteed to come on time.


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