Japan Bus Tours - Example of Project Expectations?

A friend mentioned that she understands better “why Japanese are like they are”, after having been on a weekend bus tour to Mt. Fuji. I’ve been on Japanese bus tours before, but it never really dawned on me that they could be a window on the soul of the Japanese, but I suppose they are, in a way. I’ve always been against them, but occasionally bow to pressure from the higher authorities at my house, like my wife and daughters, and go on a bus tour.

On projects I’ve groused with other PMs that people here expect everything to be presented on a silver platter. And by people, I mostly mean Japanese people, who are the users in 99% of the cases where I’m managing projects. It has been difficult to explain why I would not write out every step for every action by users, and I think the bus tour is at fault! Consider the careful service you get on a bus tour:

  1. Everything laid out in great detail with to-the-minute scheduling of every stop on the tour. Now we’re using the bathroom, now we’re buying souvenirs.
  2. A tour guide with a little flag to lead you around the site, in case you can’t read the detailed map you’ve been given. This is a famous sight, is it not?
  3. Continual announcements about what’s next and what just happened, as well as the rules you’ll need to follow. Just in case you did not get it from the detailed itinerary.
  4. Big signs saying how many minutes you have at the particular stop, again, in case you did not understand the repeated announcements.

Westerners certainly have a different approach to things of course, and generally take a more independent, less supervised approach. So one could either feel a bus tour in Japan is either incredibly well put together, or incredibly overbearing. A taxi driver I mentioned this to said that Japanese expect this type of treatment, because their mothers tell them what to do at every turn.

Maybe the PM title stands more for “Project Mother”, in Japan. I suppose I should just get used to it, after such a long stay here.

Velociteach PM Poster - Observations

Velociteach created this excellent Project Management-related poster, talking about the gap between what users say they want, what they really want, what’s sold, what’s delivered, what’s paid for, and what’s supported. Are things really this bad? From experience on many a large project I would say they are.

Some Current Problems in Projects Today

This poster hammers home the concept that stated requirements have to be well-linked to what’s delivered, a concept that has been emphasized for quite some time in software development camps as a reaction to “waterfall” type project management. If you’re not familiar, waterfall is a “command-and-control” concept of PM where everyone marches lock step through phases, changing phases when the documents are signed off. That might sound comfortable to people who are not detail-oriented enough to really understand what is going on, but the reality is always messier. Other approaches such as or stemming from “Agile” or “Lean” software development, help keep the focus on what’s valuable to the customer, and avoid meaningless rounds of documentation and signoff. Note, I did not say those approaches advocate not documenting at all, because that does not appear to be the case.

I was the Japan-based PM for an ERP implementation, where the head of the PMO at my client generally encouraged the use of more Agile methods. We never talked about Agile and what it meant per se, but recently studying Agile for how it might help me manage non-software development projects or general projects, I can see similarities between what’s in the Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles, to what we actually did on the project.

One thing that we did which was rather too “waterfall” however, was an attempt to document all the user requirements up front, in a huge list. This quickly got unmanageable partly because we were trying to do requirements this way, with users inexperienced in ERP implementations, and partly because we were using email as a collaboration tool, which was a mistake as well. Thinking about that, users would have had a terrible time trying to remember what they said, in requirements meetings many months back, in specification review sessions. Adding to that the need for translation and interpretation services, it’s a wonder we went live as successfully as we did. An attestation to having the same developers and coordinators involved the whole way through, and just general tenacity, if you ask me.

What to Do About It

In summary, my current feeling about what to do is the following:

Though Email has obvious benefits and applications, attempting to collaborate in Email is not the right approach or, dare I say, any project. Instead, use a system like TargetProcess, LiquidPlanner, Unfuddle, MyIntervals or even BaseCamp.

Use a V-shaped project process, to link user requirements to user acceptance tests, designs to design validations and so on, so that there is a check and balance in your process. Make it easy for users to see the link between what they asked for, and what was done in the end.

Poorly-done Agile is just as ineffective as Waterfall, so if you are going to implement different methods, make sure they fit and that you do it skillfully so the whole entity supports it. Don’t use Agile as an excuse to be lazy. In fact, Agile requires even more discipline in the team.

The jury is still out for me what the “best” method is and what the best collaboration software is, but I have taken my time to understand methods besides waterfall, and am beginning to apply them in practice. I will post here about my experiences from time to time. I hope you Enjoy this.

iPhone in Japan - I Am Satisfied

Despite sensationalist, hit-whoring and inane articles like this embarrassing one in Wired [1], as a long-term resident of Japan and Japanese cell-phone user, I think my iPhone is great in many ways. Unless you try to compare it feature-by-feature to Japanese cell phones, that is, but the iPhone is a paradigm shift, typical of many we see from Apple. It’s just not the same sort of device, and should not really be compared to Japanese cellphones.

Japanese cell phones are indeed “cutting edge”, sure, but a lot of the stuff on them is gimmicky and used infrequently if at all. I hear mention of “WanSeg” TV, but talk about an unpleasant user experience. Watching TV was so confusing on my KDDI AU phone, that I gave up, even after reading the thick manual (yes, I read Japanese). Apple spends great gobs of time and money to make sure their Apps are not like that, though. Apple products are of course not without their problems, but, they’re pretty easy to use. That’s a huge accomplishment that the feature-hoarders making Japanese cell phones have not understood. Are you listening, Panasonic, Kyocera, NEC, Sharp?

People complain that the iPhone software and hardware is proprietary, but you gotta be kidding me. Japanese cell phones are all about proprietary, in my opinion, and here’s a sample of my gripes over the years:

  1. Different interface per maker. Kyocera is different from Sony is different from Sharp.
  2. New software to sync with Outlook every time you buy a new phone and limited options to sync with Apple OS X Address Book. Different data format per phone, which makes migrations hard.
  3. Special formats required for built-in music players, especially Sony. What a chore to get mp3’s onto a Sony for playback!
  4. Number portability was not an option until fairly recently. Now, at least you can keep your number from company to company, for a monthly fee.
  5. Limited standards adoption, for example in that only a proprietary bluetooth headset can be used with the device.
  6. Incredibly poor English language text entry handling. My last AU phone from Sony could not enter a space in certain modes and a carriage return in others!
  7. Limited ability to switch interface into English. Sony allows this, but my Sharp from a year before did not, for instance.

Apple’s user interfaces are truly high quality compared to those of Japanese cellphones, but there are indeed a number of aspects about the iPhone which would pose a barrier to adoption, especially for a person very used to the Japanese cellphone ways or modes. No infrared data or personal information exchange, none of the Japan-only stuff like Suica (train pass) or “wallet” function (auto-debit credit card), no hook for a strap, and a different text entry method are some of the things that feel like obstacles.

Regarding these, though, I can exchange data by email or VCard without trouble from my Mac due to the built-in sync to my Mac apps, or, by using an app to do it, I don’t want my wallet on my phone because I feel it’s a risk so I have never enabled that, I have a case with a strap hook, and the text entry is wildly better, from my perspective, than that on cellphones. Even the TV thing, you can get a frankly unattractive and sort of knobby adapter to hook onto your iPhone to enable WanSeg. Oh, and the expense, well, you’re indeed paying a premium, but it’s still less than BlackBerry. The device is rather expensive but the data plan monthly is typical for “all you can use” programs here in Japan, running about 45 dollars per month.

On the iPhone upside, well, I mentioned the stellar interface which is multi-lingual. Japanese smartphones feel cheap in your hands comparably. There are some pretty usable apps (app store problems with regard to developer submissions aside) for it for a reasonable price and for apps that you just won’t get for a Japanese cellphone. Music-wise, it’s the same iPod flexibility we have enjoyed for years on iPod. Very easy to ingest a CD I own into the iTunes library and get it to play. Safari mobile is smooth. Switching between 3G and WiFi is pretty easy and smooth. We also get syncing I never had with a Japanese cell - for mail, calendar, contacts.

From a western perspective, and after 21 years here, I have the opinion that Japanese are not so good at synthesis but much better at analysis. They are quite content to grouse about the state of something (the analysis bit) rather than figuring out how to fix it (the synthesis bit) and without simply copying. If a thought leader explains why a thing is great, though, the Japanese are pretty willing to make that jump. Since Softbank, the only iPhone carrier, is seemingly always being announced as “nearly bankrupt” I am more concerned about Softbank going belly-up than I am about Japanese peoples’ ability to figure out why the iPhone is a great device to own.

[1] _In response to which there were a large number of comments, some even worth reading, and blog posts here by Mr. Daiji Hirata and here by Mr. Nobuyuki Hayashi. If all Wired’s stuff is this poorly done, remind me never to believe anything they have on their site again. _

Windows Error Message Haiku

It’s said on the internets that Microsoft has replaced its Japanese Windows error messages with Haiku poems (5-7-5 syllables). Apologies to Basho and to the creative souls who made these originally.

Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

The web site you seek
Cannot be located, but
Countless more exist.

Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent, and reboot.
Order will return.

Program aborting:
Close all that you have worked on.
You ask far too much.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.

First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
So beautifully.

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
“My Novel” not found.

The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao–until
You bring fresh toner.

Stay the patient course.
Of little worth is your ire.
The network is down.

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes and lost data.
Guess which has occurred?

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.

Having been erased,
The document you’re seeking
Must now be retyped.

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

Niigata’s Dubious Claim to “Fame” - the Shortest Skirts

Here’s a screenshot of a couple images of the posters being used in Niigata prefecture’s crusade to try to prevent girls’ skirts from getting any shorter. That Niigata has the girls with the shortest skirts is a dubious claim to “fame” unless you’re a lecher or a horny male high-school student.

On the upper left in the screenshot, the “evidence” - a couple of female students from behind. These skirts are not even so short. Some are just over-the-top short. I can hear Bill Cosby:

Put your brains back in your head! Don’t you let your brains fall out of your head! Have you lost your mind?

On the lower left, the designers of the posters hold their creations, and the pink poster says “if you set your mind to it, you can stretch your studies and your skirt”. This makes sense in the original language, as “stretch” in this case means improve. The TV capture on the right is a pun on good taste or “grace”, meaning girls whose skirts are too short lack it.

Good luck Niigata. I have a teenage daughter, so I know what it is to try to get her to let that hem out!

Guerilla Collaboration With Mindtouch Deki?

Aaron Fulkerson, the CEO at Mindtouch - makers of the awesome mashable wiki “Deki” - writes about the state of collaboration in his post Three Decades Later. Revolt Or Die.. It meshes with my own feelings against using email for any collaboration.

Continue →

Free Wifi From freespot.com

FreeSpot.com offers free WiFi in Japan, and here’s a map of their WiFi access points. I can’t vouch for the quality of this service, but I thought it might be worth a try for visitors to Japan who need WiFi. There are WiFi services via ISPs, but you need an account, which is not practical for a short visit. If you try it, please let me know how it worked, or not, in the comments.

Various OmniGroup Applications Now Free

From “The Omni Mouth”, Omni Group’s blog, OmniWeb, OmniDazzle, OmniDiskSweeper, and OmniObjectMeter are now freeware. This decision is relayed in Omni Group’s usual light, irreverent manner, but it’s a big one, in my opinion. Software development is hard work and requires a lot of investment, so I’m grateful Omni Group decided to make these fine programs available for free.

If you are on a Mac, and have never checked them out, take a test drive of Omni Group’s very high quality commercial offerings, like OmniGraffle, OmniOutline, OmniPlan or OmniFocus. I use these regularly. They’re worth it, so go buy some.

JR Stations in Tokyo Soon Smoke-Free

Good news for non-smokers in Tokyo. JR Stations are to be Smoke-free Zones as of April 1st 2009. This poster on the platform at Shinjuku station says:

All Stations in Tokyo will be Completely Smoke Free from 1st April - JR East has always had separate zones for smoking and non-smoking, but due to many customers requesting protection from second-hand smoke, and increased drives at companies to discourage smoking, from 1st April the smoking areas on platforms in Tokyo will be removed, and we will begin to implement a “Total No-Smoking” policy. This will be inconvenient for customers who smoke, but we wish to sincerely ask for your understanding and cooperation in this matter.

And I look forward to breathing fresher air on the platforms.

Yuuri Waterless Urinal Helps Reduce Global Warming

Some places in Japan are very much concerned with the environment. I know we sure do a lot of trash separation, but I had to snap a picture of the sign above a special “ecological” urinal today. I am sure I got a few looks for that!

The “Yuuri” urinal sign says:

Non-Water System “Yuuri”

Yuuri is an ecological toilet that does not use water. Because it does not use water, water is conserved **, and CO2 gas emissions can be reduced. By the way, for every 1 liter saved, 0.58 grams of CO2 emission can be reduced. Yuuri is effective for both water conservation and reducing global warming.

No smoking. Do not put cigarette butts or gum etc in the urinal.

** Note: Japanese write fairly redundantly like this literal translation, restating things so they can be absolutely sure people understand.

Al Gore would be proud.