Edición 47, Human Resources

Organizational Culture and the Practices of the Japanese Business System in Mexico

El negocio de los negocios es la culturaBy: Dr. Javier Muñoz

One of the effects of the global village among economic agents and in the social sphere is the awareness of the differences between local ideologies and the overpowering force of triumphant capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The business of international business is culture

Hofstede’s (1994) comment “The business of international business is the culture”. is becoming more and more relevant in the context of multinational corporations. One of the effects of the global village among economic agents and in the social sphere is the awareness of the differences between local ideologies and the overpowering force of triumphant capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Knowledge of the culture of the host country is not only required when doing business in the world. The very future of the planet, according to Hofstede (2001), largely depends on people with different ideas and ways of thinking working together. Therefore, international cooperation requires knowledge and understanding of different cultures.

Still, after World War II, the great international consortia of influential countries imposed their ways of thinking and doing things in places where they expanded their businesses, in the style of the 19th century colonizers. What was good for the center was good for the periphery, since they regarded the exported culture and technology as a gift for the receiver.

The Wakon Yôsai culture

But, starting with the 1970s, Japan entered the international business scene. The overwhelming success of Japanese products, and their growing involvement in the market thanks to their quality, threatened U.S. and European hegemony because of the challenge imposed by a way of thinking and doing things that was not contemplated by the complacent powers.

In the beginning, the quality of Japanese products was very poor. In the 1950s, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap junk. Japanese entrepreneurs, whose impressive industrial structure had been destroyed during World War II, were forced to learn the statistical process applied to quality from the United States. But they were excellent students and they exceeded their teachers, thanks to their culture of Wakon Yôshai (Japanese spirit, Western technology), which translated and adapted western technology to their own way of being, to then surpass it thanks to the built-in complexity in their products and the reduction in size and cost.

At the present time, in spite of the important role that China plays in world trade, Japan has not been left behind, and is distinguished for having a unique system of business practices enveloped in a culture that has much to contribute to the organizational culture in the world.

The first amendment and constitution freedoms

William Ouchi William Ouchi laid the groundwork for the adaptation of Japanese culture to western manufacturing in his book Theory Z, a best seller in its time. Academics and entrepreneurs were convinced they had rediscovered the way to efficiency and quality. But, with the passage of time, Theory Z became one more theory that was taught in business school, but that was never put into practice.

Cultures are dynamic, but their dynamism is not evenly distributed or permanent. For that reason, they have a part that is nearly static, which is transformed very slowly over time. With regard to U.S. culture, its static part is rooted in strong individualism, derived from the postulates of the Protestant ethic, and in the constitutional freedoms in the first amendment, which promote the managerial prerogative, the right to work (job entitlement) and the psychological transactional contract. This has nothing to do with a collectivist culture, of mutual responsibility between employers and employees, or with the psychological relationship contract, typical of Asian systems.

Japanese multinationals in Mexico

In Mexico, the direct investment of Japan is well below that of the United States and Europe, however, the impact of the 200 Japanese companies operating in the country has had a very deep effect in the minds of Mexicans. In particular, the large automotive assembly plants seem to thrive in Mexico. Honda is building a plant in Celaya, Mazda in Salamanca, and the Nissan 2 plant in Aguascalientes has already been completed. Honda, in Guadalajara, has a long track record of success by combining an abundant supply of specialized Mexican labor (automobiles and motorcycles are handmade with the same quality as in the plants using robotics) with the practices of the Japanese business system in the manufacturing of automobiles.

It seems that the Mexican-Japanese marriage in the industry has had excellent results. This success (as seen in the tour of Japan in the 1970s by a team of executives who rescued Harley Davidson) is not due to the application of technology, but to consolidating a learning organization with highly motivated employees. Technology can be acquired in the market – the motivation of employees cannot.

Research on organizational culture in Japanese multinationals in Mexico

In the study by the author (Muñoz, 2011) on the acculturation of Mexican employees to the Japanese business practices, the cultural component is an important factor in this process. The purpose of the study was to determine whether Mexican workers were able to work with cultural variables that were different from their own: the culture of the Japanese business system. At the same time, it tried to determine what values were similar in both cultures and, if possible, to understand the ideological assumptions underlying these values, according to the Schein model (1991).

The variables in the study were the following: valuation of the work, citizenship behavior (citizenship), constant learning, formalization of the tasks, independence on the job, inclusion, and satisfaction (Liker, 2004). Together in a questionnaire of closed-ended questions there were some open-ended ones, which were to be answered in writing, about the lessons learned in the company. The survey was conducted in its entirety on one occasion with Mexican employees in three Japanese companies in the automotive parts industry and in a distributor of food products.

The results indicate a strong valuation by the participants of the citizenship variable, which is “the positive behavior toward the organization, not explicitly included in the formal system of rewards, but that contributes in terms added to the effective functioning of the organization” (Organ, 1988) and whose dimensions in the survey were shaped by the rubrics of conscience, sportmanship, civic virtue, altruistic aid and courtesy.

Citizenship behavior relates to the psychological capital of the organizations, facilitates teamwork, and promotes the cordial relations between management and workers. Previous studies have linked a perception of fairness at work with the development of citizenship behavior. It is clear that this result points in the direction of positive interaction between the employees and management of these companies.

The valuation of the work proved to be the second most highly valued. With that, the myth that Mexicans do not like to work – that they prefer to party and do not take their work seriously – was shattered. Also treated with the same importance (received almost the same consideration) were job satisfaction and the formalization of the tasks, followed closely by independence. Constant learning and inclusions showed a significant difference; their averages were at the bottom with respect to the other variables.

The information provided by the open-ended questions shed more light on the qualitative results. In effect, the employees say they have an appropriate citizenship behavior because of the treatment they receive from their employers, which is of respect and fairness. They appreciate the work as the source of livelihood for their families and for their professional advancement.

We found a difference in opinion between operational and administrative employees with respect to the formalization of the tasks variable. In this aspect, there is a cultural coincidence, since both Mexico and Japan scored high in regard to uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, 2001), and in Japan this is resolved with clear and precise rules, which lead to proper structuring of the work.

For the blue collar employees, the input they receive from the company is the structure that the administrative practices in Japan provide them, not only at work, but also in their personal and family life. Many take the Five S method home to sort their spaces and establish rules for coexistence and family schedules inspired by the discipline practiced at work. In some cases, the participants share their experience on how discipline has changed their lives – providing them a structure, which they had lacked.

There were other significant statistical differences between genders: women pay less attention to citizenship behavior – they feel less included, less independent and less satisfied. In this aspect, both Japan and Mexico have a high level of masculinity (Hofstede, 2001) and this fact may have some relationship with these differences. However, in the log, there are some observations about the care of pregnant women in the factories; they are assembled in a special room where they are watched over and provided with adequate attention. Many testimonies of women workers are very favorable in regards to the treatment they receive and the positive experience on the assembly line.

Factors that affect employee satisfaction – the variables of citizenship, independence, valuation of the work and inclusion – emerged in the regression study. Of these four, three obtained a good rating by employees, and only inclusion received a low score.

The analysis of qualitative information, in addition to improving the understanding of the quantitative results, revealed some aspects that were not addressed by the latter. Within Schein’s model of organizational culture (1991), assumptions are spoken of that are the basis of the values and that support the artifacts.

It is difficult for assumptions to appear since, in general terms, they correspond to an ideology that is unconscious and that is taken as a given. In the field of assumptions, the findings point to a conception of the labor world on the part of the worker in that there is an awareness and acceptance of cultural diversity, an understanding of the interdependence between the people and the parts of the company system, and more important still, an absence of both the managerial prerogative, on the part of the company, and the demand of the right to work, on the part of the employee. The climate observed – both in the workplaces visited to conduct the study and in others that did not participate but opened their doors to the observation of the researcher – is due to this underlying ideology, which promotes healthy coexistence and productivity within the organization.


It is unrealistic to expect that the subsidiaries of Japanese multinationals operating in Mexico will exercise the exact same characteristics regarding treatment of workers that is given to Japanese workers in their country. The companies comply with all legal and labor requirements to produce low-cost, high-quality products, but they do not have lifelong employment contracts (with some exceptions) or personal development programs such as those offered to their workers in their country of origin.

For its part, Mexico’s labor force has a virtue in addition to their liking and acceptance of the job. It has on reserve the ability to deliver citizenship behavior, which is free of charge. While being discretionary, it is available to the company by the employee if only one basic requirement is satisfied: to be accepted, understood, respected, treated with kindness, friendliness. In other words, that they are treated in a way that makes them feel valuable and important to the degree that will raise their self-esteem. The demands and the discipline need to go hand in hand with respect.

Mexican workers want to continue to appear in the photo, have a place in society, a decent place that gives them a sense of identity and belonging – as they had during the Viceroyalty, when all castes were a legitimate part of the social system – and that, after two centuries of independent life and in spite of social mobility, they have yet to find again.?


  • Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Hofstede, G. (1994). The Business of International Business is Culture. International Business Review , 1-14.
  • Liker, J. K. (2004). El Modelo Toyota: 14 Principios Gerenciales del Mayor Fabricante Mundial. México: Mc Graw Hill.
  • Muñoz, J. (2011, Marzo 11). La Cultura Organizacional en Empleados de Empresas Multinacionales Japonesas Radicadas en México. Tesis no publicada. Universidad de Celaya, Celaya, Gto., México.
  • Organ, D. W. (1988). Organizational Citizenship Behavior. MA, EE. UU.: Lexington Books.
  • Schein, E. (1991). What is Culture? In P. J. Frost, Reframing Organizational Culture (pp. 243-253). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

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