The Warehouse: Part Two – Turning a negative experience into a foundation

The Warehouse: Part Two – Turning a negative experience into a foundation

Just last week, I had a chance to visit one small logistics company that I have been working with recently (we're recommending a customer to use them), called So-Fast (Ota-ku, Tokyo). The owner, Mr. Keiichi Ito, kindly offered to let me take a morning tour of their pick-and-pack operation - which I can tell you brought back a flood of memories for me of my own factory experience as a teenager. The smell of machinery and packaging materials mixes with the sounds of forklifts and lines of workers chatting away as they prepare hundreds of boxes for shipping to customers.

We got to So-Fast just as the morning meetings were taking place. If you've ever been to a Japanese warehouse or factory, it's a memorable experience to watch workers of all ages do their exercises and shout out slogans to each other en mass. At So-Fast they're all wearing hair nets and company overalls for cleanliness, and somehow it reminds me of watching a high-school football team at practice back home.

Actually, the scene also reminds me of just how regulated and paternally controlled the average Japanese worker's company experience is. In dressing up in the same uniform, just like the army, you are giving up some of your personal identity in order to become a team member. Not just the clothing is uniform, other aspects are too. For example, staff cannot afford to be late - not just because some manager will be cross, but instead because a single person missing from the team interrupts the flow of the production line. There is nothing quite like peer group pressure in a work unit to make people arrive on time!

In any case, in watching the "Hai !" chants of the 50 or so So-Fast Japanese employees, I spotted a couple of foreign faces. One person is from SE Asia while the other is from South Africa. The South African fellow is particularly tall and really stands out. Chatting with him later, I found that he had come to Japan for personal rather than economic reasons, but once here needed to work. He decided to take language lessons and quickly started to master the local tongue. But as an unqualified laborer he found it difficult to find work. I guess he could have gone to Hello Work, the government's labor office, since the labor shortage is quite pronounced in Tokyo these days. However, one way or another he got introduced by a friend to Ito-san, the CEO of So-Fast.

Luckily for this South African guy, So-Fast was on a "bit of a tear", receiving increasing numbers of orders from foreign firms choosing to bring in products on their own rather than through some disinterested distribution partner. Since he was already somewhat bilingual (lower 2-kyuu level) and thanks in particular to his size and strength, he was hired as the first non-Asian employee of the company.

Actually, it turned out to be a good move for both parties, because just at that time one clients' home office staff needed specific feedback about inventory from someone directly on the warehouse floor, in English. Believe me, this is a rather unique capability in a smaller size Japanese logistics firm.

Anyways, apparently Ito-shacho likes his new employee so much, he is planning to hire more, and to have them their way into more senior positions.

And this brings me back to the opportunities created by working in a warehouse floor of a small Japanese logistics company. Yes, the work is demanding and repetitive, but it also offers an unprecedented chance to both learn the language in depth from fellow employees who have plenty of time to chat while working, and also to learn the logistics business in detail. While this may sound like the hard way to do it, if you don't have the academic background, the experience goes a long way to make up for a missing degree.

Indeed, I know of several foreigners who have worked their way up in the logistics industry, and who are now in quite senior management positions. Their languages skills, intimate knowledge of how the industry works, as well as personal attributes such as being used to hard work, being precise, being responsive, knowing how to follow instructions, and generally applying the Japanese-style of 120% effort into everything you do, is serving them both very well indeed. When you think about it, what employer wouldn't want staff with these attributes?

The typical career progression path is to first just get the job. Once there, work on the warehouse floor for 1-2 years until you've done your time, and management is satisfied that you know what you are doing without mistakes. Volunteer for and be ready when you are then asked to take on some leadership, either as a foreman overseeing a process line, or a project manager - organizing the end-to-end planning and execution of the receiving, unpacking, preparation, repackaging, and dispatching of a brand new cosmetics or some other consumer product. Another direction is to go with the sales team and become indispensable to the company by virtue of their dependence on you for new projects.

If you choose project management, the elements of success will be your knowing in advance likely problems, identifying them, and informing the client of them during the planning phase, not during execution. Logistics clients love to trust older hands who can tell them what is likely to happen in a given scenario, and how to take steps to prevent just such an occurrence. Just how much they love you will be proven when a competitor offers them a better raw price, but they decide to stay with you as a known quantity.

Once you have gained about 2-3 years of sales and/or PM experience, you are then qualified for higher level management jobs in foreign firms which are bringing in their own products. With your Japanese-language skills, you will be at "prime time" in terms of your career development, and if you are looking for a big jump in salary, this is the time to receive it.