HBS Case Study “Trouble at Tessei” Shows What Japanese Companies are Like.

Photo by Manuel Cosentino on Unsplash

The Japanese bullet train, a/k/a Shinkansen, is a well-known public mode of transportation for Japanese people. When the passengers use the train, they often see the landscape of cleaning crews who clean the seats and prepare for the next operation on the train. Such a view is not unusual for many passengers, but they might be special for some business people. Why? That’s because Harvard Business School decided to choose cleaning crews at Tessei as one of the case studies among many companies.

If you are interested in this case study, I recommend that you purchase the document from the Harvard Business Publishing website directly and then read it personally. My review of this case study is that the case of Tessei shows the pros and cons of the Japanese company.


I’m not sure what the Japanese company looks like to others because I’m Japanese. But many Japanese think that they are cooperative, diligent, and disciplined. In fact, many Japanese media tend to cover such a topic by themselves, and I think it is true in many cases as well.

When it comes to the case of Tessei, cleaning crews have to finish every task like cleaning seats on the train, preparing for the next operation, and so on by the minutes. If they can’t do them as scheduled, the following operation won’t work at all. As a matter of course, that’s a big deal for the company, Tessei. Tessei prepared a detailed manual and meticulously trained the workers, who are part-time ladies in almost all cases. As a result of that, the current operation has worked well without any serious troubles.

I guess that it is not easy to hire a new worker who can be involved in this “3K” job outside Japan. 3K stands for Kitanai (dirty), Kitsui (difficult), and Kiken (dangerous) in the Japanese language. The cleaning crews can’t get a high salary because they are just part-time workers. Why could Tessei hire new workers and eventually run complicated operations along with these part-time workers? I think we can learn something from this unique case. I felt this was a typical case of not only Tessei but also many Japanese companies.


There were some points about which I felt weird while reading the document. You would feel the same thing, but this essay describes the unbearing and irrational attitude of the Japanese company against its employees. For example, according to this case study, Tessei had a culture like “taiikukai-kei (overbearing and irrational attitude against a rookie by a senior athlete) in the Japanese language.” Many employees felt that the senior staff were scary and intimidating. When the cleaning crews wanted soap bars, a person in charge of resource management relentlessly denied such a request while saying, “We already gave you the allocated amount of soap bars.” I don’t think this is resource management. This is silly because such words and actions are not based on a rational perspective at all. In my opinion, not only Tessei but also so many other Japanese companies have the same culture. Why do cleaning crews have to finish such hard tasks in a limited time? That’s because, in my opinion, someone decided to fix overloaded schedules without thinking about human operation seriously. I would say such a decision made the human operation tougher and harder.

I think that many Japanese are good at improving some parts of something, but they are likely not to care about fundamental problems. Even if the company trains the employees with manuals, they will reach a dead end sooner or later because they are human, not robots. More than anything, we should pay attention to fundamental issues at first. Secondly, we should consider taking advantage of technology positively without having to rely on the employee’s goodwill.

The high cooperativeness and substantial diligence might be a virtue from the standpoint of employers. But, I feel that many employers in Japan rely on such a spirit too much. When part-timers try to quit a job, they’re often concerned about the situation they left. Some people hesitate to leave the company because the company might not be able to continue to work well as usual. However, thinking of such a situation is not part-timers but an employer or manager’s task originally. If the part-time worker who earns a part-time salary manages to deal with even the shift, I suppose that such a custom might spoil employers at the end of the day. In fact, I feel the business model in many Japanese companies looks vulnerable more than other global companies.

What do you think? I like to read case studies because I can learn a lot in a moment without having to spend a lot of time and money. We should positively take advantage of wisdom for which someone made massive efforts. If you are executives at the company that hires much staff and deal with complicated operations, I really recommend that you read “Trouble at Tessei on case studies of Harvard Business School.”

Influencer Marketing Specialist/Digital Marketing/Entrepreneur/Start-ups/Japanese Market

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