The Truth Behind Japan’s ”Seven Minute Miracle”

The Truth Behind Japan’s ”Seven Minute Miracle”

Tim Romero 30/06/2022
The Truth Behind Japan’s ”Seven Minute Miracle”

If you know about Japan, you might have heard of, or even witnessed, the incredible efficiency of Japan’s Shinkansen cleaning crews.

A few years ago, the international press turned them into a media sensation. 

But like so many stories about Japan, the media got this one wrong; or at least incomplete. They left out the true origin story. They skipped the part of the story that actually teaches us something important and innovative about Japan.

Which is a shame, because once you dig into it, you discover that there is something pretty amazing going on here.

The Seven Minute Miracle

The Shinkansen is an engineering and an operational marvel. During peak hours, JR East runs trains three minutes behind each other at 320 kilometers per hour. 

Making this work requires a fantastic commitment to schedule. A departure is only considered to be on-time if it happens within fifteen seconds of schedule; not a second earlier or later. It also means that at Tokyo Station trains only have a 12-minute turnaround-time. It takes about five minutes to get the current passengers off and the new passengers on, and that leaves seven minutes for cleaning. 

In those seven minutes, a 22-person crew cleans 1,000 seats, wipes down all the tray tables, replaces the seat and headrest covers, and rotates the seats 180-degrees so they face the new direction of travel. They then clean the floors and bathrooms, empty all the wastebaskets, collect any forgotten items from under the seats or on the overhead bins, adjust the window blinds, and generally make sure everything on the train is neat and tidy. 

In seven minutes.

The cleaners do all of this with an efficiency and grace that seems more like the performance of a dance than the execution of a duty. When the job is complete, usually with time to spare, the team assembles on the platform at the front of the train and bows in unison to the passengers about to board. 

Sometimes the passengers even clap. 

A few minutes later the next train arrives, and the job begins again. This is repeated for each of the 120 to 170 Shinkansen trains departing Tokyo every day. 

A few years ago, CNN International ran a story about this cleaning crew and the world was, quite rightly. impressed. CNN, however, missed the most important part of the story. By crafting a narrative about how Japanese employees are efficient and take pride in their work, they overlooked both the actual innovation that led to the miracle and what the rest of the world needs to learn from it. 

Today we'll fix that oversight. 

Don’t get me wrong. Japanese workers certainly can be diligent and efficient, but anyone who has managed Japanese staff understands that is not their natural state. 

In fact, even in this celebrated case, it was not always so. This fanatical employee devotion is a relatively recent development. By looking at the innovations that began in 2005, we will also learn a lot about where the gig-economy is headed and about the kind of innovation that Japan can bring to the world. 

The Making of a Miracle

The company responsible for the seven-minute miracle is Tessei, and in terms of corporate culture, they are about as far removed from a startup as you can imagine. They were founded in 1952 as a cleaning subsidiary to the JR rail-monopoly and were handed over to JR East when JR was broken up in 1987. 

Back in 2005, both the Japanese character, and the Shinkansen schedules were very much the same as they are today, but things were not well at Tessei or in their cleaning crews.

The job was considered dirty, dangerous, and dead-end. It was hard to recruit and retain employees. Morale was low. Performance was poor. Delays were frequent.  

Tessei management responded to this problem the same way managers worldwide usually do. They increased training and supervision and upped the number of checks and inspections. Unsurprisingly, this pushed morale down even further. Delays increased. So did accidents and customer complaints. 

At this point, JR East sent in Teruo Yabe to take over business planning at Tessei and he began to change things. He began doing things that seemed to go against all established best practices.  

Previously, the cleaning crews were supposed to be almost invisible. This rapid cleaning was to happen unnoticed and out of sight. Yabe turned this idea on its head. 

He began a program that he called “Shinkansen Theater.” 

He changed the uniforms from the pastel tones designed to blend in with the trains’ interior to a bright red that ensured that the cleaners stood out. The passengers could clearly see that the cleaners were there and what they were doing, and that was the first step to appreciating what they were doing. 

Waiting to board a train is much less annoying when you understand why you are waiting, and when you think about it, cleaning 1,000 seats in seven minutes is pretty impressive. 

Yabe made other changes as well. For example, he allowed the cleaners to talk with the passengers. Previously, they had been prohibited in the name of both efficiency and lack of training. It turned out that most of the questions the passengers asked were related to cleaning or the station layout. When there was a question the cleaners couldn’t answer, no one seemed too bothered by an honest “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Allowing communication between passengers and cleaners did not distract the cleaners from their job, but It increased the passengers’ understanding of and appreciation for the job they were doing. 

About this time, something rather remarkable began to happen. 

As the Shinkansen passengers began to see what an amazing job the cleaners were doing, the passengers began picking up after themselves, and the amount of trash left behind for the cleaners to clean up began to drop. 

Yabe also made important cultural changes. He encouraged employees to report the best things about their coworkers to their managers. He took suggestions from the employees seriously and developed a career path by which part-time cleaners had a clear path to a full-time job and full-time cleaners could enter the management ranks. 

Efficiency improved. Training costs dropped. Employee morale and retention skyrocketed. And within a few years, Japan’s seven-minute miracle came to be. 

Yabe-san, Tessei, and the cleaning crews have received well-deserved International recognition for what they achieved. Rail operators from all over the world come to study these cleaning crews, and Harvard Business School has developed case studies to document and understand this incredible turnaround. 

But there is something important and innovative here that always seems to get overlooked. 

The Story Behind the Miracle

The seven-minute miracle is the kind of just-so story about Japan that the foreign media loves. It’s positive, uplifting, and at first glance it seems to be one of those stories of diligence and efficiency that only happens in Japan. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 

It’s easy to attribute the diligence of the cleaning crews and the tidiness of the passengers as something uniquely Japanese, but it’s not. We know it’s not because we saw their behavior change. Neither the Shinkansen cleaners nor passengers were doing this in 2005 but they were in 2010, and they still are today.

So what caused these changes?

The real innovation here did not focus on introducing efficiency. It involved introducing multiple inefficiencies that enabled greater, sincere human connections, and those connections lead to greater efficiencies.

Almost every change Yabe-san introduced risked decreasing efficiency and quality of service in the short-term. Having the cleaners distracted by talking with passengers, decreasing measurement and oversight, and making the cleaning crews more visible went against hospitality and travel best practices. This kind of work is supposed to take place out of sight and all friction for the customer should be removed. 

However, everything Yabe-san did increased the possibilities for human connection. Not the formal, scripted staff-customer communication or the usual manager-staff meetings, but inefficient, unnecessary communication not directly related to completing the task at hand. 

Rather than managing for control and compliance, Yabe-san was managing for transparency and connection.

Internally this not only resulted in a skyrocketing of morale but an outpouring of creative ideas. The Tessei staff not only came up with innovations that improved their own jobs, but helped design the shape of the overhead bins on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen Line. They were also the team who came up with the idea for the nursery and baby areas in Tokyo Station.

And, of course, it was this feeling of human connection that resulted in passengers cleaning up after themselves because they did not want to create extra work for someone they had just seen working so hard.  

This connection helped people realize that we are all on this train together. It did eventually make processes more efficient and less expensive, but more importantly, it made life a little bit better for everyone involved. 

And that is innovative. That is innovation at its finest. 

This changed the image of cleaning crews all over Japan, and it made a cleaning crew internationally famous and a source of national pride. 

Exporting the Miracle

So can this work outside of Japan?

Yabe himself is doubtful. He credits much of the program’s success to a kind of employee spirit that you don’t see much of outside of Japan. 

I respectfully disagree with Yabe-san on this. If we look into what this innovation actually is, if we break it down into systems, we’ll see that it is not uniquely Japanese at all. It is something universal.

Naturally, there is tremendous interest in replicating the seven-minute miracle overseas. When the French national rail president visited Tessei in 2014 he gushed “We need your cleaning crews in France!” 

While I’m sure the sentiment is appreciated, this misses the core of what made this innovation work. It’s not the people. 

While there are a lot of amazing people in this story, the innovation is the system that was carefully and deliberately put in place to allow and encourage those people to be amazing. If you took those cleaners and dropped them into the French system, they would be behaving just like the French cleaners within a year.

It’s not that the Tessei cleaners are better at their jobs than their Western counterparts. It’s that they are simply not doing the same job. They perform many of the same tasks, but from the employees’ perspective their job is completely different. 

In a time of crisis, the Shinkansen cleaners were given additional trust and psychological safety. Inspections and oversight were scaled back. Training and monitoring were reduced. Management listened to and acted upon their opinions. They were given a clear path to not only continued employment, but to management as well. 

It was only after all this, after management unilaterally demonstrated that they sincerely valued and trusted their employees, did those employees feel secure enough to value their own work and to make real connections with each other and with the passengers. 

Only then did efficiency increase and the magic happen. 

The challenge for would-be imitators is that this commitment can’t be faked or negotiated. The staff has to know the company is fully committed. Even at Tessei, efficiency improvements only happened after the company committed to sweeping and permanent structural changes. 

Tessei completely changed the way it ran in order to prove to their cleaners that they were truly valued. After that, the cleaners rose to the occasion, and then well beyond what the occasion required.

Companies who try out colorful shirts and suggestion boxes to see if efficiency improves are doomed to fail. Employees around the world know when the company is just trying to squeeze a bit more productivity out of them. 

The Problem with Business Process Innovation

Maybe I do agree with Yabe-san after all. This innovation will be hard to export, but not because of the staff. I’ve managed plenty of both Japanese and Western staff, and I find that most people want to take pride in their work when given the chance.

The real challenge is that most modern business innovation involves strategies that make it harder for people to take pride in their work.

Outsourced support, the e-commerce supply chain, and the whole gig economy are based on improving efficiency by standardizing and commodifying jobs and then relentlessly tracking and optimizing every aspect of performance. Protocols are designed and enforced in software to minimize the amount of time customers and staff interact. 

This, by design, eliminates the chance for staff to build direct connection, trust, or relationships. In most platform-based startups, very few customers or gig-workers will ever interact with anyone who actually works for the company.

In such an environment, taking pride in your work and going the extra mile just makes you a sucker. You’ll just burn out faster and be replaced sooner. 

Tessei’s innovation is a direct reversal of all of this 

Pride in one’s work is almost magical. It improves morale. It decreases turnover. It improves efficiency and innovation. But pride in one’s work is a two-way street. If a job is not respected by the company, it will not be respected by the employees who do it. 

Today the Shinkansen passengers respect the cleaning crew enough to pick up after themselves. Today the cleaners respect their job enough to put their whole selves in it, but in both cases that respect had to be earned. 

Tessei’s innovation is not based on technology or new processes. It’s based on an understanding of how people interact with each other and what we all aspire to be. 

It made operations more efficient. It decreased costs. It improved morale. It turned a railway cleaning crew into an international sensation, and it made life a little bit better and more enjoyable for everyone involved. 

That is innovation at its very best.

If you know about Japan, you might have heard of, or even witnessed, the incredible efficiency of Japan’s Shinkansen cleaning crews. A few years ago, the international press turned them into a media sensation. 

But like so many stories about Japan, the media got this one wrong; or at least incomplete. They left out the true origin story. They skipped the part of the story that actually teaches us something important and innovative about Japan.

Which is a shame, because once you dig into it, you discover that there is something pretty amazing going on here.

The Seven Minute Miracle

The Shinkansen is an engineering and an operational marvel. During peak hours, JR East runs trains three minutes behind each other at 320 kilometers per hour. 

Making this work requires a fantastic commitment to schedule. A departure is only considered to be on-time if it happens within fifteen seconds of schedule; not a second earlier or later. It also means that at Tokyo Station trains only have a 12-minute turnaround-time. It takes about five minutes to get the current passengers off and the new passengers on, and that leaves seven minutes for cleaning. 

In those seven minutes, a 22-person crew cleans 1,000 seats, wipes down all the tray tables, replaces the seat and headrest covers, and rotates the seats 180-degrees so they face the new direction of travel. They then clean the floors and bathrooms, empty all the wastebaskets, collect any forgotten items from under the seats or on the overhead bins, adjust the window blinds, and generally make sure everything on the train is neat and tidy. 

In seven minutes.

The cleaners do all of this with an efficiency and grace that seems more like the performance of a dance than the execution of a duty. When the job is complete, usually with time to spare, the team assembles on the platform at the front of the train and bows in unison to the passengers about to board. 

Sometimes the passengers even clap. 

A few minutes later the next train arrives, and the job begins again. This is repeated for each of the 120 to 170 Shinkansen trains departing Tokyo every day. 

A few years ago, CNN International ran a story about this cleaning crew and the world was, quite rightly. impressed. CNN, however, missed the most important part of the story. By crafting a narrative about how Japanese employees are efficient and take pride in their work, they overlooked both the actual innovation that led to the miracle and what the rest of the world needs to learn from it. 

Today we'll fix that oversight. 

Don’t get me wrong. Japanese workers certainly can be diligent and efficient, but anyone who has managed Japanese staff understands that is not their natural state. 

In fact, even in this celebrated case, it was not always so. This fanatical employee devotion is a relatively recent development. By looking at the innovations that began in 2005, we will also learn a lot about where the gig-economy is headed and about the kind of innovation that Japan can bring to the world. 

The Making of a Miracle

The company responsible for the seven-minute miracle is Tessei, and in terms of corporate culture, they are about as far removed from a startup as you can imagine. They were founded in 1952 as a cleaning subsidiary to the JR rail-monopoly and were handed over to JR East when JR was broken up in 1987. 

Back in 2005, both the Japanese character, and the Shinkansen schedules were very much the same as they are today, but things were not well at Tessei or in their cleaning crews.

The job was considered dirty, dangerous, and dead-end. It was hard to recruit and retain employees. Morale was low. Performance was poor. Delays were frequent.  

Tessei management responded to this problem the same way managers worldwide usually do. They increased training and supervision and upped the number of checks and inspections. Unsurprisingly, this pushed morale down even further. Delays increased. So did accidents and customer complaints. 

At this point, JR East sent in Teruo Yabe to take over business planning at Tessei and he began to change things. He began doing things that seemed to go against all established best practices.  

Previously, the cleaning crews were supposed to be almost invisible. This rapid cleaning was to happen unnoticed and out of sight. Yabe turned this idea on its head. 

He began a program that he called “Shinkansen Theater.” 

He changed the uniforms from the pastel tones designed to blend in with the trains’ interior to a bright red that ensured that the cleaners stood out. The passengers could clearly see that the cleaners were there and what they were doing, and that was the first step to appreciating what they were doing. 

Waiting to board a train is much less annoying when you understand why you are waiting, and when you think about it, cleaning 1,000 seats in seven minutes is pretty impressive. 

Yabe made other changes as well. For example, he allowed the cleaners to talk with the passengers. Previously, they had been prohibited in the name of both efficiency and lack of training. It turned out that most of the questions the passengers asked were related to cleaning or the station layout. When there was a question the cleaners couldn’t answer, no one seemed too bothered by an honest “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

Allowing communication between passengers and cleaners did not distract the cleaners from their job, but It increased the passengers’ understanding of and appreciation for the job they were doing. 

About this time, something rather remarkable began to happen. 

As the Shinkansen passengers began to see what an amazing job the cleaners were doing, the passengers began picking up after themselves, and the amount of trash left behind for the cleaners to clean up began to drop. 

Yabe also made important cultural changes. He encouraged employees to report the best things about their coworkers to their managers. He took suggestions from the employees seriously and developed a career path by which part-time cleaners had a clear path to a full-time job and full-time cleaners could enter the management ranks. 

Efficiency improved. Training costs dropped. Employee morale and retention skyrocketed. And within a few years, Japan’s seven-minute miracle came to be. 

Yabe-san, Tessei, and the cleaning crews have received well-deserved International recognition for what they achieved. Rail operators from all over the world come to study these cleaning crews, and Harvard Business School has developed case studies to document and understand this incredible turnaround. 

But there is something important and innovative here that always seems to get overlooked. 

The Story Behind the Miracle

The seven-minute miracle is the kind of just-so story about Japan that the foreign media loves. It’s positive, uplifting, and at first glance it seems to be one of those stories of diligence and efficiency that only happens in Japan. 

But it doesn’t have to be. 

It’s easy to attribute the diligence of the cleaning crews and the tidiness of the passengers as something uniquely Japanese, but it’s not. We know it’s not because we saw their behavior change. Neither the Shinkansen cleaners nor passengers were doing this in 2005 but they were in 2010, and they still are today.

So what caused these changes?

The real innovation here did not focus on introducing efficiency. It involved introducing multiple inefficiencies that enabled greater, sincere human connections, and those connections lead to greater efficiencies.

Almost every change Yabe-san introduced risked decreasing efficiency and quality of service in the short-term. Having the cleaners distracted by talking with passengers, decreasing measurement and oversight, and making the cleaning crews more visible went against hospitality and travel best practices. This kind of work is supposed to take place out of sight and all friction for the customer should be removed. 

However, everything Yabe-san did increased the possibilities for human connection. Not the formal, scripted staff-customer communication or the usual manager-staff meetings, but inefficient, unnecessary communication not directly related to completing the task at hand. 

Rather than managing for control and compliance, Yabe-san was managing for transparency and connection.

Internally this not only resulted in a skyrocketing of morale but an outpouring of creative ideas. The Tessei staff not only came up with innovations that improved their own jobs, but helped design the shape of the overhead bins on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen Line. They were also the team who came up with the idea for the nursery and baby areas in Tokyo Station.

And, of course, it was this feeling of human connection that resulted in passengers cleaning up after themselves because they did not want to create extra work for someone they had just seen working so hard.  

This connection helped people realize that we are all on this train together. It did eventually make processes more efficient and less expensive, but more importantly, it made life a little bit better for everyone involved. 

And that is innovative. That is innovation at its finest. 

This changed the image of cleaning crews all over Japan, and it made a cleaning crew internationally famous and a source of national pride. 

Exporting the Miracle

So can this work outside of Japan?

Yabe himself is doubtful. He credits much of the program’s success to a kind of employee spirit that you don’t see much of outside of Japan. 

I respectfully disagree with Yabe-san on this. If we look into what this innovation actually is, if we break it down into systems, we’ll see that it is not uniquely Japanese at all. It is something universal.

Naturally, there is tremendous interest in replicating the seven-minute miracle overseas. When the French national rail president visited Tessei in 2014 he gushed “We need your cleaning crews in France!” 

While I’m sure the sentiment is appreciated, this misses the core of what made this innovation work. It’s not the people. 

While there are a lot of amazing people in this story, the innovation is the system that was carefully and deliberately put in place to allow and encourage those people to be amazing. If you took those cleaners and dropped them into the French system, they would be behaving just like the French cleaners within a year.

It’s not that the Tessei cleaners are better at their jobs than their Western counterparts. It’s that they are simply not doing the same job. They perform many of the same tasks, but from the employees’ perspective their job is completely different. 

In a time of crisis, the Shinkansen cleaners were given additional trust and psychological safety. Inspections and oversight were scaled back. Training and monitoring were reduced. Management listened to and acted upon their opinions. They were given a clear path to not only continued employment, but to management as well. 

It was only after all this, after management unilaterally demonstrated that they sincerely valued and trusted their employees, did those employees feel secure enough to value their own work and to make real connections with each other and with the passengers. 

Only then did efficiency increase and the magic happen. 

The challenge for would-be imitators is that this commitment can’t be faked or negotiated. The staff has to know the company is fully committed. Even at Tessei, efficiency improvements only happened after the company committed to sweeping and permanent structural changes. 

Tessei completely changed the way it ran in order to prove to their cleaners that they were truly valued. After that, the cleaners rose to the occasion, and then well beyond what the occasion required.

Companies who try out colorful shirts and suggestion boxes to see if efficiency improves are doomed to fail. Employees around the world know when the company is just trying to squeeze a bit more productivity out of them. 

The Problem with Business Process Innovation

Maybe I do agree with Yabe-san after all. This innovation will be hard to export, but not because of the staff. I’ve managed plenty of both Japanese and Western staff, and I find that most people want to take pride in their work when given the chance.

The real challenge is that most modern business innovation involves strategies that make it harder for people to take pride in their work.

Outsourced support, the e-commerce supply chain, and the whole gig economy are based on improving efficiency by standardizing and commodifying jobs and then relentlessly tracking and optimizing every aspect of performance. Protocols are designed and enforced in software to minimize the amount of time customers and staff interact. 

This, by design, eliminates the chance for staff to build direct connection, trust, or relationships. In most platform-based startups, very few customers or gig-workers will ever interact with anyone who actually works for the company.

In such an environment, taking pride in your work and going the extra mile just makes you a sucker. You’ll just burn out faster and be replaced sooner. 

Tessei’s innovation is a direct reversal of all of this 

Pride in one’s work is almost magical. It improves morale. It decreases turnover. It improves efficiency and innovation. But pride in one’s work is a two-way street. If a job is not respected by the company, it will not be respected by the employees who do it. 

Today the Shinkansen passengers respect the cleaning crew enough to pick up after themselves. Today the cleaners respect their job enough to put their whole selves in it, but in both cases that respect had to be earned. 

Tessei’s innovation is not based on technology or new processes. It’s based on an understanding of how people interact with each other and what we all aspire to be. 

It made operations more efficient. It decreased costs. It improved morale. It turned a railway cleaning crew into an international sensation, and it made life a little bit better and more enjoyable for everyone involved. 

That is innovation at its very best.

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Tim Romero

Tech Expert

Tim Romero is the Head of Google for Startups Japan. He is a Tokyo-based entrepreneur, podcaster, author and teacher who has started four companies and led Japan market entry for others since coming to Japan more than 25 years ago. Tim hosts the Disrupting Japan podcast, teaches corporate innovation and entrepreneurship at the NYU Shinagawa campus and is CTO of TEPCO's Business Innovation Task Force. Tim is deeply involved in Japan's startup community as an investor, founder and mentor. 

   

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