Case Study: Using Diversity for Competitive Advantage

By Kathy Miller on April 7th, 2013

Our client is a Japanese American firm with its headquarters in Japan and with production and assembly facilities in New York and Nebraska. The company has many subcultures – Midwesterners, New Yorkers and Japanese, to mention a few. Each of the subcultures has its own orientation to the world, the company, the customers and the work. Over the years, groups within the company, unaware of their differing points of reference, have frequently struggled with miscommunications, misunderstandings and work relationships that aren’t always productive.

We started working with the company 10 years ago. Off and on across this decade they have called on us to help them design their training programs, coach their managers, train their supervisors and offer general assistance to them when they face the inevitable issues that come up from time to time in their multicultural environment.

Recently they held a retreat for the senior leaders of both the New York and Nebraska facilities. The theme of the retreat was One Unified Team Moving Toward the Future. They asked us to design and facilitate the retreat. Over the course of the two days that we spent with them, they engaged in activities and discussions that enabled them to identify how their differences could be leveraged to give them a competitive edge in the marketplace. The people representing the various subcultures discovered some interesting things about how the others perceived them. For example, the New Yorkers were surprised to learn that the Midwesterners sometimes saw their behavior as angry when they thought that they were merely being assertive. On the other hand, the Midwesterner’s desire to strive for harmony was sometimes interpreted as their not being assertive enough. The Americans viewed the Japanese as less aggressive than their American counterparts. Yet through exploration and discussion, the group concluded that the real difference was in how the two groups demonstrate aggressiveness. By clearing the air on perceptions and assumptions, the collective team reached greater understandings of how to work together effectively towards common goals.

As the leadership team discovered and discussed the differences in styles and perceptions, they came to the realization that their very diversity is, in fact, a huge strength for them. It enables them to position themselves for a future that deals with customers’ diverse needs and demands. They began to discover new ways to use their varying styles to work with their diverse customer base better.

We have found that our clients sometimes overlook the impact that culture can have on the effectiveness and productivity of a team, a company, a supply chain, or a customer network. Culture does affect our interactions, like it or not. As our client company discovered, it is better to understand the differences and use them to create success rather than to jump to conclusions that may prevent progress rather than supporting it.