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Social Spotlight: Overtime work and the 'customer first' mindset

The inside of a SHIPS store is seen in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward, in 2012. (Mainichi)
Yoshie Komuro

"Our employees put the customer first, and that's why overtime work never decreases."

What makes work-style reform difficult is not businesses rife with aimless overtime work, but workplaces that prioritize the customer like this.

Apparel retailer SHIPS was one such business. Around 80 percent of the company's employees are store clerks. There was a strong tendency at all of the company's stores for staff to think that overtime couldn't be helped if it was for the customer, and that they had to stay and do something if they didn't reach their sales targets.

The company held training sessions to help the store managers come to grips with the need for work-style reform. The managers who underwent this training took the lead in altering working conditions at each outlet. They held "kaeru" meetings -- a play on homonyms meaning "make change" and "go home" -- and talked honestly with staff members about factors that cause long working hours.

What shocked store managers was the discovery that poor communication among store staff and the store managers' management skills were more common causes of overtime than working "for the customer," which had been previously regarded as the primary cause. After each store faced the issues and solved them one by one, late-night work at the company was slashed by 38 percent overall, with a 25 percent cut in overtime hours. Even during the busy New Year holiday season, the company was able to increase sales while holding down work hours to 80 percent of the previous year's figure. In particular, the SHIPS store at the Grand Front Osaka shopping complex in Osaka managed to achieve zero overtime hours in February this year while also performing very well.

The shopping complex is open until 9 p.m. The store had thought that overtime work was essential to satisfy customers. During meetings, however, it became evident that work was not being properly allotted and transferred among staff members, and that when a worker was serving customers, it was unclear what the other staff members were doing. Issues such as these were found to be hindering work.

The store clarified staff roles, and decided that staff members would not participate in inventory control while serving customers. This enabled them to help customers without any distractions, resulting in improved service and better sales results in a shorter time.

There are probably many people who resist work-style reform, arguing that it isn't good to deny people who work for the customer, and find it rewarding. But as can be seen in the SHIPS example, it is possible to change the way one works without discarding the customer-first principle, and it can also lead to more polished service.

The action plan for work-style reform announced by the government in March does not include teachers or bureaucrats. We hear people say that they are unable to control long working hours due to external factors beyond their control, such as dealing with parents and the Diet, which can be likened to customers in the apparel industry. But even in fields like these, are there really no issues resulting from a lack of communication, management ability or other such issues? Surely this is something that needs to be discussed. (By Yoshie Komuro, president of Work-Life Balance Co. Ltd.)

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