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Harvard business students to study '7-minute miracle' bullet train cleaners

A JR East Tessei Co. team takes a bow after finishing cleaning a Shinkansen bullet train at JR Tokyo Station. (Photo courtesy of JR East Tessei Co.)

WASHINGTON -- The super-speedy teams of cleaners that keep the interiors of East Japan Railway Co. (JR East)'s Shinkansen bullet trains sparkly for the next batch of passengers have become something of an international internet sensation, with English-language news outlets such as CNN even dubbing their work the "seven-minute miracle." Now, students at Harvard Business School (HBS) will be required to study that "miracle," with the famed institution declaring it an ideal example for business leaders.

    The custodial teams with JR East subsidiary JR East Tessei Co. must finish cleaning the shinkansen train from end to end between the trains' arrival at the JR Tokyo Station terminal and their next departure time. The trains have a 12-minute turnaround, but that includes time for passenger disembarkation and boarding, leaving just the "miracle" seven minutes for the cleaners to do their job.

    In that time, the Tessei staff wipe down all the tray tables, floors and washrooms, collect forgotten articles, turn all the seats around, and generally keep the trains clean and tidy.

    It was not always so. Up until about 10 years ago, Tessei was assailed by customer complaints and staff morale was very low. The job itself was considered dirty, dangerous and difficult, leading to a high turnover rate. Managers determined to improve things resorted to on-the-spot reprimands for errant employees, and further cast a chill over workers' enthusiasm, which only worsened the situation.

    The turnaround began in 2005, when JR East sent in Teruo Yabe to take over business planning at Tessei. Yabe, now 69, had been in charge of safety policy since he joined the old Japanese National Railways (JNR) some 40 years before. Cleaning trains was a new area to him, but he understood immediately that Tessei staff viewed themselves as "no good." Yabe quickly moved to improve the workplace environment, introducing colorful uniforms and calling the trains the "Shinkansen theater" where cleaners put their technique on public display.

    He also took suggestions from the workers themselves, never saying "no" to ideas like making aloha shirts part of the summer uniform, or attaching decorative flowers to the hats, and encouraged the cleaners to report the best qualities of their coworkers. Yabe also created a path for cleaners to reach management positions, which also helped boost morale. However, he also set up a penalty system, where workers' bonuses shrink if they repeatedly come to work late. The system of benefits and demerits has helped vastly improve service at the company.

    HBS isn't interested in Tessei as an example of management reform, however. The school also gives high marks to the firm for boosting workers motivation and productivity.

    HBS, which uses a vast selection of real-world case studies in its classes, has been using the Tessei example as optional study material since May last year. However, the school decided to make it mandatory after students responded to it in a big way. Starting this fall, some 900 HBS students will discuss Tessei as they study company management and leadership strategies.

    Harvard Business School assistant professor Ethan Bernstein, right, is seen with JR East Tessei Co.'s Teruo Yabe, left, at JR Tokyo Station in March 2014. (Photo courtesy of JR East Tessei Co.)

    To add to the Tessei materials, HBS assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior Ethan Bernstein even came to Japan to interview staff from the company directly.

    According to Bernstein, 40, most students entering HBS think of leadership simply in terms of control, and many believe that problems within an organization can all be solved with financial incentives. He went on to say that Yabe's methods were more sophisticated than that, and that HBS students had a lot to learn from them.

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