Watching World Cup soccer games may give corporate managers a good clue about productive organization. Shunsuke Takahashi, an expert on human resources management, said that in a “soccer style” organization, team members work autonomously and flexibly. Even defenders can take shots on goal.

This contrasts with a “baseball style” organization, where roles, such as that of the pitcher, are fixed.

Japanese companies should adopt soccer-style management to win in an increasingly volatile business environment, Takahashi, a 47-year-old professor at Keio University Graduate School of Media and Governance, said in his recent book “Seika Shugi wa Kowaku Nai” (“Don’t Be Afraid of Performance-Oriented Management”).

The soccer metaphor is part of his theory on performance-oriented management — a concept broader than performance-based pay. Highly motivated and competent workers should be given big jobs regardless of age before their performance at a specific task is evaluated, according to his theory.

“Companies that can’t take in (such a management style) will be weeded out,” especially in such fast-changing areas as information technology, Takahashi said.

Having received his master’s degree in engineering from Princeton University, he worked at McKinsey & Co. and headed the Tokyo unit of the Wyatt Company (currently Watson Wyatt & Co.), both U.S.-based consultancies.

He argues for a performance-oriented approach because he believes the productivity of Japanese white-collar workers is much lower than that of their U.S. and European counterparts. This belief is shared by Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., who made the point in March after offering no pay-scale hikes for fiscal 2002 despite the automaker’s brisk earnings.

Rewarding top performers may sound like common sense, but many Japanese firms have long based pay and promotion on seniority.

Workers have not necessarily been evaluated according to their performance or assigned to the right jobs. Corporate bureaucracy often hinders speedy decision making, as seen in major U.S. companies in the past, Takahashi said.

More and more big firms started paying attention to the performance-oriented system in the mid-1990s, but they tended to focus on pay, partly as a means to cut personnel costs. Merit-based pay is necessary but it alone cannot provide incentives for workers — their motivation must also be respected, the book argues.

Only a handful of advanced firms have begun realizing that changing their personnel-assignment system is essential to boost productivity, he said. “All major firms are now struggling.”

As a model of soccer-style management, the book cites Misumi Corp., a Tokyo-based midsize distributor of precision machinery parts.

The firm’s board decides which director takes charge of what projects after hearing each director’s presentation. The directors then recruit potential team leaders within the company, who in turn recruit team members from among employees. In this way, workers can work flexibly and spontaneously, depending on their competence and motivation.

The firm has also introduced a pay-for-performance system, allowing team leaders to flexibly determine bonuses for team members, the book says.

Takahashi brushed aside the widely held notion that performance-oriented management is something American and does not fit Japanese firms. Companies in any country must explore ways to adapt to a changing business environment, and Japanese firms simply began reforming management systems later than their U.S. counterparts, he said.

What matters is the kind of staff a firm wants to have. “It’s not a matter of the U.S. style or the Japanese style. It must be ‘our company style,’ ” he said.

The performance-oriented approach does not always have to be businesslike. During his four years as Wyatt’s Tokyo chief, beginning in 1993, he led the deficit-ridden Tokyo operations back into the black. To express his gratitude, he organized a company trip to Okinawa for his 30-plus employees and their families.

In his opinion, the traditional media — newspapers and TV broadcasters — are the worst in terms of personnel management.

Asked how best to reform a newspaper’s operations, he said, “Let reporters work on the front lines throughout their career,” referring to the common practice in Japan of assigning many senior reporters to managerial posts.

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