Friday night I got back from a two-week trip to Japan, my first business trip for my new job. It was an interesting experience, I’ll do my best to blog about it without revealing too many details about specifics, since my job is very sensitive about IP issues.
I work for a Japanese semiconductor company that makes various tools used by the major chip-making companies: Intel, Samsumg, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, etc. In this case ‘tool’ generally means a huge machine that’s 10’x20′ or larger and performs various processes on hundreds of wafers per hour. To put in perspective, a single tool can cost millions of dollars. One thing that has been consistent in the semiconductor industry over the past decades is that they are continually trying to make things smaller, faster, and cheaper. This requires constant innovation, which means that there are never a shortage of new and difficult problems to work on. My company has all of its production facilities in Japan, several large factories where it makes the tools that are then sold to the various companies. It also has a few research facilities and such too, where they try and work out problems with current of future tool implementations.
A lot of the various processes that our tools perform involve transport phenomena: coating, baking, drying, spinning, cleaning, etc. Some of these processes can get very complicated, and understanding all the pertinent physics at play can be a bit too complicated for a regular engineer with a B.S. Add to that the fact that Japanese industry traditionally does not hire a lot of people with advanced degrees, and you end up with a shortage of knowledge that could be helpful in solving many of these problems.
That’s where my group comes in. My boss had built/nurtured a group of researchers in America, most of us with PhD’s and/or years of experience working in the semiconductor industry, and we essentially work on the most difficult problems they are dealing with in the factories or research facilities back in Japan. When I started in September my boss gave me two introductory projects to start on, and for me to report my progress in Japan in October.
The trip to Japan was very interesting for me, since I have been to Japan many times in the past, but this was my first experience with a Japanese business setting. I’m the first and only person in my group that speaks Japanese, but I was the complete rookie when it came to pretty much everything else. Here are some observations and comments of mine, in no particular order.
- An individual’s level within the company seems to strongly correlate with their English ability.
This I noticed quite early. Pretty much all conversations with various engineers, managers, and marketing guys were in English, since none of the other Americans understand Japanese. The higher up on the totem pole they were, the better their English was, almost without exception. For an international company this really wasn’t a surprise, I just hadn’t known about it before. In fact all the really young guys there that had particularly good English were all fast-tracked, many of them had worked 2-5 years at a facility in the US.
- Engineers, supervisors, and low-level managers tend to be fairly meek, upper-level managers are very sharp and direct.
In one of the wrap-up meetings towards the end, a manager there spent about half an hour totally wailing on his engineers in the factory, since he felt they hadn’t done their part in preparing for the meetings that week. Paraphrasing, he said things like, “Why are we paying these guys to come all the way here from America if you’re not going to be organized and ready for them? You think our competitors are just going to lay on their backs and wait for us to catch up?” etc. We had dinner with him later, and I asked him about his management style. He said, “A lot of these people have gone to the local high school, gone to the local college, and then got a job as an engineer here at the local factory. They’re still not used to having to do business on pace with Tokyo and the rest of the world. I have to push them to make the grade, because I don’t want them to be left behind.”
- The buyer/customer relationship in Japanese business is really, really perverse.
I heard many stories from engineers talking about their experiences working on site for company A or company B. The way this works is that a chip-making company purchases one of our tools and installs it in their factory, integrating it into their chip-making process. Then if at some point the tool starts having problems like spitting out wafers with defects, they call us up and tell us to come fix the problem. Since we want to sell them more tools in the future, we send engineers to their facility to go fix it (if it’s a major customer, we probably have engineers on-site already on a semi-permanent basis). They can be very, very abusive to engineers in that situation, up to and including physical violence, obstruction, and preventing them from leaving the facility no matter the circumstances (e.g. the part to fix the tool is on order and won’t arrive until tomorrow, but they won’t let you leave that night, etc.) And the engineer really can’t do anything about it, because if he reports it it will damage the relationship of the companies, and our company might not be the preferred supplier the next time they go shopping for tools. Another guy in marketing told me he was at a meeting with a major customer where he tried to show a presentation on our latest tool, and it took him over half an hour to get past the 1st slide because everyone there had to chew him out before letting him go on.
- Things I read about in Dilbert happen in real life.
This is basically all the stupid stuff that happens in companies that makes people surprised that anything ever gets done in any company, anywhere. Things like various groups or individuals being over-protective of their ‘turf’ to the detriment of everyone around them, separate groups working on essentially the same problem without either group being aware of each other, poor communication resulting in many people being ignorant of the big picture of their work.