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Global Japan
JUL 1, 2013

The Shinkansen and World-Class Service Management

By Steven Neo Say Bin

If you have ever taken the Shinkansen in Japan, you will have experienced its efficient, reliable, warm, and memorable service which is representative of the world-class brand image of the Japanese service industry. Shinkansen’s efficiency in cleaning its trains has been called “the seven minute miracle” where its cleaning crew is affectionately known as the “angels”. Recently, I had the privilege of having an exclusive peek at what goes on behind the scenes, and what I saw has been truly inspiring. This article explores the key success factors of Shinkansen’s cleaning crew, and how the company is able to transform its employees and the service industry with its new service management philosophy.

Service Management Philosophy

In the traditional cleaning industry, employees are regarded as cleaning personnel who provides cleaning services which is classified as a “3K” job: 危険 kiken (dangerous), 汚い kitanai (dirty), and きつい kitsui (difficult). However, Tessei, the Shinkansen cleaning subsidiary of JR East, believes that this traditional service definition needs to be changed in order to grow the company and the industry. The management firmly believes in the service profit chain where employee satisfaction has a direct impact on customer satisfaction and the entire service industry.

To improve overall employee satisfaction, the company realized that it needed to change the current definition of work for its employees. As a result, it redefined its cleaning personnel as service specialists that create “memories” that is rooted in the values of 感謝 kansha (appreciation), 感激 kangeki (impressive), and 感動 kando (inspiring). These values resonate with the cornerstone of the Japanese service concept of おもてなし omotenashi (hospitability). It defines a unique relationship between the service staff and customers where the service staff anticipates customer needs and delivers a level of service that creates a pleasant experience for the customers.

In order to support this new service model, the company re-aligned its human resource strategies and systems so as to provide its service staff with appropriate tools and systems to maximize the strengths of their service delivery at the frontlines (現場力). The company’s revolutionary new service model has been rewarded with a service award from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in March 2013, and international recognition with visitors from China, France, Germany, and South Korea who are eager to learn about Tessei’s service management philosophy and strategies.

Cycle of Capability

In order to support this new service model, the company built a cycle of capability to support its employees and improve overall employee satisfaction as follows:

1. Careful employee selection.
– Candidates need to exhibit the following attributes which are essential to its service values: patience, kindness, a customer-oriented mindset, and a genuine willingness to help other people.

2. Quality training.
– Employees are provided with a comprehensive set of training that includes general cleaning techniques, specialized cleaning techniques for trains, and service delivery to customers from internal and external professionals.

3. Support systems.
– Employees can keep track of the status and movement of trains via monitors that are strategically located in service staff rest areas and offices.
– Work equipment is re-designed to improve the brand image and mobility of the service staff.
– Buckets are no longer used during the cleaning service as it creates a negative public image.
– Work equipment is placed into huge specially designed bags that not only create a clean image for the staff, but also improves their mobility and overall work productivity.
– Employee uniforms were re-designed to create a clean professional image.
– Seasonal decorations are placed on the caps of service staff to convey a sense of seasonality and warmth to the customers.
– Employees take part in daily discussion sessions to share their work experiences and challenges.
– To build a sense of camaraderie, employees are assigned seats for each discussion session which are rotated on a daily basis. In this way, employees will truly be able to interact with each other.
– Employee feedback forms are designed to be simple and easy-to-use so as to encourage active feedback from service staff.

4. Greater latitude to meet customer demands.
– Management has adopted an “open policy” towards employee feedback where employees are encouraged and empowered to suggest improvements and to take responsibility in implementing the changes.
– Employees are encouraged to practice おもてなし omotenashi (hospitability) where they anticipate customer needs and deliver a level of service that creates pleasant “memories” for their customers.

5. Clear expectations of employees.
– During training sessions, employees are expected to share their aspirations, corporate visions, and personal missions with each other by writing them on huge pieces of paper which are displayed for everyone to view in their meeting room.
– The company published booklets called “Angel World” and “Devil Note” that highlights phrases and service attitudes that should be adopted by the service staff.

6. Service Recognition.
– Employees are encouraged to share memorable and inspirational experiences with customers that are published in corporate newsletters called “Angel News”.
– The company improves the public image of the service staff by branding them as “angels” and the service that they deliver as the “seven minute miracle” on the “Shinkansen Theatre”. Visits from the public and the press are encouraged to showcase the dedication and work ethnics of the service staff.

7. Referral of potential job candidates.
– With increased international and domestic publicity of Tessei’s service staff, the company has experienced a marked increase in job applications and referrals.

With a well-established cycle of capability, the company was able to greatly increase employee work satisfaction and customer experiences which led to domestic and international recognition.

The next time you take a ride on the Shinkansen, keep an eye out for these “angels” and enjoy their world-class “seven minute miracle” performance on the “Shinkansen Theatre”.

You can check out the special feature by CNN on “Tokyo’s seven minute miracle”.

What do you think of Tessei’s service management philosophy and its cycle of capability? Do share with us your thoughts and experiences!