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Tech & Innovation
JUN 7, 2019

The Art of the 7-Minute Shinkansen Clean: 3 Secrets to Japanese Innovation

By Cristian Vlad
38346323 - bullet train tokaido shinkansen with view of mountain fuji at shizuoka prefecture , japan

Since its inauguration in 1964 (just two decades after the end of WWII), Japan’s high-speed shinkansen bullet train has continued to amaze the world. Running at speeds of over 300 km/hour, there are at least 323 trains across the country, carrying approximately 1,000 passengers each, every single day of the week. Engineers of this iconic transportation have had to consider a wide variety of difficulties, ranging from sound pollution to earthquakes, snow, and uneven terrain.

But there is another aspect of shinkansen operations that has attracted global attention: the so-called “seven-minute miracle.”

This refers to the process of cleaning up each train between one journey and the next. TESSEI operators have elevated this simple chore to something between art and science, creating a whole new benchmark for innovation, teamwork, and efficiency. 

The seven-minute miracle is even required by Harvard Business School as a study in motivation, engineering, and efficiency.

What lessons, might you ask, can be learned from a team of train cleaners?

Lesson #1: Innovation is a mindset

Innovation does not happen when we’re seated behind computer screens. It is not a set of actions in pursuit of an answer. Rather, innovation should be thought of as a mindset.

Innovation comes with the genuine intention of making the world a better place, creating value for society, the organizations we belong to, the people we work with, and the clients we serve. It comes with the desire and commitment to make any space, service, or opportunity better than it was.

People in Japan call this kaizen (improvement, betterment). Kids are raised hearing the word as part of daily conversation. There’s no deep secret here. Kaizen is just a mindset, often taken for granted. However, it’s one of the main engines of growth and sustainability in Japan.

Lesson #2: Innovation doesn’t need qualifications

Innovation is a simple process. It does not require any advanced skills or special authority. It is a process which can be trained through enhanced awareness, education, and experience. It is not about business models no one else can achieve. It is about creating meaningful progress by doing what others don’t, or by seeing reality from an all new perspective.

It all begins with careful observation – observation of the world, our daily realities, things that happen to us, and our impact on our surroundings.

Then comes prototyping – testing each idea, giving it a body and meaning. Many ideas may never go beyond this stage, but those that do will serve the world and their creators through the value they bring. 

The TESSEI operators redesigned the cleaning process and the customer experience from 0. What were the customer needs? What was the ideal train-riding experience? Here are a few specific things they did:

1. They decided to use one towel for table tops and a separate towel for windows. Why? They felt using a towel for a coffee stains or stray rice grains on a surface so close to the passenger’s face was poor manners.

2. They re-designed the broom. A single stick became a funky retractable device. Why? A retractable broom can fit in a bag and free up the hands. It also has the benefit of hiding dirt and dust from the next passenger ready to board the train on a fresh new adventure.

3. They assigned seats for the crew in the team space under the tracks. Why? To encourage transparency, cross-team communication, customer focus, and the removal of cliques.

4. They wear Aloha shirts in summer and have a cute mascot named Chiritori (a play on words that means both “clean up rubbish,” and includes the word “bird”). Why? To turn what used to be considered a “three-K” job (kitsui: hard, kiken: dangerous, kitanai: dirty), into a fun and friendly hospitality job. The team interacts with guests to let them know that the cleaning teams are efficient, fast, and clean.

Lesson #3: Innovation is not only about tangible products or services

Innovation can be found in the way business is carried out and the architecture we create for our organizations. It’s in the way we inspire and motivate our colleagues, friends, and families.

Innovation is about all the meaningful realities we are committed to creating. Good intentions always lead to great ideas, and Japan is a country where great ideas are always welcome.