Image of a Shinkansen (bullet train) arriving at a station in Japan

If you’ve ever taken the Shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan, you will have experienced the efficient, warm, and memorable service representative of the Japanese service industry’s world-class brand image. The Shinkansen cleaning team’s efficiency has been called “the seven-minute miracle”; the crew itself affectionately known as “angels.”

Recently, I had the privilege of getting an exclusive peek at what goes on behind the scenes, and what I saw was truly inspiring: the key success factors of the Shinkansen cleaning crew, and how the company is able to transform its employees with its a unique management philosophy.

The Shinkansen management philosophy comes down to a balance of customer, community, and employee.
Shinkansen management philosophy

Service Management Philosophy

Traditionally, positions in the cleaning industry are classified as a “3K” jobs: kiken (dangerous), kitanai (dirty), and kitsui (difficult). However, Tessei, the Shinkansen cleaning subsidiary of JR East, believed this traditional service definition needed to change in order for the company and industry to grow. Tessei management supports a service profit chain in which employee satisfaction has a direct impact on both customer satisfaction and the entire service industry.

To improve employee satisfaction, the company realized that it needed to change its definition of work. It started by redefining its cleaning personnel as service specialists who create “memories” rooted in new 3K values: kansha (appreciation), kangeki (impressive), and kando (inspiring). These values resonate with omotenashi, the cornerstone of the Japanese hospitality that’s all about anticipating customer needs and delivering a level of service that creates a pleasant experience.

In order to support this new service model, the company re-aligned its human resource strategies and systems to provide the appropriate tools and systems to maximize service delivery on the front lines.

In short, it worked. The company’s revolutionary new service model was granted an award by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in March 2013. It has also received international recognition, with visitors from China, France, Germany, and South Korea eager to learn about Tessei’s service management philosophy and strategies.

The back room of the Shinkansen cleaning staff, with cleaning supplies and duffel bags neatly arranged on shelves.
Back room for Shinkansen cleaning staff

A Cycle of Capability

Tessei has built a cycle of capability to support its employees and improve overall employee satisfaction.

1. Careful employee selection
Candidates for Shinkansen service positions need to exhibit the following attributes, each considered essential: patience, kindness, a customer-oriented mindset, and a genuine willingness to help people.

2. Quality training
Employees are provided with comprehensive training that includes general and specialized cleaning techniques, as well as service delivery advice from internal and external professionals.

3. Support systems
Employees keep track of the status and movement of trains via monitors that are strategically located in service staff rest areas and offices. Work equipment that projected a negative public image (such as buckets) was re-designed to improve the brand image and mobility of the service staff. That equipment is transported in specially designed duffel bags that not only create a clean image for the staff, but also improve mobility and overall work productivity.

Employee uniforms were re-designed to create a clean, professional image. Seasonal touches are added throughout the year to add a touch of warmth. Daily discussion sessions allow employees to share their work experiences and challenges. To further build a sense of camaraderie, employees are assigned seats for each discussion session, rotated on a daily basis.

4. Greater latitude
Tessei management has an open policy towards employee feedback where employees are encouraged and empowered to suggest improvements and to take responsibility in implementing the changes. The forms provided to submit feedback are designed to be simple and easy to use.

5. Clear expectations
During training sessions, employees are expected to share aspirations, visions, and personal missions. They write these on huge pieces of paper which are then displayed in the meeting room.

6. Service recognition
Employees are encouraged to share memorable and inspirational experiences with customers. These are published in the corporate Angel News newsletters. Visits from the public and the press are encouraged to showcase the dedication and work ethnic of the service staff – the angels.

With increased international and domestic publicity, Tessei has experienced a marked increase in job applications and referrals.

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

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