Japan's Smile Scanners A Classic Misuse Of Technology

from the smile-for-the-scanner dept

As pointed out on the Freakonomics Blog:

Japan’s Keihin Express Railway Co. has set up “smile scanners” at 15 of its stations, where railway employees have their smiles assessed by software in the hopes of perfecting a customer-friendly look.

This is such a classic misuse of technology by a corporation. The goal of the company is to provide more positive and friendly customer service but its technique of using a “smile scanner” is going to have the opposite effect. Nobody likes to be forced into happiness, and the employees will end up resenting the scanners, their bosses for making them use the scanners and the customers for expecting them to smile.

Instead, a smart company would try to figure out how to make its employees genuinely happy so that they smile because they want to smile. This would create endless positive outcomes for the company, the employees and the customers.

Sometimes technology can look like it provides a quick fix when, in fact, it is just an illusion.

Cross-posted from MyMediaMusings.com

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Companies: keihin express railway

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Comments on “Japan's Smile Scanners A Classic Misuse Of Technology”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This is another one of those cases where I wonder what it takes to be an “expert at the Insight Community”.

Dave, you are attempting to apply your desires (truly happy customer service) over the railway’s intention (transient appearance of being happy). Since Japan’s customer service is already generally at a high level, they are trying to refine a look and an appearance, not to make their employees happy.

“he goal of the company is to provide more positive and friendly customer service but its technique of using a “smile scanner” is going to have the opposite effect. Nobody likes to be forced into happiness, and the employees will end up resenting the scanners, their bosses for making them use the scanners and the customers for expecting them to smile. “

That would be a very western, very independant mentality. It doesn’t really apply in Japan.

As a side note, your personal site is a cesspool of popup ads and really poor layout. It’s hard to enjoy a site when a full page dhtml overlay ad comes up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Scarr,it would take much longer than a single post here to explain the Japanese mentality on customer service. All you have to do is walk into a McDonalds in Tokyo to know you are in a different world of customer service, a different mentality.

The Japanese wouldn’t look at a smile camera as a way to check they are smiling, but rather as a way to improve their appearance to the public. It’s sort of Kaizen for customer service as it were.

It’s a cultural thing, something that most western people would never get.

scarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think generalizing people on here saying it’s “something that most western people would never get” is much better than westernizing the view of the thing in the first place, if that’s what happened. Instead of just criticizing, you could try to educate us.

I can appreciate that a culture that prides itself on public appearance (we Brits spent lots of time doing this) would value ways to improve that image. While the Japanese have a strong sense of honour and duty to what they do, there are always personal limitations and emotional repercussions tied into everything as well.

Would scanners be more effective at encouraging employees something like than supervisors doing occasional cursory checks?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

AC. I agree with your argument, but disagree that “it’s something that most westerners would never get”.

Really, just a one-day trip to Japan would show how differently they view customer service. You as much as say that with your MacuDonaldoru example. I agree.

Scarr, here are some examples of how different things are:

– The taxi drivers wear white gloves. They are very polite. (does that sound familiar). And there is a tradition of opening the door for passengers, limo style. But that tradition has been modernized, so they have installed remote-arms to control the passenger door, and the driver can open your door for you like a school bus driver does it in the US.

– walk into any retail store, you will immediately by set upon by about 8 young ladies yelling “konichiwa” across the floor. You will have one approach you and ask if you need help, then ghost you around the store. When you leave, not having bought a thing, as you are about to pass the door, 8 young ladies will yell out “arigato” or such, smiling big all the time, and seeming very pleased that you graced their store with your presence. BTW, I’m not talking some high-end jewelery store – this could be any store, like a postcard and trinket shop. Every store, every time.

The culture of service is different (and I think better there). I the US and the UK, the “all men are created equal” notion pervades the service sector. You, and the guy behind the counter at Wimpy’s are equals, he just happens to be working and you just happen to want a burger. But in Japan, so long as he is working and you are a customer, you are the king and he is your humble servant. When he takes off his Wimpy’s outfit, and you’re both on the train to go home, only THEN are you equals.

Sounds like class warfare to Americans but it is the SERVICE industry, no? Why not make an effort to live up to that promise.

Like I said, one trip to Japan, and you would understand.

BTW, I worked for Disney (as an wireles exec) and marveled at the rules for appearance put on the cast members. There were rules for facial hair, make-up, etc. I wasn’t too keen on those, but there was also a rule about smiling. And I’ll tell you what, it worked very well. It’s a theme park, it’s the service industry, it’s marketed as the “happiest place on earth”. The smiles were contagious. The guests felt a positive energy. There are dozens of reasons why you want your paid staff to smile or fake a smile. It delivers a measurably better experience to the customer.

DS says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’ll back you up on this. I have never felt more welcome at a store than when I was in Japan. From the old lady at the festival stand who helped me pick what coins I needed so I didn’t struggle to pay her, to the girl who worked at the Virgin Megastore who happily put up with my terrible pronunciations of Japanese bands. It was a shock when I came back to the states.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

most of these “experts” have no real world experience and are still working on their bachelors… so they can’t tell you how to run a business because their lack of experience isn’t backed by an MBA, and they can’t tell you what the law is or should be because they don’t have a JD.

as to the merits of this argument, it’s pretty damn silly. do you really think walmart or any of your local big boxes could get someone to care more? working at a big box is the most demoralizing bullshit anyone can do, and it’s only tolerable when you’re a teenager. when i was a teenager, you could have tripled the wages of the entire employee base and most of them would still hate the place.

Cable (user link) says:

The anonymous coward above is down right. The article is biased with western way of thinking, which does not apply at all to Japan on this subject. Westerners unaware of Japan’s service would think this is a way to force employees to smile, while seen from here this is evidently considered locally as a way to improve customer service (that was actually my first thought, though I doubt the system to be accurate enough).

If employees were against this system, they would refuse to use it (or find a way to get the system withdrawn); this is similar to the West. Why do you think no one cares here (apart from the technological aspect, which is fun)? People are not dumb accepting something they don’t like without protesting.

Anonymous Coward says:

I came in to say about the same thing. If the smile cam forces you to smile, then it sucks… but if it helps you gauge how really happy you are, then it may be a plus. That, if you think that smiling really is a measure of happiness. But I agree that japanese culture is so different that we may never fully understand it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The site was potentially interesting, but the popups and all pretty much made me go “no way”. I wouldn’t intentionally go back to the site.

My comment has more to do in the end with the concept that this guy is an “insight expert” and also a technology boss at a movie company. I would expect more, not less. Most of the insight experts have sites that don’t impress me.

Cable (user link) says:

I didn’t feel like we were criticizing…sorry if that’s what you felt.

Thing is, this system is not aimed at forcing people to smile; they’re already smiling. All employees of any company/store in contact to the general public are already smiling. This system is a gauge of the “quality” of their smile. It sounds weird, but this is because it’s supposed to be fun (and people here are quickly discarding the news as being funny). It’s trying to improve an already good service quality with fun (what better way to improve smiling than with a funny system).

As to whether this is better than guidance and critics from a human being, I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to that. But smiling appears to me as being subjective (I mean the opinion of whether a smile is a “good” smile or not), so at least a machine gives clear rules and unbiased opinion, based on the sole physical caracterictics of the face. A human being might take into account the history of the person examined, her body language, and his personal feelings towards the employee, although this shouldn’t be when solely judging how good a smile is.

All in all, whether the system is better than a human is not a bid deal (except for the people whose job is in relation with that system). Originally, this was just a fun news in my opinion. And many japanese companies try to promote technology as a support for business (sometimes they try useless things), which reads positive to me.

scarr (profile) says:

AnonC and Cable have a point

The summary here fails to note an important distinction in the original article:”It’s not compulsory, according to this BBC report, but all the staff use it.” That supports what AnonC and Cable have been saying, that this is regarded as a good thing in Japan.

This is why comment sections are great — they allow balance through discussion of other viewpoints. Thank you both for educating me. (See, westerners _can_ learn.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Oh gosh, you guys are right, the mentality in Japan is totally different. I mean, they’re used to being treated as paid servants and production resources, and as a sort of worker bees from some hive. They absolutely love it! It’s not like overworked Japanese workers are always edgy and stressed up and committing suicide after having severe mental breakdowns… oh wait.


Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If you’re trying to link being forced to smile with dying a little inside, that’s a theory that would need some research and evidence to back up.

There are lots of little stresses in Japan that could cause a person to suicide, and faking a smile at work is not the most convincing reason.

How about a culture that forces conformity with “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”?

How about a culture of marriages of convenience, where husband and wife lead separate lives in narrowly pre-defined roles?

How about a culture that almost requires a salaryman to spend his evenings drinking himself stupid with his co-workers, grabbing the last train home after his family is asleep, getting a short night’s rest, and repeating the same the next day?

Think of it as better or worse if you want, but mostly it’s just different. And you will never be able to fit your values around their way of life.

There are real stresses and problems in their society. The lack of individuality in the personal life is one I would decry. I don’t think being forced to smile while working is so bad. People all around the world do stuff they don’t like for a buck – that’s why they call it work.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is Japan you’re talking about. They probably make them practice smiling before work anyway. Japanese people have a mentality that makes no sense to westerners. When I was in Guam there were two industries on the island: the US military, and robbing Japanese tourists blind. Every place you went they had two sets of prices: one for the Japanese and one for everybody else. And the Japanese didn’t even mind. They LIKE paying more for stuff. I went on a dive charter with a group of Japanese tourists and every one of them had a brand-new set of dive gear that easily cost them each over $1000, or twice what it would have cost anybody else. And most of them probably never used it again after their trip was over. But none of them wanted to be seen using cheap rental dive gear.

Mechwarrior says:

Remember, this is Japan. The same country where popular female models are raped before they can get in the big leagues, workers are forced to stand the entire day at work and walk a minimum speed and have timed bathroom visits. The same country where the chief cause of death for adults is overworking.

To those who think this is just Japan’s culture, no, this is the corporate culture where the workers are peons and the executives are Holy Emperors.

Fuedal society never really left that country.

Petréa Mitchell says:

An objective use for smiles

Smiling has benefits for the company which don’t rely on any sort of cultural differences. It’ll affect the whole passenger-agent interaction, leading to customers who report being happier and more satisfied– even if the actions don’t change from when the agent didn’t smile!– and an overall lift to the social environment within the train system.

(Seriously. Some bank robberies can be stopped before they even start by the teller just making eye contact with the would-be robber, smiling at them, and being polite. Sadly the URL I had for the page describing the study behind this seems to have expired.)

Petréa Mitchell says:

Cultural and economic differences

Rather than saying you can’t understand because this is a foreign culture, let us say that this is a situation where the social and economic forces are somewhat different from what you assume them to be.

For instance: there is no tipping in Japan. In fact, a tip can be taken to be a serious insult. So you do not have the whole dynamic of an employee trying extra-hard to please a customer with the expectation of increased direct monetary reward.

However, as AC says, customer service in Japan is excellent. Things which would be considered going the extra mile in the US are normal and expected there.

Now, Japanese consumers do make decisions about where to spend their money on a company-by-company basis partly based on customer service. But if the actions of customer service are already as improved as they can be, how can a company compete? By affecting the perception that customers have of those actions. And smiling employess will give it that extra edge in customer satisfaction. So this smile-improving program makes sense in that context.

Plus, all the publicity they’ve gotten off of this can’t hurt, either.

Anonymous Coward says:

Japan is one of the least happy developed countries on earth, according to a study by the University of Leicester. It’s a cultural thing, yes. None of the Asian nations are very happy. Besides, they probably have fun using the smile scanner. I think it’d be worth a few laughs to try it out on myself, anyway. They pride themselves on being a clean country with excellent customer service, anyway. Hey, I’d be proud if I was contributing to that, even if I thought my job was boring and hated it.

BobKerns (profile) says:

You can't optimize what you don't measure

While anyone who has spent time working in Japan will see that it is different, and viewed differently than by workers in the US, I’d like to make a different point.

You can’t optimize what you can’t measure. And the Japanese are very big on optimizing processes for quality. They took Denning’s views seriously, while Detroit did not, and transformed themselves to the top of the heap in terms of industrial quality, and they’re quite justly proud of that accomplishment.

In order to do this, one thing that is required is to MEASURE the quality — and everything that goes into that quality.

So, if the COMPANY wants to know how they’re doing, and to optimize it, if they have an object measure, that’s good. If they’re making their employees miserable, and it’s affecting their happy appearance, that should show up, and they’d know they were going in the wrong direction!

And likewise, the employees want to make the company successful and to visibly play a role in that success. So, to the extent it’s a tool used to help everyone do a better job, it’s a good thing.

Of course, it could be used badly. But there’s a deeper potential problem — measuring the wrong thing. If they device measures the facial expression in a certain way, that’s what they’ll optimize — making the software happy.

That may not translate into making customers happy! A common pitfall is to measure the WRONG THING! That can be tricky.

I don’t know how this will work out. Probably the novelty of the idea will produce some good results at first, and any problems will only come to light later.

But I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it will produce unhappy workers. Done right, both in terms of the work environment, and what the software measures — and in an environment that encourages feedback from workers about what works and doesn’t — it stands a chance of working out well for all concerned.

But I hope they do some followup validation of the concept.

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