Creating a team that brings out the best in individuals in a workplace that is oblivious to disabilities

Creating a team that brings out the best in individuals in a workplace that is oblivious to disabilities

Kenichi Sakumoto
Sony Corporation Corporate IS Dept. HQ Corporate IT Strategy Gp
Sony Global Solutions Inc. Strategy Division Strategy-JP EA Strategy Senior Manager

How an accident while taking a management engineering course at university changed my life

I majored in management engineering at university. "Management" conjures up images of an arts course in business administration, but management engineering is the scientific and technical study of corporate and organizational management systems using computers.
I chose this route because of what a private tutor inspired me when I was at high school. I was intrigued to learn about this different world when he spoke about majoring in management engineering at university. IT was making rapid progress into companies at the time, and I had a hunch that knowledge and skills in information processing would be useful in the future. My university lessons covered numerical analysis of management issues in various industries. Many covered practical matters such as creating more efficient production management systems, which have been extremely useful in my current work.

My university life was truly fulfilling until I suffered a cervical spine injury in a motorcycle accident and started a life with a wheelchair . At the time, I was deeply depressed at the bleak future that appeared to await me, but I was saved by friends who visited me daily after lectures and on holidays. When I returned to university after going through rehabilitation, my friends continued to invite me to hang out with them as before without making a fuss about my disability. I will be grateful for this forever. Teaching and office staff at the university were also helpful in various ways, installing a new toilet for people with disabilities and arranging as many lectures as possible on the first floor. The warmhearted support everyone extended to me enabled me to approach my university life with confidence.

I joined Sony because I was attracted to the idea of making creative products

The fact that I liked its product designs was one reason why I considered Sony as a potential employer, but there were other unavoidable attractions. For example, Sony mobile phones at the time were equipped with a jog dial function that enable the user to shuttle through stored data and press to dial the designed number. Initially, I was dubious that such a unique feature would find market acceptance, but the jog dial function subsequently swept the market and became the mainstream. Sony really attracted me because of its creative, unconventional approach to monozukuri. During my interviews, I was presumptuous enough to tell my interviewers how I would improve Sony products if I had the chance, but it appears they were intrigued by this. When I joined the company, I was assigned to building and managing information systems for semiconductor and other device business divisions.

I get the impression that Sony is a workplace where nobody pays attention to whether people have disabilities or not. Some 20 people joined the information systems division when I entered the company, but we all worked together naturally during training, and people provided support as a matter of course when I needed it. In actual operations, my bosses and senior colleagues paid no attention to disabilities when assigning work and made no attempt to provide special treatment. I was also impressed by efforts to establish facilities that took disabilities into consideration. Many of office building in Japan only provide one toilet for people with disabilities on each floor, and in some cases only one such toilet in the whole building, but Sony's Head Office has two disabled toilets on each floor. Toilets for people with disabilities are available at Sony business facilities throughout the country, all of them equipped with ramped access. I suspect this indicates just how many people with disabilities are working at Sony. I know that employees with different nationalities, genders and other individual characteristics work at Sony workplaces, and the efforts to create a company where it is easy to work are naturally enhancing awareness of the importance of barrier-free designs.

Facilities at Sony Headquarters Office give full consideration to wheelchair users

Corporate culture of delegating work to employees irrespective of whether they have disabilities or not

Sony is engaged in a wide range of businesses from electronics and entertainment to finance, and in the electronics sector, it has divisions devoted to business, production, sales, and information systems. I get the feeling that there are almost no barriers between these divisions, creating a workplace where people can go about their business freely. In the case of large, trans-divisional projects, for example, members from each sector pool their various skills and experience to tackle the work together while actively exchanging opinions. In this process, employees are asked to express views based on their own convictions, irrespective of disabilities or differences in nationality. I think this open corporate culture is excellent because it enables people to voice their opinions regardless of rank or hierarchy.

My most impressive experience to date has been working with Sony Mobile Communications Inc. (SOMC). SOMC is engaged in the mobile business covering smartphones and other products on a global basis, and the information systems division that supports this involves frequent overseas business trips, many of them long-term. I have always been interested in working overseas, and hoped to be posted abroad at some stage, so I happily accepted when my boss approached me about transferring to SOMC. When it comes to posting persons with disabilities overseas, some companies apparently also assign a person without disabilities as part of a team of two, but SOMC unreservedly posted me on my own after confirming my condition. I believe this experience enabled me to grow a great deal.

Enjoying lunch with local colleagues during my overseas posting

Gathering teams together to undertake larger projects

Today, I am employed by Sony Headquarters Office but concurrently hold the position of Senior Manager of the strategy division at Sony Global Solutions Inc., which provides IT systems support for the entire Sony Group. I am in charge of Enterprise Architecture (EA), which designs overall corporate information systems, creating forward-looking information systems for the Sony Group as a whole based on the vision put forward by top management. Away from the workplace, through a process of trial and error, I am also tackling the new job of guiding my team in my position as a Senior Manager.

My outlook has changed since I became a Senior Manager. I used to be the type of person who took a "me, me" approach to difficult projects, which I enjoyed. Now, things are completely different. As there are limits to capabilities of each person, I am now very interested in working with teams, taking the view that better results are possible if team members pool their strengths together. I always value the idea of bringing out the individuality and skills of each member and delivering results by guiding them in one direction. My team includes older members and people with different nationalities, so I respect their experience and skills, and communicate with them frequently to increase their motivation.

I commute using my wheelchair-accessible car. I drive when we go on family camping trips

I want to grow still further while valuing my private life as well

In my private life, I joined a swimming team for people with disabilities several years ago. We practice two or three times a week and take part in competitions. I took up swimming to improve my physical strength and keep fit because I lack exercise as a result of handling a lot of desk work. I am involved in competitions not only in swimming pools, but also in open water swimming competitions in the sea and lakes. I find swimming in natural environments is great for alleviating stress and very refreshing.

I would love another overseas posting as my next work challenge when things are ready. I want to see how far I can go in an environment that is totally different from Japan. From the perspective of infrastructure, the US is very advanced and barrier-free designs are a normal part of daily life. The attitude towards people with disabilities in the US is completely different from in Japan, and people there think it only natural to ask if we need support and readily provide help. Since it looks like an easy place for wheelchair users to live, it is one of the countries to which I would like to be posted. The world is inhabited by a wide range of people with various value systems. I want to grow more as a human being through exposure to different environments.