Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet train in the West, was the world’s first high-speed train running at 200km per hour, and today the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world’s most used high-speed rail line. Impressively, even with over 120,000 trains running on the line each year, the average delay time is a mere 36 seconds!
Part of the reason the bullet train system can run as smoothly as it does is thanks to the ‘hospitality group’ working behind the scenes of the sleek, futuristic facades of these famous trains. These cleaning crews are charged with covering every inch of a train’s interior when it arrives at its final stop and preparing it for the next wave of customers–and they have just seven minutes to do it.
What is TESSEI?
JR East’s rail service company is known as TESSEI, and it is responsible for the cleaning of the bullet trains when they have come to a stop at Tokyo Station. There are around 820 staff members including full-time staff and part-timers known as ‘partners’. The average employee age is 52, and around 50 percent of them are women, so people often talk affectionately of the TESSEI ‘obaa-sans’ or ‘grannies’.
Bullet trains shuttle in and out of the platforms at Tokyo station 210 times each day. TESSEI staff are divided into teams composed of 22 people, and with 11 teams of cleaners taking turns on the platform, which translates into each TESSEI employee cleaning around 20 trains per day.
Despite not being particularly glamorous work, the group has received a lot of media attention over the years, and have been called Japan’s ‘strongest team’ by the Nikkei Business magazine.
So what exactly does the job entail?
Trains spend only 12 minutes at the station in Tokyo. That includes two minutes for passengers to disembark and two more for the next to get on, leaving only seven minutes for cleaning.
One person is in charge of one car with around 100 seats, and the whole car must be made spotlessly clean during those crucial seven minutes. It’s the same for the toilet cleaning staff – no matter how dirty it is, they have to have it sparkling again within the time limit. And lest we forget, the shinkansen aren’t like inner-city trains — passengers often travel for hours at a time, getting settled for the long ride, eating meals, snacking, reading newspapers, and generally making a bit of a mess.
The strict seven-minute deadline means that the work is broken down into smaller blocks that have to be completed in record time: 1.5 minutes spent picking up trash, 30 seconds rotating the seats (some can be swivelled around so that larger groups can face one another), four minutes sweeping and cleaning, and a one-minute check.
Those crucial seven minutes
0:00~1:30 First check the luggage racks on both sides, then look down the gaps between the seats for any forgotten items. As the seats are being turned to face the direction of travel, run down to the door at the other end sweeping out dropped trash into the aisle along the way.
1:30~4:30 On the way back up the aisle, pull down and check the blinds, and at the same time pull out the seat-back trays and wipe everything down, and change the seat covers if they’re dirty.
4:30~6:30 There’s now only two minutes left. Take a broom and sweep up all the trash brought out into the aisle in one go.
Everything above is expected to be completed in about six minutes. The official time limit is seven minutes, but it’s often crowded and takes longer for passengers to disembark, so they rarely have the luxury of using the full seven. This almost superhuman feat is known in Japanese as the ‘7-minute shinkansen theatre’
Why does it work?
TESSEI was reformed into the company it is today nine years ago. At the time the workers were treated as mere dispatch cleaners, and had low morale and dedication to their job. This led to the cleanliness of the shinkansen suffering and not living up to the expectations held by its millions of passengers.
One of the main changes involved in the overhaul was redefining the work as ‘service’ rather than ‘cleaning’, and endeavoring to create a sense of pride in the job. Another major factor is the importance of teamwork, with input coming not just from the supervisors but from everyone in the team. Every day they will hold a team meeting to thoroughly discuss any issues no matter how trivial, and every member gets a say. Furthermore, the teams are not fixed, and will be shuffled around so that everyone gets a chance to work with and learn from lots of different people.
From 2007 the Angel Report has been the most effective method of raising morale amongst the team members. This is a public report that’s sent out internally and pasted to the office walls where staff who have worked exceptionally hard are given a public shout-out and thanks.
Image: IHCSA Cafe
Omotenashi: Japanese hospitality
You might have heard the Japanese word ‘omotenashi’ in conjunction with the 2020 Olympic bid. It basically represents the concept of Japanese hospitality, and the country is very keen to continue to promote the image of politeness that many foreigners have of it.
TESSEI has its own brand of omotenashi that you can witness whenever you’re waiting to board the train, as the TESSEI staff line up to start their speed clean. One of the fascinating things for passengers, particularly foreigners, to observe is the way all the staff will bow to the train on its arrival and departure from the station, and to the passengers before they board.
Other unique ideas to jazz up their job and put smiles on people’s faces have come from the staff themselves, such as having seasonal flowers on their hats, or wearing bright Hawaiian shirts in summer.
Celebrity endorsement (sort of)
TESSEI’s incredible service has garnered admiration and praise around the world. Upon visiting TESSEI, the French national rail president commented that he wanted to import the idea to France. And last month a group of professors from Harvard University visited TESSEI and discussed including the company in teaching materials at the graduate school of business.
But probably the best endorsement the group received was from former Governor of California and all-round badass Arnold Schwarzenegger, who expressly went to observe the group when he visited Japan with the American transport chief. If it’s good enough for the Terminator, then it’s probably good enough for the rest of us!