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What can India learn from what Japan learnt?


Many responses came in after the article on Kaizen was written. An interesting one was; How did the Japanese devastated by a terrible war, come to challenge and overtake the Industrial leadership of Europe and America? Can it be only Kaizen?
Can it work in India?

A great number of books and material has been written by well respected people for a couple of decades on Japan and their unique culture and the Japanese Government support etc. SO I will keep try to keep my comments brief.

The practices outlined in Kaizen did not originate in or are unique to Japan, they were however adopted and improved in Japan on a massive scale, with BELIEF & CONVICTION.

Too much credit is given to the Japanese and too little to the Americans for not only Kaizen but also many technological and managerial innovations and practices.

Japanese government and Industrial leaders copied and adapted the best practices of the American organisations to their culture. Starting afresh, without much of the legacy of the past to hinder them, they produced a unique Japanese solution.

Japanese leaders confirm that, soon after they began rebuilding their nation after World War II they copied successful American companies. They adopted many of the management practices of companies of value driven and best managed companies like IBM and General Electric in USA.

Question was what attracted the Japanese to learn from say IBM?
The answer lies with that great, yet misunderstood social innovator of a man called Thomas Watson Senior, who did much to build the foundation of his company IBM (International Business Machines Corporation)

Even in manufacturing and service organisations, not all innovations are technical, many are social, financial and managerial.
Watson's greatest impact was on social innovation. He cared for people and his employees in particular. He was rigid in his beliefs and many resented that. He insisted that;

  • His salesmen all wear blue suits to give them social respect, (salesmen of that time were considerd nothing more than hustlers and crooks)
  • He kept liquor and work apart.
  • He believed in his worker and that their interests were aligned with the company
  • He believed that the worker is an intelligent person capable of using his own mind to contribute to improvements
  • A moral commitment to employee life time employment
  • He flattened his organisation chart , abolishing the post of foreman and distributing the work to managers and to the workmen. He made it clear that the key person was the worker, and all others in the organisation were required to assist him by providing him, necessary information, materials and tools to do his job.
  • Around 1935 he introduced the concept now known as Quality Circles, trusting the workmen to improve productivity and quality because they knew the work best.
  • He enriched the workers job and later the staff members who went from having the smallest job to the largest job profile.
  • No employee was ever laid off, even in an economic downturn. (In the great depression of the 30's Watson nearly went bankrupt for personally intervening to stop layoffs)
  • He gave his people pride and sense of belonging with constant training and development so that they grew and progressed professionally and monetarily along with IBM.
  • In early 1920's he started a continuous learning and improvement program to help employees 'to better what they were already doing well'

    Classified as a crank by American business leaders of his time, derided by such prestigious magazines as Fortune in 1940 calling him the American Fuhrer because of his attempt at organising the workplace, percieved as regimentation of work. Watson's humane approach to management and people was considered a socialistic and communist approach by many. However the result was these practices made it possible for IBM to be the fastest growing business in America for decades, without internal turbulence, labour turnover or industrial strife. No wonder he was a misfit amongst many of his compatriots, he was 50 years ahead of his time.

    The principles of lean manufacturing and value analysis and many Kaizen tools were pioneered by General Electric of USA in 1940 but was thereafter taken up by the Japanese in the fifties.

    The application of statistics in process and quality control was adopted by the Japanese from two famous Americans, Edward Demming and Joseph Juran in early 1950's.

    Acquiring and adapting the teachings, knowledge and techniques of many of these great individuals and organisations, Japan won the peace. It has acquired power, status and friends by economic means, to an extent far greater than it could have achieved by any war.

    Learning, adapting and constantly improving, using Kaizen, lean practices, focus on quality etc, Japan a densely overpopulated small nation, within 40 years had become the second largest economy in the world. Japan Inc products are a symbol of quality and reliability.

    The Japanese have since the 1980's have set up manufacturing bases in countries like China. Using extremely low labour, energy and overhead costs coupled with many of the Japanese management and technical skills, they now represent a new and powerful thrust for the Japanese. Nearly 70% of Chinese exports are from expatriate companies having set up base in China. The results can be staggering , for example; Share of imported Chinese automotive parts in Indian local vehicles stands at 33% and likely to touch 42% in 2013 -2014 and if unchallenged may touch 60% by the year 2020.

    From my experiences, many companies in India too have learnt and adopted Kaizen practices. However numerous organisations pretend to have adopted them or don't believe in Kaizen, and the majority remain clueless.

    Unless Indian organisations too learn and adopt such practices quickly, they will be unable to achieve true competitive advantage. They will continue to use resources inefficiently and the advantage of low labour payments will continue to be squandered by relatively poor quality and low productivity.

    Learning to learn, the Japanese Students out perform their American & European teachers. Can we in India, also learn and adapt?

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