What are Europe annd Japan doing right that America isn't?

That question, asked frequently these days as Americans watch the dollar slide and see foreign products proliferate around the world, was the focus yesterday of a conference here on what to do about the critical slowdown in U.S. productivity.

Speakers from Great Britain, the Common Market and Japan attributed efficiency gains in their countries to three general factors: governments that care; workers that participate in company management; and businesses that love to export.

Asked what they though the U.S. should do to reverse its current slump in productivity, the foreigners agreed America's biggest enemy has been itself. The fundamental problem, they said, has not been a failure of muscle or genius in the U.S., but a failure of will.

"There is an awful lot of pride missing in this country," remarked Walter hayes, vice chairman of Ford of Europe, Inc. "It does appear from the outside to be tearing itself apart . . . You have the technology here. It seems to me you should stop worrying and get on with it.

And if the U.S. doesn't, the Europeans served notice they would. "Europeans are good at buying into U.S. technologies," said A.C. Hubert secretary general of the European Association to Productivity Centers. "IF you aren't using them, we'll gladly put them to work."

The Europeans and Japanese were careful to note that not everything was rosy on their side of the globe.

Common Market firms still face entrenched labor groups and encroaching nationalization of industry, both of which pose stubborn impediments to continued productivity gains. The Japanese have been threatened by increased competition from such recent industrial powers as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil and Mexico.

But the hard data suggest they have been dealing better was their problems than the U.S. has with its productivity problems.

In the past ten years, U.S. productivity grew at a slower rate than any of the major industrialized powers. America, the nation that taught the postwar world how to produce efficiently, now lags behind - like the teacher whose pupils surpass him in the end.

Only in this case, the U.S. can't afford to be outdone. Slower productivity growth has contributed to inflation. It helps explain why the American standard of living is not improving as fast as it used to. As a sign of the seriousness of all this, 130 representatives from business, labor and government met here for two days to sound an alarm.

"The U.S. is facing a productivity crisis," asserted Robert Abboud, chairman of First Chicago Corporation and moderator of the panel discussion yesterday. "The longer we delay in closing the productivity gap, the more painful it will be to catch up later."

In this regard, one edge other countries have over the U.S. is that they seem to think more about productivity. They have had to. Coming out of World War II with neither the technological lead nor the intact plant structure America was blessed with, they had to plan and push more aggressively for growth.

As a result, Europe and Japan now have highly coordinated productivity programs, which include special ceaters that identify industry bottlenecks and foster the transfer of new technologies. They also have vigorour adult education and job training program, many of which have strong union support. In addition, Europe and Japan have done much to promote exports.

The key to Japan's success, in particular, goes even further. Robert Ingersoll, who between 1972 and 1974 was the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, said yesterday that America could learn much from Japan's special style of management. He described it as especially harmonious and communicative. He also noted how extemely sensitive Japanese companies are to the welfare of their employes - a fact that does much to explain the high degree of motivation observed in Japanese factories.

To demonstrate that Japanese management techniques can be transferred to America with impressive results, Sadami Chris Wada, assistant vice president of Sony Corporation of America, described for the conference the operations of Sony's six-year-old color TV plant in San Diego.

Only 30 of the plant's 1,000 employes are Japanese. So successful has the grafting of Japanese methods to the American work force been, W'ada noted, that the San Diego operation last year surpassed its sister plants in Japan in productivity.