All-American Campbell Soup Co. is taking on the Japanese -- as a competitor and as a role model.

Since 1980, the Japanese share of the market for soups in the United States has grown from virtually nothing to 9 percent, with products produced by Japanese companies taking a growing share of supermarket shelf space. Nissin Foods, makers of Oodles of Noodles, is the largest Japanese producer of soups for the U.S. market.

Despite that increase, Campbell still dominates the market in a fashion many companies would envy: 62 percent of the U.S. market for all types of soup and 82 percent of the market for canned soups. But officials at Campbell say they would rather be vigilant than vulnerable.

"I think that people didn't worry enough when the Japanese companies started competing with the auto manufacturers and the steel mills," said R. Gordon McGovern, president and chief executive officer of the food company, which ranks number 100 in the Fortune 500.

Campbell officials say that they believe that Japanese food manufacturers may be able to establish themselves in the United States with low-cost, high-quality products and then expand. "So, I'm worried," said McGovern. "Officially."

There are four Japanese-owned soup plants in the United States already and another plant is being built in California, according to Campbell officials. "They say they're making essences [cubes of concentrated flavorings] for the Japanese market," McGovern said. "We've been trying to track [the progress of the company] by satellite."

Campbell has committed itself to spend $1.2 billion between now and 1990 to upgrade and to restructure its 22 plants in an effort to keep ahead of competition. Campbell's plan? To adopt many of the approaches that have contributed to the efficiency and quality of manufacturing in Japan.

"We called this thing the 'total systems approach,' which I guess is gobbledygook to some people," McGovern said. "It's a way to collect all our efforts to make sure our food distribution is the best it can be."

That translates into a program with several facets. A major one is revamping manufacturing to produce products in smaller batches as they are ordered to eliminate costly inventories, both of raw materials and of the finished product. McGovern said they expect to have reduced the company's inventory costs by $50 million this year and to use capital that has been tied up in inventory more productively.

The program also includes closer computer links with retailers, an attempt to develop closer relationships with suppliers to ensure the quality of the supplies Campbell receives and revamping the sales force into 22 regional forces that sell all Campbell's products instead of just soups or frozen foods. Other major features are "quality circles," in which the workers who are closest to processing and other activities can devise ways to improve them, and statistical monitoring at every step of the way.

Several of these features -- "just-in-time" manufacturing and quality circles -- have achieved a certain corporate chic throughout the United States. But Campbell officials say that it goes below the surface, that they are committed to fundamental change at their company.

The company has trained about 300 workers in statistics at the University of Tennessee to monitor processing better, and it has handed out copy after copy of a book called "Japanese Manufacturing Techniques" to Campbell employes.

"You've got to take about 10 years, because you're changing a culture," said Lewis W. Springer, senior vice president. Making those changes involves convincing people that they won't suffer from change. "We've done a massive training program. The major thing is getting those hourly people in a plant like Camden, N.J., to say, 'I get it. I agree with it.'"

"You've got to have faith in this because it takes time to get results," Springer said.

"The Japanese have found a way to produce quality products in a very cost-effective manner. It's clearly an effort to copy a very successful manufacturing program," said George Novello, an industry analyst with E. F. Hutton. "You rarely see companies in the U.S. get as involved as Campbell."

"When you hear the speeches that McGovern gives, there's no question that he feels that there are different and better ways to run a manufacturing business than some of the traditional ways," said Leonard Teitlebaum of Merrill Lynch.

McGovern, who had run the company's Pepperidge Farm subsidiary and who took over as president in 1980, is credited by industry observes with taking Campbell in a more consumer-driven, marketing direction that has resulted in a proliferation of new products and an emphasis on freshness.

"We're pushing hard on refrigerated and fresh products, which is where we think the market is going," McGovern said.

In addition to manufacturing soup, Campbell produces Pepperidge Farm products, Vlasic pickles, Mrs. Paul's frozen seafood, V-8, Prego spaghetti sauces, Swanson products, Le Menu frozen dinners and Godiva chocolates. It also sells fresh mushrooms and hydroponically grown tomatos and avocados with the Campbell label on them.

Among the company's new products designed to keep up with rapidly evolving tastes are Le Orient, a new line of frozen dinners; Fresh Chef sauces and salads sold from the refrigerated shelves of groceries, and a constantly growing line of newly packaged or newly configured soups.

"We introduced dry soups last fall and have about 20 percent of the dry soup market," McGovern said. "We've leased a ramen noodle factory in Ohio. We have microwaveable soups, frozen soups, soups in glass jars, low-sodium soups. We're going to catch you every way we can."

"I think what they're saying is that soup in any form is their bailiwick, and they don't want it taken away from them," said Novello of E. F. Hutton. Soup accounts for more than one-third of the company's total earnings, he noted. "It's the key business," Novello said. "They want to use that as a lever" for further expansion.

"If we're the best that is in soup, and doing it here, then we can broaden our soup base," said McGovern. That will allow Campbell to keep up with the super-powers in food processing that mergers, such as the Nabisco-R. J. Reynolds combination, have produced, he said. The nature of the ownership of Campbell's stock protects it from being the target of an acquisition, McGovern said. About 60 percent of the stock is in the hands of the Dorrance family, heirs to John T. Dorrance, who originated the canned, condensed soups that made the company famous, but takeover speculation appears to account for higher prices for the stock in recent months.

Moving into the dry-soup business may allow Campbell to expand in worldwide markets, where it accounts for about 30 percent of the sales. "We tried to take wet soup [canned soup] to the rest of the world and discovered that it was really the specialty end of the business," McGovern said.

Other products are aimed at capturing consumers who seldom sit down for family meals but who "graze" or eat "hand-held" foods.

In the meantime, Campbell is at work on the Le Orient version of itself.

The biggest evangelist for change within the company has been Springer, a former manager of the company's oldest facility, its 97-year-old plant in Camden, which the company is spending $37 million to upgrade. Springer preaches the gospel according to W. Edwards Deming. Deming was invited to Japan in 1949 by the national society of engineers, who wanted advice about how to restore their war-ravaged economy.

Deming emphasized statistical control of quality throughout production, in contrast to the American method of checking quality at the end of the manufacturing process.

Some of the changes are under way at the Camden plant, where one of two warehouses is being eliminated. "What we would like to do is, if you get an order for one case, you produce one case," said plant manager David Winkler. "What we have done in the past is to produce for the sake of production, to keep everyone busy." That kept the two warehouses full.

The plant is being upgraded, despite its age, because of its location. "From a construction point of view, it's expensive," Springer said. "But from a just-in-time-manufacturing point of view, probably 29 percent of the people in the U.S. live within 200 miles of that plant."

Workers in the Camden plant and others participate in quality circles and task forces to devise ways of improving production. One task force is trying to determine what percentage of cans arrives on supermarket shelves damaged and how it happens.

"We've inspected the process here and gotten a number of damaged cans that were going through our system and were not caught," said Dennis Wrigley, a forklift operator at the plant who is a member of the task force. "Then we went out to the stores to see the level of damage, which is more. We're backtracking now" to determine where the additional damage occurs, he said.

"It's a little bit more interesting than just stacking soup all day," he said.

If Campbell succeeded in reorienting itself, the transformation should result in both fresher products and substantial savings, according to company officials. "What we're trying to do is reduce the cycle time" between the arrival of raw ingredients and when the soup or other food product reaches the store, Springer said. About two years ago, the cycle time for soup was about six weeks, according to Springer. That time has been reduced to about two weeks now. By Aug. 1, 1987, that time may be reduced to a single week, he said.

"The faster you can move it, the less money is tied up," he said. In the past, the company emphasized large orders, delivered by truckload to warehouses, and kept substantial amounts of capital tied up in ingredients, trucking and storage. "I think what happened is, over time, as we got more volume and had low interest rates, people forgot how much money was tied up," Springer said.

The approach that the company is trying to adopt from the Japanese is designed to remedy that, he said. "I think some people think it's just something to talk about, but it's not," he said. "It's really asset management."