IT IS probably a sign of American maturity that Japan's stunning successes in exporting cars, cameras, and a variety of other goods in all world markets is no longer chalked up to some sorts of sinister trade practices. Even the convenient myth that Japanese companies have combined with the government, to form a huge and omnipresent "Japan, Incorporated," is slowly being laid to rest.
Instead, there is a greater acceptance of the notion that through brilliant planning by the Japanese government, which established farsighted national economic targets, and then helped private industry reach them, Japan has achieved the highest levels of productivity anywhere (while productivity gains here have been falling). And further, if we don't want to lose out even more in the competitive race, we had better try to learn something from Japanese management techniques, just as they did from us in the early 1950s when they adopted quality-control techniques taught them by two Americans, W. E. Deming and J. M. Juran.
These books deal more with the company structure, and less with the role of government policy. The focus is on the question whether specific Japanese management techniques can be transferred to American companies, given the vast cultural differences between the Japanese and Westerners. And the authors agree that many of the Japanese ways can be adapted by American corporations -- and already have been.
To be sure, a wholesale transplantation is neither possible nor desirable. It may surprise may Japanophiles to learn that the typical big Japanese corporation is both sexist and racist. Women (and foreign nationals like Koreans) are not eligible for most professional or managerial assignments. Thus, Japanese men, almost exclusivley, share in the much-vaunted "lifetime experience."
If there is one major lesson to be learned from the Japanese business structure, it is how to manage. Despite their seven-figure annual compensation, American managers have been unable to motivate their workers.Detroit executives who are frustrated by the high quality that makes Japanese cars so desirable have to look to themselves, not to those on their production lines, for most of the explanation.
According to William Ouchi, of the graduate school of management at the University of California, the biggest management failure in this country is in dealing with people. In Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge , Ouchi argues that "involved workers are the key to increased productivity . . . The productivity gains come from improved coordination rather than increased physical effort."
In The Art of Japanese Management , Richard Tanner Pascale and Anthony G. Athos say that Japanese superiority has more to do with "their managerial beliefs, assumptions, perceptions, style, and skill" than with the highly publicized "quality-control circles" -- in which small groups of workers brainstorm problems and try to come up with solutions -- or with lifetime employment itself, thought to be the single most important feature of the Japanese business system.
The typical Japanese company stresses trust in the worker, and the major ones offer lifetime employment, with automatic pay raises until the retirement age of 55 or 60. The common thread in Japanese life is intimacy, which extends beyond the family to the factory or office. This work-place intimacy (alien to American culture) nourishes the desire of the Japanese to work with and on behalf of each other, and to believe in group rather than individual achievement.
Those who enjoy lifetime job status in Japan -- about 35 percent of the work force -- have it made: a good chunk of their earnings comes in the form of a bonus, twice a year, which can run to close to 50 percent of their salary. Everyone's bonus is the same percentage of his base salary, and the amount "is not contingent on individual performance, but only on the performance of the firm."
Consider what this means: the bonuses give the employe an incentive to make the company a success, and to cooperate with fellow workers in every way he can. In a bad business year, the company can cut or totally defer the bonus, reducing the total payroll by as much as 30 percent, without laying anyone off. When good times come again "an experienced and loyal work force is ready to go."
This is the ideal, and it has been working well for Japan. But the ideal isn't universally met. "Lifetime employment doesn't last for life," Rodney Clark tells us in The Japanese Company . He says that "large Japanese companies take the best and most productive years of their employes' lives, and then leave them to look after themselves in the period of their decline."
Moreover, things are changing fast in Japan. A recent Business Week story notes that as the Japanese work force is aging, many companies have been compelled to pull further away from the lifetime concept. For example, middle-aged workers are being urged to take a lump sum and retire earlier to make way for younger personnel.
What is more serious is that some thoughtful Japanese critics think their nation has paid too heavy a price for its commercial success because Western ways (and habits like the Big Mac and Kentucky Fried Chicken) are fast invading the tranquility of Japan. Says Donald Richie in the sprightly Matsushita Company monthly magazine: "There may be on Japan's side a trade imbalance, now that Sony, Hitachi, Suzuki and Yamaha are household names. But there is also a cultural imbalance on the side of the West.
"It is taking the best of Japan, while Japan is taking the worst of America and Europe."