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If Japan Can Why Can't We -- is it management

One of the most celebrated modern heroes of Japan is an American named W. Edward Deming, a statistical analyst for whom monuments have been built. According to "If Japan Can . . . Why Can't We?" (NBC, Tuesday, 9:30-11 p.m., check local listings), Dr. Deming's name is barely known in America. His specialty is productivity . . . and it's an area in which the United States lags far behind Japan. Is Dr. Deming's day finally dawning in America?

"If Japan Can . . ." is another superb NBC "White Paper" job of solid investigatory journalism, prepared under the aegis of NBC's grandmaster of the documentary, executive producer Reuven Frank, who wrote it with anchor-correspondent Lloyd Dobyns. Necessarily overloaded with "talking heads" because of the serious nature of the investigation, the documentary still emerges as compelling viewing for anybody involved or even interested in the future of America.

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The documentary takes the viewer to Japan to watch the workers' Quality Control Circles at work. Unlike most American plants, there is little adversary relationship between worker and management. Cooperation, paternalism, and profitability seem to go hand in hand. Dr. Deming seems to be doing the same things that people who used to be called "efficiency experts" tried to do -- increase productivity by studying current production-line methods.

One of his unique gimmicks is to insist that the machines be allowed to run without workers first -- then he adds whatever workers are needed. His ideas have proved phenomenally successful in Japan, and his ideas or variations of them are beginning to take hold among workers in the US today.

This new philosophy delegates the repetitive labor to machines and reserves the thinking jobs for humans. According to Dr. Deming and other experts, there is great danger when management thinks it is a skill separate from what it manages. That means bringing the worker into greater participation in management decisions. The effect is that workers work "smarter, not harder."

"If Japan Can . . ." zooms back and forth across the Pacific as it examines both the similarities and differences in the Japanese and American experience. If some of the solutions seem simplistic and perhaps too optimistic, the documentary makes it clear that the alternative to increased American productivity and improved quality is a rapid decline in the US standard of living.

The program poses a fascinating question, then proceeds to find the answer. It is more than mere entertainment -- it is an invaluable lesson in economics and the direction of democracy today. Whether or not you like its conclusions, the facts it insistently presents will force you to examine the quality of your own work life . . . and perhaps even your own productivity.

The executive producer is one of television's most skillful purveyors of fine documentaries and the person most responsible for the late and much lamented magazine show, "Weekend," which was probably one of TV's best such programs ever.

In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Frank lamented the fact that "the new chic concern is that American productivity is going down. That is not true -- but the rate of productivity increasem is going down. That was the original topic for this 'White Paper.'

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"In doing this documentary we had this terrible problem of trying to take pictures of ideas . . . or people notm doing something. Cowriter and anchor Lloyd Dobyns and I decided that a study of what the Japanese were doing in this field so successfully would make it more interesting to the average American, who is very much aware of Japanese cameras, TV sets, cars, etc.

"Even those not interested in economics are aware that . . . productivity is making [the Japanese] a lot of money. In fact, if Japanese productivity increases continue to move ahead as fast as in the past and ours remains the same, their national productivity will outstrip ours very soon. Already, since they take our raw materials, and in some cases our labor, and produce products which they in turn sell to us, we are in effect a colony of theirs in some respects."

Mr. Frank has visited Japan many times, and is aware that there are many societal differences which tend to unbalance the comparison. "The eagerness of the Japanese to advance technologically is due mainly to the fact that Japan is an exclusionary society. You cannot 'become' a Japanese citizen. Koreans who have been there for three or four generations are still not allowed to become citizens. The Japanese don't believe in importing foreign labor, so there are no Pakistanis, Turks, or Greeks doing menial jobs, as in Europe. They don't have Puerto Ricans or Mexicans to labor for them. They have to go to machines because they are a labor-short society.

"Also, the Japanese social structure makes it possible for a decision, once reached, to spread throughout the factory, family, society . . . almost unquestioned. But the things they do to increase productivity are not that peculiar. We are doing some of the same types of things here these days.

"There are Quality Control Circles here that seem to work. And don't forget that 200 Japanese companies own and operate plants in the US with American managers and American workers, and they are doing fine. Those plants are oustripping American competition, so we'd better take a good long look at what they are doing."

Has Mr. Frank come to any conclusions as to the reasons for the lag in American productivity?

He takes a deep breath and plunges into what he knows will be controversial matters. "I think it is due primarily to the deficiencies of American management. The very top management has lost its guts. All the great old firms were formed by the old brigands, the so-called robber barons. That generation is gone and we are now into the generation of managers, of MBAs [masters of business administration]."

Isn't there anything Americans can do to reverse the trend in productivity?

"We're already doing some things. American plants are forming Quality of Work Life courses, which involve the workers in the production decisions. In many plants the unions are taking the lead in order to save disappearing jobs. But you must keep in mind that there is a decline in risk taking. It's very difficult to get risk capital these days."

In the documentary summary, Mr. Dobyns points out the danger that this may be the first generation of Americans whose children will not have a standard of living higher than its own. Mightn't that be inevitable, if not with this generation, then with the next?How long can productivity increase?

"I don't buy the idea that in the long sweep of history it may be that productivity has peaked," Mr. Frank answers. "As far as I am concerned, progress never ends. After the First World War, our productivity got an enormous boost from the development of the automobile industry. After the Second World War, it was the TV and electronics industry. Just last week the Supreme Court made a ruling which will allow the patenting of living organisms.

"So, once again we are developing an entirely new field of economic endeavor. And so it goes on and on. . . .

"One of the main fears I had when we started to do this show was that it might turn into a Chicken Little documentary and I would discover that the sky is falling down. Well, that was not our conclusion. I truly believe that things can be done, productivity can be increased . . . but only if somebody wants it to happen."

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