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How to compete with the Japanese

Complaints are chronic among ambitious young Japanese about the long and tedious apprenticeship they must serve before being given management responsibility. Any sign of innovation they exhibit to differentiate themselves on the way up is dealt with harshly, and even when they enter management ranks creativity earns rebukes rather than rewards.

Mitsubishi's Takashi Kitsuregawa bemoans Japan's ''tendency to put down anyone who is likely to distinguish himself. . . .'' As he puts it, ''An old proverb says: 'A nail that sticks out is hammered down.' ''

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This philosophy has helped make Japan the world's most efficient producer. And Japan's success has generated a chorus of appeals for American business to focus harder on improving its efficiency. But these appeals are disastrously misguided.

Americans cannot compete with the Japanese by trying to be more efficient than they are. They must compete by becoming more creative. This is the arena where by temperament and training they excel. And where Japan is sorely lacking.

A crowded island nation, Japan throughout its history has emphasized harmonious relations with others. It surely is no environment for anyone dissatisfied with the status quo and driven to make it better. Even those impressed with the benefits of a homogeneous, racially distinct society recognize its weaknesses: William Ouchi reported in ''Theory Z'' that ''probably no form of organization is more sexist and racist than the Japanese corporation. . . . Their organizations simply operate as culturally homogeneous social systems that have been very weak explicit hierarchical monitoring properties and thus can withstand no internal cultural diversity.''

Venerating tradition and seniority, the Japanese consider it an advantage to remain with one employer for life. The United States, on the other hand, is a melting pot of traditions and ideas where employers compete for talent -- and benefit from the creative brew produced by the diversity of their employees' backgrounds.

How can Americans become more creative? First, we should view creativity as a planned and structured process rather than the result of a lucky accident -- though occasionally accidents do result in great breakthroughs.

Creativity can be taught, and developed further with continued training. It can improve the performance of all the vital tasks required for success in business, and life itself. They include thinking, writing, researching, negotiating, inventing, and problem-solving, to name only a few. Viewed this way , creativity becomes a discipline rather than a talent some are blessed with and others are not.

We can compete with the Japanese if we make this discipline as important to successful management as factors like motivation or people-handling skills. And while the Japanese honor tradition, we must honor the maverick who wants to do things a better way. We should strive not only to out-create the Japanese. We should also cooperate with them to forge better links of understanding and improve the productivity of both countries. Rather than simply compete to get a bigger slice of the pie, we should also think of new ways to cooperate to make a bigger pie. This kind of creativity will result in even greater benefits.

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