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Quality Control and Resilience

September 26, 2006


One of the best ways to become the brunt of jokes is to produce inferior products. Remember the Yugo. Following the Second World War, “Made in Japan” meant cheap, quickly made, low-end products. Most baby boomers will remember the days when “Made in Japan” could elicit a good a laugh. For members of generation X, who grew up with Lexus automobiles and Sony electronics, this may come as a surprise. Japan, by focusing on quality control, was able to turn around its manufacturing base as well as recover its national pride. Martin Fackler, reporting in the New York Times, notes that one of Japan’s most popular television shows has been “Project X,” a series about Japanese scientists, engineers, and businessmen who turned the country into an industrial powerhouse. However, faced with a sluggish economy, especially when compared to China’s, recent numerous recalls of Japanese products has been a blow to the Japanese psyche [“Japanese Fret That Quality Is in Decline,” 21 Sep 2006]

It is little wonder that a recent surge in recalls of defective products has set off national hand-wringing and soul-searching here, in radio talk shows, on the front pages of newspapers and in the hushed corridors of government ministries. Even in local noodle shops, the conversation turns to the bruised pride and fears that Japan may be losing its edge at a time when South Korea and China are breathing down its neck. “Craftsmanship was the best face that Japan had to show the world,” said Hideo Ishino, a 44-year-old lathe operator at an auto parts factory in Kawasaki, an industrial city next to Tokyo. “Aren’t the Koreans making fun of us now?”

“It took us years to build up this reputation,” Kazumasa Mitani, 32, a co-worker, chimed in. “Now we see how fast we can lose it.”

Reputation is an important part of resilience. In an earlier blog, I quoted Mark Safranski on this subject. He wrote:

The increasing ubiquity of real-time global communication has made corporate reputation a vital but fragile commodity. The room for error, scandal or ethical shortcomings is virtually nonexistent once a story has arrived on the global media radar.

Fackler’s article demonstrates that national reputations can also be fragile; perhaps not as fragile as corporate reputations, but fragile nonetheless. While I doubt that the Japan’s reputation for manufacturing high quality products is seriously in jeopardy, the Japanese perception is that the problem verges on a crisis.

This, after all, is a country that has been obsessed with perfection. Tokyo’s sprawling subway and train networks run like clockwork, accurate to the minute. Television factories assign workers with rags to wipe down every new set, lest a Japanese consumer find a single fingerprint and return it. In supermarkets, many apples and melons are individually wrapped in protective plastic foam. In the last two months, the national angst increased after large-scale recalls of defective products made by Toyota and Sony, the country’s two proudest corporate names. In the United States, product recalls occur so frequently that most are barely noticed. But here, they have created something of a crisis in a country where manufacturing quality is part of the national identity. … World-leading craftsmanship became so central to the nation’s self-image that many Japanese seem to have trouble imagining their country without it.

The fact that quality has become part of the Japanese national identity (and also allowed them to become an economic heavyweight) underscores the fact that resilient companies can and must foster a culture of quality. Fackler details some of the reasons the Japanese public believes there has been a decline in quality.

Some say young Japanese are too lazy. Others say American-style management is to blame. … The recalls are discussed here in the same breath as Japan’s rising rates of crime and juvenile delinquency and other signs that the country’s tightly woven social fabric may be starting to fray.

Just as interesting are the discussions about Japanese education — discussions Americans have been been having (with little to show for them) for the past decade.

In Japan’s schools, once lauded for their hard-working students and sharp-penciled test takers, test scores have fallen recently below those of countries like Singapore, South Korea and Finland. Dozens of educators at elementary and high schools across Japan are sounding alarms about declining standards. … Universities bemoan that new students are more interested in literature and the liberal arts than engineering. Applicants to engineering programs are down to 8.7 percent of all university applicants this year from 12.3 percent eight years ago.

Japan’s problems have Korean manufacturers licking their lips in anticipation of biting off a bigger market share. Globalization has increased competition and resilient companies must continue to find ways to improve performance optimization. Japanese manufacturers, who embraced “American quality guru” W. Edwards Deming when he was being ignored at home, taught the world that quality control is critical for performance optimization.

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