Will Japan Go US Way?

An article in NewYork Times, ‘Japanese Fret That Quality Is in Decline’ by MARTIN FACKLER on September 21, 2006 shows how manufacturing has gone in the industrial culture of Japan. How deeply are Japanese concerned about the quality of the Japanese goods? Without any elaborate management education as in America, the Japanese produce the best quality. Without following a formal six-sigma quality practice of American origin, the Japanese achieve a quality level better than the one who follows it.

Perhaps, the Japanese have reached the level of the quality standard because of the overall concern for quality over the years and their practices of quality circles, kaizen, 5S, TPM (Total Productive Maintenance), QFD (Quality Function Deployment), lean manufacturing, and unique TPS (TOYOTA Production System).

Perhaps only in Japan could a television series like “Project X” have become one of the most popular TV shows. No, it isn’t a science fiction thriller. It’s about product quality. More specifically, it’s about a bunch of corporate engineers whose hand-held calculators and ink-jet printers helped turn this nation into an industrial powerhouse.

It is all due to the worry about their completitive strength. 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?”

Indian auto sector have learnt a lot from the Japanese about their quality control practices and overall Japanese way of manufacturing management. Many have gone for the coveted Deming Prize. And that is one of the reasons that the sector is doing wonderfully well.

This 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. And that is the reason that US has almost given up manufacturing lead in sectors after sectors. Today, even Ford and GM have closed most of the manufacturing activities in US mainly because it couldn’t compete on quality with the Japanese.

In Japan, the news has created something of a crisis in a country where manufacturing quality is part of the national identity. Some say young Japanese are too lazy. Others say American-style management is to blame.

Can Indian manufacturers take some lessons from this story? Let Japan be the model to emulate and not the China for the manufacturing sector. Let the Indian manufacturer not go down on quality by indiscriminately using Chinese parts in their products. On long run it may prove too costly.

The concern shown by the Japanese shows its built-in strength of the quality of their manufactured products. Perhaps, it will not go the US ways in manufacturing.

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