There is no question that there is a lot American manufacturing can learn from Toyota, Honda, Canon and a few other Japanese companies. The lessons from Japan should end there, however. Japan’s manufacturing sector, as a whole, has little worth immitating. Most of them are not particularly lean and most of them are not doing particularly well. For a long list of reasons, Japan’s economy has been pretty mediocre for a long time, and Japanese companies are outsourcing all over Asia even faster than we are.
As a web site owner, I get a lot of statistics about who hits my site and where they hit it from. There’s nothing special about me or my web site – I’m just another lean manufacturing guy with a lean manufacturing web site. Except for people looking for me for a particular reason (ex-wife, bill collectors, law enforcement officials, etc…) the traffic I get is from people who have ‘Googled’ lean manufacturing terms. I have noticed that the hits on my site originating from Japan are always the least of any big country. I get more hits from Turkey and Finland than from Japan. This is hardly scientific data, but it tells me that the folks from Japan aren’t spending much time out there on the Net looking to see what they can learn.
What prompted me to blog about this topic now is an interview I read with a guy named Kenichi Ohmae, who is supposed to be Japan’s greatest management and strategy guru. According to this great thinker, "Indians are not good at manufacturing. Even if they do what we tell them to do, they always need to understand why they are doing it that way. They are more inquisitive than the Chinese." When asked if that isn’t a good thing, he said that being inquisitive is good for management, but it is a problem on the shop floor. Apparently, the people in the factory need to shut up and do what they’re told. I guess he thinks the Japanese boss is so obviously right all the time that having workers ask questions is a major distraction.
Mark Twain said, "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it – and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again – and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."
We should imitate Toyota as best we can, and stop there. Imitating anything else, just because it is Japanese, is foolish. Most of the Japanese manufacturing community has failed to learn from Toyota just as dismally as we have.
I have long had a problem with the lean community’s tendency to wrap lean manufacturing in Japanese culture. The principles of lean can be difficult enough to grasp, but we often insist on compounding them with Japanese language lessons. It is not enough to understand the manufacturing concept of waste – we must be able to recite the various ‘muda’s in Japanese. We are not experts – we want to be called ‘sensei’. I think that makes us like Twain’s cat who won’t sit down on a cold stove lid – we took a lot more from the Toyota example than the wisdom that was in it.
The Japanese don’t have all the answers – Toyota might – but the Japanese as a whole don’t. Further, it looks as though the Japanese don’t understand this. They seem to have taken a decade or so of a booming economy, and the huge success of a couple of Japanese companies as validation of all things Japanese. The strength of Japan came from a voracious drive to learn in the years after World War II. The failure of the United States stemmed from our arrogance and refusal to learn during that same time. The tables have now turned. Better than 50,000 of you will get the Superfactory Newsletter today. You signed up for it because you want to learn more about lean manufacturing. Across the pond, the Japanese do not seem to be reading Superfactory, or hitting my meager web site, or doing much of anything else to keep learning. Instead, they are bemoaning the fact that workers in India and China are not as subservient to Japanese genius as they should be.
I think the millions of inquisitive Indians and Chinese that Mr. Ohmae sees as an irritation represent the lesson for the day. Let the Japanese follow their arrogant guru. I have little to learn from him and, outside of Toyota, his country. We need to look deeply at those workers, however, and see how we can get American workers to be just as questioning and irritating.