Japanese HR Management Practices: Separating Fact from Fiction

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Japanese HR Management Practices: Separating Fact from Fiction

Another article on Japanese management! Yes--but this time, it's a systematic attempt to separate fact from fiction, a process sorely needed by HR managers trying to train for and stimulate the most effective "people management" styles. The media have blitzed us with glowing accounts of how both Japanese and non-Japanese firms have used such Japanese HR management approaches as consensus decision making, guaranteed lifetime employment, and a holistic concern for employees.

However, after all is said and done, it is still unclear which of these Japanese approaches have proven to be more effective than American approaches and which have not. In this article, we try to make an objective assessment of both the effectiveness and the apparent causes of Japanese management's success.

Assessing the Validity of Claims

Although many areas of productivity and HR management are impacted by the Japanese approach, the following run-down examines the three most commonly cited:

1. The Japanese produce better-quality products than Americans do. This may be true. There seems little question that the Japanese products do exhibit very high quality. Although American manufacturers have recently made a dramatic comeback in the quality of their products, the Japanese still are world leaders. The Japanese, not the Americans, are still recognized as making the best autos and electronic consumer products.

2. Japanese productivity per worker is higher than that of American workers. This is a myth. Americans continue to have the highest productivity per worker. However, it is true that the Japanese have been closing the gap over the past decade and a half. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind two facts. First, over the last decade, the Koreans had a greater growth in output per worker than did the Japanese or the Americans. Second, the annual growth of Japanese manufacturing productivity may be slowing down. From 1960-1973 it was slightly over three times that of the United States; from 1974-1984 it was a little more than twice; in 1985-1986 it was only 20% greater, and in this last year the Americans actually had a higher productivity increase than the Japanese.

3. Under Japanese management approaches, workers have higher work satisfaction and commitment than do their American counterparts. This is a myth. Japanese workers are not necessarily more satisfied and committed than American workers. For example, a study by Fred Luthans that analyzed a representative sample of employees from widely diverse organizations in the United States, Japan, and Korea found that Japanese and Korean employees, who showed no difference in levels of organizational commitment, are both less committed to their organizations than U.S. employees are. These and other research findings show that the Japanese management approach is not synonymous with high worker satisfaction and commitment. In fact, especially when telling their true feelings on an anonymous questionnaire, Japanese workers may be considerably less satisfied and committed in comparison with their American counterparts.

Assessing the Causes of Japanese

Management Success

What are the causes of Japanese management success? As with the results, many reasons have emerged as supposed "fact" over the years. The following list attempts to objectively weigh the evidence on several of the most commonly cited causes of Japanese management success.

1. Japanese employees work harder than American employees. This appears to be a myth. Americans work just as hard as Japanese. Production data on Honda, Matsushita, Sony, and other Japanese multinational operations using local workers from host countries in Europe, North America, and Asia reveal that there are few productivity differences among the workers. Nor are there any hard data to sustain the contention that Japanese employees are more diligent than other workers. …