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Merely Importing East Asian Work Practices Isn't Enough

By Popham, Peter | New Statesman (1996), June 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Merely Importing East Asian Work Practices Isn't Enough


Popham, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


When I first went to Japan 19 years ago I discovered a culture that had radically different ways of doing things from the one I had left behind. Coming from the country of wildcat strikes -- "the English disease" -- I discovered a land where the only known strike was a ritualistic annual event called the "spring labour offensive", usually called off before any working hours were actually lost. From the land of Lunchtime O'Booze I found myself in a place where work was the most important thing in life: where lunch was a ten-minute sandwich break, long hours of unpaid overtime were the norm and the weekend meant little.

I found myself, in other words, in a country not wildly dissimilar from the Britain of today. Martin Jacques (NS, 14 June) thinks we should start learning from East Asia. I think we have already learnt a lot -- but only the bits it suited our bosses that we learn. We have learned flexibility, sobriety, self-sacrifice, learnt to build our lives around our jobs. But the employers' side of the deal remains unfulfilled.

A look at the one industry in which bosses have taken their side of things seriously will show what I mean. The success of Japanese car companies in America was so stunning to Detroit in the late seventies that the industry sat down to study good and hard what the Japanese were doing right. And after Nissan arrived in Sunderland, the rump of the British car industry did the same in a methodical and explicit way and applied those lessons wholeheartedly, at Rover's plant in Cowley, for example.

As a result, not only were the obvious causes of Japan's formidable productivity copied -- faster lines, just-in-time parts supply, fierce quality controls -- but so also were the morale-building practices that underpinned the productivity: company uniforms worn by everyone, a single canteen, individual responsibility for tasks.

Most crucially, the companies pledged that they would do everything in their power not to sack people. As far as could be achieved, these were jobs for life. As a result, a little sprig of latterday neo-Confucianism was planted here, and grew like Topsy.

But the car industry was the only sphere in which East Asian example was studied and emulated in this way. Elsewhere the influence of East Asia has been intermittent and indirect -- often filtered through the experience of the United States, where the Asian threat has long been taken far more seriously. Aware that in many areas of corporate endeavour Japan has outgunned and outclassed us, western industry strives for similar levels of efficiency. But crucially, the ethical underpinning that enabled Japan to pull off its economic miracle while remaining largely crime- and slum-free -- the under-pinning that is helping the Tigers to achieve something similar now -- is completely missing.

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