Competing on Productivity - the Japanese Way

Article excerpt

One of the overriding impressions that is revealed on any visit to Japan is the emphasis on developing individuals to their full potential through education and training. There has been a tendency, amongst Western media and managers, to caricature the Japanese workforce as unthinking servants of great corporations. This is just not true.


Japan has one of the most highly educated workforces in the world. For instance, it has 94 percent of its people in full-time education up to the age of 18, compared with a mere 35 percent in the United Kingdom. Even more revealing is the fact that the percentage of top managers with university degrees or equivalent in Japan is 85 percent compared with 24 percent in the United Kingdom. However, Dr Yoshio Sato of the Mitsubishi Research Institute stated that Japanese higher education does not have the same standard and breadth as the West. He also expressed the view that the Japanese have a lack of basic research and creativity.

In addition to being better educated before their first day at work, Japanese employees tend to receive significantly more on-the-job training than their Western counterparts. It is estimated that Japanese companies spend around 1.5 percent of their turnover on training, which is ten times greater than in the United Kingdom. One of the primary corporate aims is to keep and develop skilled workers. This is because corporations know that, having invested in new facilities and technology, they require skilled and qualified people to operate them effectively.

The vocational emphasis is also different in Japan. For instance, there are only 6,000 qualified accountants, which is one twentieth of the number in the United Kingdom. Japanese universities have a far greater thrust in engineering rather than business oriented studies. There is a decided absence of MBA programmes. Indeed, it is clear that postgraduate management education is shunned by the Japanese who prefer to train their staff into their own corporate cultures.

Japanese universities have an outward look in approach. They are extremely keen on international collaboration and research as well as having a very good understanding of both American and European industries. Examples of such collaboration are the reports on the Factories of the Future(1) comparing the United States, Japan and Europe in operational strategic attitudes. These are co-authored by Professor Jinichiro Nakane of Waseda University.

There is a considerable momentum in the industrial engineering area, embracing productivity and quality. The University of the Air, Japan's equivalent to the Open University, has programmes on both productivity and quality management, directed by Professor Kazukiyo Kurosawa.

So much interest was shown in the writer's two presentations, that his curriculum vitae was prepared in Japanese. The first was on 'Productivity Practices in Europe' to the Japan Institute of Industrial Engineering where the audience consisted of professional engineers and managers. The second was on 'Productivity and Quality in Operations Strategy' to invited guests, students and faculty of the department of industrial engineering and management, Waseda University. From the subsequent questioning after both presentations, it was clear that their main concern in relation to productivity and quality was in improvement programmes and the comparison with the West.

Since 1945, the Japanese have bred a more equal industrial society. For instance, in Autumn 1992, an industrial manufacturing employee in Japan earned 11.4 times less than a chief executive officer, compared to 16.8 in the United Kingdom and a massive 26.0 in the United States. This is partly due to culture, and partly to the fact that they have had the opportunity of starting afresh.


The well known American writer on productivity management, Dr David Sumanth(2), states that there is a productivity cycle, which is a continuing process:

(Productivity cycle omitted)

But the Japanese place a greater emphasis on productivity improvement. …