If Japan can... Why can't we?

From ArticleWorld

Japan's spectacular economic rise after its devastation on World War II is often attributed to its development of a uniquely efficient Japanese corporate culture. But a little known fact is that the seeds for Japanese management and its countless variations since the 1950s were planted by an American statistician. Observed most closely in the automotive and electronics sectors, Japanese corporations' methods of increasing productivity while maintaining quality inspired a generation of management schools and companies outside Japan, too.

Productivity is key

The triumph of Japanese corporations lay in the development of a detailed and practical philosophy of management. The movement was sparked off by W. Edwards Deming who worked on the 1949 US census and then the 1951 Japanese census. During the war he adopted a practice called statistical process control (SPC), which he turned into a series of lectures for top Japanese managers on statistical quality control (SQC). Deming convinced Japanese managers that the most profitable way to keep production costs down while making gains in the market was by strictly maintaining quality. Under his influence a pivotal generation of top managers and business owners in Japan started thinking of production lines and their management teams as systems, rather than a bunch of discrete events.

Statistical Quality Control

The basic practice of SQC is random testing of samples of product to ensure compliance not to limits of consumer tolerance, but a narrower range of optimal values. Tiny changes in product, or 'widget', variables such as size or proportion are inevitable for reasons including minuscule wear on the machines doing the manufacturing. These changes accumulate over time and eventually the widget does not fall within consumer tolerance parameters. SQC standards define a much smaller optimal range of widget values. Constant random testing of product samples detects patterns of widget variation beyond this and allows adjustment of the production process so the limits of consumer tolerance are never reached. This constant vigilance means savings in the long run due to efficient production and the rewards of consistent quality are long-term loyal customers. Variations on statistical quality control are at the root of specific practices associated with Japanese corporations like Toyota's Kanban or Just-In-Time. Perfection is seen as a goal towards which companies and practices are always evolving.

W. Edwards Deming

Deming's contribution to Japan's economic miracle went largely unnoticed until a 1980 NBC feature called If Japan can ...Why can't we?. Deming had long returned to the US and was working as a consultant after becoming in 1960 the first American to receive a rare honor for a foreigner, Japan's Second Order of the Sacred Treasure. The citation commended him for reviving Japanese industry and by extension, the Japanese nation. Deming was in great demand after the documentary aired and on his death in 1993 he was recognised by both the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers, which named its Total Quality Management award after him, and his home country, where a think-tank named after him was started in Washington DC.