If Japan Can, Why Can’t We? A Retrospective
June 24, 1980 is kind of like July 4, 1776 for quality management… that’s the pivotal day that NBC News aired its one hour and 16 minute documentary called “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” introducing W. Edwards Deming and his methods to the American public. The video has been unavailable for years, but as of just last week, it’s been posted on YouTube. So my sophomore undergrads in Production & Operations Management took a step back in time to get a taste of the environment in the manufacturing industry in the late 1970’s, and watched it during class this week.
The last time I watched it was in 1997, in a graduate industrial engineering class. It didn’t feel quite as dated as it does now, nor did I have the extensive experience in industry as a lens to view the interviews through. But what did surprise me is that the core of the challenges they were facing aren’t that much different than the ones we face today — and the groundbreaking good advice from Deming is still good advice today.
- Before 1980, it was common practice to produce a whole bunch of stuff and then check and see which ones were bad, and throw them out. The video provides a clear and consistent story around the need to design quality in to products and processes, which then reduces (or eliminates) the need to inspect bad quality out.
- It was also common to tamper with a process that was just exhibiting random variation. As one of the line workers in the documentary said, “We didn’t know. If we felt like there might be a problem with the process, we would just go fix it.” Deming’s applications of Shewhart’s methods made it clear that there is no need to tamper with a process that’s exhibiting only random variation.
- Both workers and managers seemed frustrated with the sheer volume of regulations they had to address, and noted that it served to increase costs, decrease the rate of innovation, and disproportionately hurt small businesses. They noted that there was a great need for government and industry to partner to resolve these issues, and that Japan was a model for making these interactions successful.
- Narrator Lloyd Dobyns remarked that “the Japanese operate by consensus… we, by competition.” He made the point that one reason Japanese industrial reforms were so powerful and positive was that their culture naturally supported working together towards shared goals. He cautioned managers that they couldn’t just drop in statistical quality control and expect a rosy outcome: improving quality is a cultural commitment, and the methods are not as useful in the absence of buy-in and engagement.
The video also sheds light on ASQ’s November question to the Influential Voices, which is: “What’s the key to talking quality with the C-Suite?” Typical responses include: think at the strategic level; create compelling arguments using the language of money; learn the art of storytelling and connect your case with what it important to the executives.
But I think the answer is much more subtle. In the 1980 video, workers comment on how amazed their managers were when Deming proclaimed that management was responsible for improving productivity. How could that be??!? Many managers at that time were convinced that if a productivity problem existed, it was because the workers didn’t work fast enough, or with enough skill — or maybe they had attitude problems! Certainly not because the managers were not managing well. Implementing simple techniques like improving training programs and establishing quality circles (which demonstrated values like increased transparency, considering all ideas, putting executives on the factory floor so they could learn and appreciate the work being done, increasing worker participation and engagement, encouraging work/life balance, and treating workers with respect and integrity) were already demonstrating benefits in some U.S. companies. But surprisingly, these simple techniques were not widespread, and not common sense.
Just like Deming advocated, quality belongs to everyone. You can’t go to a CEO and suggest that there are quality issues that he or she does not care about. More likely, the CEO believes that he or she is paying a lot of attention to quality. They won’t like it if you accuse them of not caring, or not having the technical background to improve quality. The C-Suite is in a powerful position where they can, through policies and governance, influence not only the actions and operating procedures of the system, but also its values and core competencies — through business model selection and implementation.
What you can do, as a quality professional, is acknowledge and affirm their commitment to quality. Communicate quickly, clearly, and concisely when you do. Executives have to find the quickest ways to decompose and understand complex problems in rapidly changing external environments, and then make decisions that affect thousands (and sometimes, millions!) of people. Find examples and stories from other organizations who have created huge ripples of impact using quality tools and technologies, and relate them concretely to your company.
Let the C-Suite know that you can help them leverage their organization’s talent to achieve their goals, then continually build their trust.
The key to talking quality with the C-suite is empathy.