While not exactly turning Japanese, Western manufacturers are taking a few lessons from the East.
In the early 1980s, the Financial Times carried a story of the remarkable transformation in the fortunes of a small company at the heart of America's then beleaguered semi-conductor industry. Beset by wave after wave of imports from Asian competitors, the company had deliberately set out to emulate what it saw as those Japanese practices that lay behind its competitors' success. The strategy paid off: within months the performance gap was shrinking as the American plant began achieving levels of productivity, efficiency and quality that had for so long seemed the sole provenance of its Asian competitors. But despite carefully emulating every management technique that its competitors were deploying, the gap refused to close completely.
At their wits' end, the management team decided to see if there were cultural differences lying behind the residual performance differential.
Despite initial mocking, a policy of strict car-sharing was put into place, with as many as six employees travelling to work crammed into a single vehicle, the intention being to emulate the crush of the Tokyo underground system. Employees were also encouraged to sub-divide their houses with paper screens, and live in the amount of space typically allotted to an Asian worker. Sleeping was to be done on mats on the floors. Local bars joined in by serving whiskies with names such as Old Balmoral and King George VIII's Special Blend.
Finally, after one or two people had half-jokingly worn them to work - a move that coincided with a heat wave - the wearing of kimonos caught on. 'Shucks,' reflected one employee, 'They're just so comfortable. What's wrong with wearing them?' Nothing, it seemed: for, as these initiatives took hold, the performance gap finally disappeared. Had the miracle of Asian competitiveness finally been discovered? The plant's managers didn't know. 'We don't know why it's worked,' concluded one. 'We only know that it indisputably has worked.' Given the prevailing hunger at the time for information on Asian management techniques, the article was extensively photocopied and widely distributed. Senior manufacturing managers worriedly pondered its implications. They, like many others, had failed to note one important detail: the article's publication date was 1 April.
But who is having the last laugh? For the irony is that almost 20 years on, workplace Britain is much closer to the article's fictional semi-conductor plant than it is to the typical industrial environment of the late '70s and early '80s. At Rover (and many of its first-tier suppliers) employees - including managers - wear Japanese-style uniforms, are called 'associates', and talk knowledgeably (and enthusiastically) about manufacturing management techniques unheard of 20 years ago.
For a first-class implementation of the Japanese kanban replenishment system, where cards rather than computers control the flow of parts, look no further than Caradon Mira in Cheltenham. For a first-class example of kaizen-based continuous improvement techniques, where employees, not managers, solve quality and production problems, admire Toshiba's Plymouth factory, where resolutely British operatives tackle production problems in a decidedly Oriental way. For quick set-ups, where changeovers that formerly took hours now happen in minutes, last year's Management Today Factory of the Year, United Distillers' Leven bottling plant, offers a superb example, as does Cheltenham-based Krone's plastic injection-moulding machine set-ups.
Or what about production cells every bit as slick as those of Kawasaki or Toyota, where every square inch of space counts, and where every operation is carefully choreographed in exquisite detail? Try Unipart's Premier Exhausts factory in Coventry.
And what about 'foolproof' poke-yoka assembly techniques, where fail-safe devices make it impossible to make a mistake? Look at European Components' seat belt assembly plant in Belfast. As these and other winners of the annual Britain's Best Factory Awards, carried out by Management Today in conjunction with Cranfield School of Management highlight, British manufacturing plants have worked hard to understand and emulate techniques and approaches that would once have been bracketed with Old Balmoral and kimonos as workwear.
Indeed, derision is only part of the problem with their adoption. Also not to be overlooked is the still-awkward fact that, as academics such as Robert S Kaplan have long pointed out, traditional Western performance measures and accounting systems actively mitigate against implementing a number of these core approaches. Small batches and responsiveness towards customer-due dates might be good for winning business and cutting inventory levels, but Western measures often merely detect a fall-off in overhead recovery and productivity levels.
Despite the accountants, British manufacturing managers have adopted the new approaches with gusto. And although there still remain many British factories which have yet to make substantial inroads into the potential efficiency improvements that are open to them - chiefly through embracing the new manufacturing methodologies exemplified by these Asian management techniques - 'the best of Britain's factories are as good as any in the world,' believes Colin New, professor of manufacturing strategy at Cranfield School of Management.
Yet fundamental though these new management approaches may be, some confusion still surrounds their provenance. Certainly, the vast majority have come from Japan.
But many of them are just as Asian as they are Japanese: a common cultural and religious background underpins many of the Asian economies - but history saw to it that it was Japan rather than China or Thailand who industrialised further and faster and so had need for (and the opportunity to develop) alternative management approaches first.
This insight will be instantly recognisable to readers familiar with the work of American manufacturing guru Richard Schonberger, an early proselytiser for Japanese manufacturing techniques such as Just in Time.
Seeking to make them more intuitively obvious to Western managers, he saw that many of the fundamental principles could be enshrined in simple Oriental-style quasi-philosophical homespun homilies. 'Travel light and make numerous trips - like the water beetle' or 'simplify - and goods will flow like water' are typical examples of the way that Schonberger sums up an element of Just in Time.
And the point is driven home by the fact that leading Japanese manufacturers - and many of their principal suppliers - no longer manufacture exclusively in Japan. Indeed, the wheel has come full circle, with a large swathe of Japanese manufacturing industry coming under strong pressure from Japanese plants in countries such as Thailand. It's not just their strongly depreciating currencies and a cheaper workforce that make these plants so competitive compared to those in Japan: as the success of the electronics and automotive industries of Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan show, once transplanted, the core management concepts appear to find themselves in fertile soil.
One of the most important of these concepts - the quality ethos sometimes termed Total Quality - owes much to an American, W Edwards Deming, whose regular lecture tours to Japan began in 1950 and ended only with his recent death. It was from Deming's insistence that quality be built into the production process from the beginning, rather than incorporated into it at the end, that many of the subsequently emerging management principles were to stem.
Take Just in Time itself, usually associated with Taiichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota Production System. Small batch sizes cut inventories and speed production, certainly - but they also enable errors or out-of-tolerance parts to be found very quickly at subsequent stages of manufacture. Extend the principle to suppliers as well as internal operations, and firm partnerships become necessary - which also helps in the drive towards quality, as well as eliminating the consequences of out-of-specification batches of incoming parts.
Whilst Shigeo Shingo's Single-Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED) quick changeover techniques are invaluable for cutting down lengthy set-up times, their real power - as factories such as United Distillers' Leven bottling plant have demonstrated - lies in their ability to de-skill the changeover task and thus eliminate the potential for error.
But in fact, there's a strong quality ethos to most of the approaches - although that isn't always their selling point in the West. Seiichi Nakajima's work on Total Productive Maintenance, for example, is often seen as a way of eliminating breakdowns and involving opera-tors in maintenance activities. But, as with the latest Asian import, the Five Ss of housekeeping approach which is now being widely adopted in British factories, the link between an orderly, well-maintained workplace and the resulting quality of what is produced there often becomes apparent, even if it wasn't appreciated to begin with.
The West has undoubtedly learned a great deal from the East about the business of management. And if one of the creative sparks that brought those thoughts into being was an American academic whose views were so radical in his own country that he was forced to go overseas to find an audience, there's a certain satisfying symmetry at work. What's more, a two-way flow of ideas, rather than a one-way flow, constitutes partnership. And thanks to Asian influences that have come to the fore in recent years, partner-ships, whether at national level, or in terms of business relationships, are very much in vogue.
THE MAIN TECHNIQUES - A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO EASTERN WISDOM
A group of machines or processes closely clustered together in order to produce a single group of products, as opposed to the more-traditional functionally laid-out manufacturing process (ie lathes in one department, milling machines in another).
Five Ss of housekeeping
Now commonly used across UK manufacturing:
1 - Seiri: Cclear out unwanted materials
2 - Seiton: locate materials correctly
3 - Seiso: ensure workplace is thoroughly clean
4 - Seiketsu: arrange clean-ups
5 - Shitsuke: standardise 1-4 to ensure continuity.
Kaizen Literally means 'continuous improvement'. Kaizen is a structured approach which involves detailed cause-and-effect analysis to identify the sources of production or quality problems - and then eliminate them. The approach brings scientific rigour to and removes the more-traditional hit-and-miss approach from the shopfloor. Though innumerable companies have now adopted it, it is still most famously associated with production system at Toyota.
Set-up time reduction
This is a technique which eliminates much of the time wasting that occurs when changing machinery over from one product to another. One example is the famous Single-Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED). Others are mainly common sense, such as not starting a machine until all the tools and fixtures are in place, but are all too often not applied in practice.
Total Productive Maintenance
This combines several simple ideas to both reduce the cost of maintenance and frequency with which breakdowns occur. To aid this process, operators perform simple repetitive maintenance activities, leaving mechanics free to concentrate on analysing the cause of breakdowns and putting in place easy maintenance procedures to avoid their reoccurrence.
Literally translated as card or ticket. There are many different kanban systems, for example: the original two-card system, associated with Toyota; the one-card system associated with Kawasaki; and the hybrid 'kanban squares' system. The ultimate objective of each is to aid the delivery of as few as parts as possible as late as possible - in other words, to perfect the Just-in-Time process (see below).
Just in Time
Production, planning and control methodology whereby components or products required to meet a production schedule arrive on time at the point of use - and in the precise quantities required. The chief advantage of this is that it eliminates the costly storage of large numbers of components which may or may not be needed within a given time period.
Production or assembly technique designed to eliminate any risk of mistakes, for example, by making parts such that they cannot be physically inserted the wrong way around or through, say, the colour coding.