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Ceramics Plant in U.S. Uses Japanese Managing Style

April 16, 1985|From the Washington Post

SAN DIEGO — The sun is rising over distant mountains to the east as several hundred workers straggle into the yard behind Kyocera International Inc.'s main American plant.

They stand in orderly rows, each person's place marked by a yellow circle painted on the asphalt. Many wear light-blue Kyocera jackets, a uniform they will keep on even after they are out of the early morning chill.

Led by a Kyocera executive on a platform at the front of the group, the workers do simple calisthenics, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. It is 7 a.m.

Routine Sometimes Varied

Each shift at Kyocera, a ceramics firm, begins this way. Occasionally, the routine is varied by awards ceremonies honoring years of service with the company.

As the honored employees go to the platform to receive service medals and flowers, they are applauded by their fellow employees.

Every day, a Kyocera official gives a pep talk to the assembled employees, who then go to their work areas for another pep talk from their immediate supervisors.

This is business management, Japanese style--practically a cliche, but not often seen in the United States.

Along with other techniques, including an "open-office" system and no-layoff policy, Kyocera officials say it has been a success with their American workers, spurring high productivity and low employee turnover.

"If somebody comes in with an open mind, they can adapt very well to Kyocera," said Mike Lashford, Kyocera's vice president of sales and marketing--and the recipient of a six-year pin at that morning's employee meeting.

William L. Everitt, Kyocera's vice president for corporate communications, said that the techniques used with American workers are not exactly the same as those used in Kyocera's Japanese plants, but the effect is similar.

Company officials say the system of calisthenics, awards ceremonies, morning meetings and the like is one that had to be put in place from Kyocera's beginning in the United States 15 years ago and then nurtured to create a distinctive corporate culture for the company.

Impossible Now

Forcing such a culture on employees in midstream would have been unthinkable. "If the company wanted to establish this kind of relationship now, it would be impossible," said Keisuke Hasegawa, president of the American operation.

Kyocera's American division borrows another concept from its Japanese cousins, using an "amoeba" management setup developed by Kyocera founder and president Kazuo Inamori and similar to other decentralized management plans.

Each amoeba is a self-contained unit, setting its own goals for productivity, cost-control and the like. "Managers think, 'I have to increase production, increase output and reduce the cost,' " Hasegawa said.

But, although Kyocera's management style is quite Japanese, the company's financial background is distinctively American. Stockholder equity is equal to 77% of total assets, a total reversal of the Japanese norm, in which companies rely more on bank debt than stock sales for funds. The average equity in Japanese companies is about 20%.

Kyocera's long-term debt is negligible. Rather than borrow money to expand the company, as is typical in Japan, Kyocera has done what American companies do: issued stock to raise funds.

It may be unusual for Japan, but it works. Last year, Kyocera was named the most financially sound company in a survey by Japan's leading business newspaper, Nihon Keizai.

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