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Viewpoints : Japanese Management: Good or Bad? : Much has been said about Japanese management and workplace practices. But what is it really like to work for Japan Inc.? Has the country's success been achieved at a cost to its workers? Gary J. Katzenstein and Richard O'Neill recently spent months working on fellowships at Sony Corp. in Japan. The two came away with vastly different impressions. : Encouraged: O'Neill compares Japanese management style to that practiced by American firms in the 1950s. He believes attitudes are changing, just as they did here.

December 10, 1989|RICHARD O'NEILL | RICHARD O'NEILL, president of the Persona Consulting Group of Santa Monica, liked his experience enough that he continues to work with Sony on an independent basis and helps recruit executives for them.

Unlike Gary, who went afoul of Sony's personnel department, I was specifically assigned to work with it, and found it obliging, open and powerful. Gary got dismissed with his impolitic behavior. I got the "open kimono" because my agenda was to study, not stand in judgment.

To counterpoint Gary, I found nothing egregious about Japanese executives' being reassigned to a new job on short notice. Japanese practices are not unique; they simply lag behind the United States by some 20 to 30 years. I recall very clearly a cold Midwestern night in 1959 when my father (an upwardly mobile corporate executive) came home to say that on Monday, we could, if we chose, get promoted to Atlanta. My mother, due in two weeks to bear her fifth child, recognized that flexibility and sacrifice would serve her interests well, and immediately tackled the trials ahead. We moved, and prospered.

The lesson is this: In the 1980s' Japan, as in the 1950s' United States, those with drive and ambition accept relocation as a price of personal success. The idea that Japanese executives move because they are Kafkaesque automatons ignores the fact that people, then as today, relocate because they want and choose to do so.

Gary complains that the Japanese job rotation produces generalists with "thin knowledge bases" rather than specialists, but the clear fact is that job rotation (the practice of cross-training talent through sales, research, personnel, manufacturing and so on) is a superior management development strategy. The "bench strength" of companies that practice rotation (the most successful U.S., Japanese and European companies) is formidable, with many seasoned managers capable of building cross-disciplinary consensus and fueling the growth engine.

To be sure, at Sony Japan (and Sony U.S.) there are world-class researchers who follow specialist career paths, but the labs are closely linked with the factories (increasingly at Sony U.S.), so they never lose a sense of how to build what they design.

And what about Japanese women? In my time at Sony (1982), the women seemed pretty neatly constrained by what we could call "feudal" career opportunities: teas, telephones, translation and, with luck, marriage to a promising young engineer followed by bearing children.

But this is not very different from U.S. practices of three decades ago, nor European practices today. But times are changing fast everywhere. Recently, a key female marketing talent in a Japanese firm here in Los Angeles flatly refused a transfer back to Osaka. The company, pragmatically (and with few options), altered its plans and course to accommodate this needed talent.

My friend Peter Drucker, just back from his annual consulting tour of Japan, told me recently about the surprisingly rapid (and recent) ascent of women into critical management positions. The lesson here is a simple one: Japanese business is quickly adapting to a global shortage of talent. Today, you discriminate against women at your peril.

WASPish 19th-Century Wall Street once sought to keep out the Irish, Jews, Italians and others, but when trade started to walk new streets, the old-line financial companies adapted or perished. Women on the rise in today's Japan are a matter of necessity, not virtue.

The lack of free labor market alternatives in Japan is a discredited myth; Japanese do change companies. When I was interviewing my way through Sony headquarters, I met a 28-year-old electronics engineer who confided that he previously worked at a larger electronics company until recruited away by Sony. My friends in the personnel department, confronted with this "un-Japanese" fact, let on that, indeed, Sony would recruit from the outside the talent they couldn't grow inside. They arranged for me to spend a day with the key managers of Japan's top personnel placement company, which was growing at a 2,000%-a-year clip in 1982.

Make no mistake, "ostracism" for being "different" is still common in the ferociously competitive internal environment of Japanese firms. The logic is that you grab at anything to get ahead of your internal competition. A friend of mine at Sony wore a mustache at great personal risk, and he opined that his dream was to spend more time in the company of his wife, playing cards and helping out with the children's education. He was clearly under pressure to conform, but no more so than, say, the pressure that existed for wearing a non-white shirt at 1960 IBM.

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