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A Vote for Japanese Management Style : Workplace: A new study finds that Japanese techniques can improve productivity, even with American workers who don't share the same work values.

December 25, 1989|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Japanese workers are more committed to their companies but have lower job satisfaction than their American counterparts, says a new study, which also found that "Japanese-style" management can produce real competitive advantages.

In a forthcoming book that appears likely to rekindle the debate over U.S. versus Japanese management style, author James R. Lincoln studied workers in Japanese and U.S. factories and uncovered evidence that Japanese management styles can be effective in improving the productivity of many kinds of employees, including American workers who do not hold Japanese-type work values.

"We have the hardest evidence yet that Japanese management methods can make a difference," said Lincoln, a professor of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley. Japanese management methods "shouldn't be treated as management fads," said Lincoln, whose book, "Culture, Control, and Commitment: A Study of Work Organization and Work Attitude in the U.S. and Japan," is to be published next month by Cambridge Press.

In the eight years since the publication of two influential business management books--"Theory Z" and "The Art of Japanese Management"--analysts have hotly debated the different management techniques used by the world's two leading industrial powers.

Some experts say the decline in American business competitiveness stems from the still widespread, though much maligned, U.S. style of management: the authoritarian control over workers and a corresponding lack of worker involvement in the manufacturing process. These experts, instead, praise Japanese so-called quality circle programs, or production teams that help hold workers accountable for quality, minor maintenance and cleanup on the assembly line.

But other experts, arguing that Japanese management style is not transportable, attribute Japan's dominance in worker productivity to cultural factors such as greater self-discipline and cooperation.

Lincoln and his colleagues spent three years trying to test the competing claims. Between 1981 and 1983, they interviewed factory executives at 106 plants about their management style and distributed questionnaires to 8,302 employees. Lincoln claims his study is the largest and most detailed such survey of American and Japanese factory workers and their companies.

The survey found that widely used seniority systems in Japan bred higher worker loyalty and strong social bonds fostered more positive work attitudes.

For example, the study found that Japanese employees reported having an average of more than two close friends on the job, while Americans averaged fewer than one.

The survey, however, found that fewer Japanese than Americans reported that their job measured up to their expectations. The survey also found that significantly more U.S. workers would recommend their job to a friend than would Japanese employees. "American employees seem much more satisfied with their jobs than do the Japanese," Lincoln concluded.

The study also found Japanese companies more "centralized but participatory" than their U.S. counterparts: About 81% of Japanese plants had quality circle programs in which 94% of the employees participated; 62% of U.S. plants and just 44% of their employees were members.

The study said quality circle programs helped boost job satisfaction and organizational commitment in the United States and Japan, as did employee services such as employee training, company-sponsored sports and recreation outings and company ceremonies.

"Individualistic or not, the Americans in our sample appeared to react every bit as favorably as the Japanese to company-sponsored employee-oriented services."

Lincoln concluded that "Japanese-style management and employment methods, whether practiced by Japanese or U.S. plants, produce very similar gains in employee work attitudes."

Daisaku Harada, director of the Japan Productivity Center, an educational group in suburban Washington that does cross-cultural training for U.S. and Japanese managers, agrees with many of Lincoln's findings.

"Some (Japanese) management techniques can be successfully transferred to America," said Harada, citing programs that boost worker involvement in maintaining product quality. However, he said, because there are significant "differences" in the attitudes of Japanese and U.S. employees toward work and their employers, U.S. managers should be prepared to be more patient in seeking positive results from workers.

"I think they have to look at it from the standpoint of how to make better use of human resources; they should have respect for human beings at the base of their thinking," Harada said of U.S. managers. Instead, he added, many U.S. executives have come to regard Japanese management techniques as a fad.

Andrew Pfeiffenberger, a manager with the corporate communication group of Toyota Motor Co. in Tokyo, agrees that worker commitment in Japan is much stronger than in the United States.

There is "not the same type of back-stabbing and pressure to outdo the next guy that you see in the U.S.," Pfeiffenberger said. Because pay scales are largely based on seniority, he said, "everybody gets pretty much the same thing based on age. It puts more emphasis on performance" and doing a better job.

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