"You know, we Japanese have big heads now," a young Japanese executive said, almost matter-of-factly, during a round-table discussion with a group of chief executives from some of Southern California's most important high-tech firms. "We think we have nothing to learn. We are light on our feet. That makes us easy to knock down."
Most of the executives in the room were startled. Like many Americans, they had learned over the years to view the Japanese with something between terror and awe. Some already were working for firms in which the Japanese had controlling interest; others were in fierce battle with them over markets from Singapore to Stockholm.
If nothing else, the comment by the Japanese, a rather introspective man in his late 30s, reveals how much things have changed from the days when Americans--most notably quality-control guru W. Edwards Deming--were the teachers, the Japanese pupils. Today it's the American executives who trek to Japan with open notebooks and flashing cameras, while more and more Japanese fall into an attitude of self-congratulation.
One of the clearest turning points in American business' attitudes towards Japan took place in the late 1970s with the success of a spate of books about Japanese management, the most notable Professor William Ouchi's "Theory Z." During the go-go '80s, when Japan's manufacturing assault turned into a financial juggernaut, the corporate reading list on Japan shifted away from emulation and towards the hysterical.
Instead of trying to understand why Japan has succeeded at so many things, a flurry of books accused them of doing everything from lying about trade to planning the financial acquisition of California. The Japanophobia peaked, one hopes, with the recent "Agents of Influence" by Pat Choate, a former defense-industry lobbyist who attempts to prove that "they" own our government, too.
The publication now of three books on Deming, possibly the most respected business guru in Japan's recent business history, may be the beginning of a new, and healthier, trend. For one thing, the Deming message--the so-called Fourteen Points--has nothing to do with government-conspiracy theories, mindless extrapolation of short-term financial trends or arcane Asiatic mysteries. Deming, who still attracts the revered attention of executives worldwide, simply tells companies to concentrate on the important things like achieving quality and teamwork, and improving customer satisfaction over a prolonged period of time.
Another benefit of the new Deming books is that it brings us back to ourselves. Rather than blaming the Japanese for our problems, they make us take a good look in the mirror, which is probably the best way to start dealing with what ails us.
Deming is such a good symbol because he is an American of the classic school--a product of the Wyoming frontier, direct, forceful and perhaps a bit overbearing. He took the gospel of quality to Japan when that nation was at its nadir and was desperate for the good word. With statistical quality control and, one imagines, a good deal of homespun humor and humility, he helped Japanese managers find a way out of the devastation of the postwar era.
And perhaps one other thing: He gave them hope. As Andrea Gabor points out in "The Man Who Discovered Quality," he didn't treat the Japanese as "little brown brothers" needing Uncle Sam's wisdom.
Thus there's more than a little irony in the fact that after grasping at the straws of Asian culture, American business is going back to Deming, essentially turning back to our own roots. It is not coincidental that Gabor's book starts with a quote not by Deming but by Andrew Carnegie, the Scotsman who played a critical role in putting America's steel industry on the map.
"The effect of attention to quality upon every man in the service, from the President of the concern down to the humblest laborer, can not be overestimated," Carnegie wrote, reflecting words that also encapsulate the approach later taken up by Deming.
Like all competing products, the three current book offerings have themselves different quality levels and degrees of utility. Gabor's book is the most exhaustive and gives the best picture of Deming as a man and in his historical setting. We see him with long-term friends from Toyota, battling General Motors bureaucrats, lifting Ford from its dogmatic slumbers.
Here Deming comes off as a real person, a man who probably is getting a little curmudgeonly in his old age--"a mischievous mixture of Huey Long and enfant terrible ." We also get a sense of Deming's real mission, which is the "transformation" not of process but of the approach and mentality of management.