The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Look, Don't Kick

In the 1980's, when Japanese ascendancy was just around the corner [even Japanese beer seemed clean and modern], one of the most-cited apparent causes was the short-sightedness of American corporations, compared with the careful and ambitious long-term planning of the Japanese. [For an example, consider Michael Crichton's Rising Sun.]

This seeming invinciblity was propelled by a demographic bulge, which as the time was manifested as a legion of workers with neither aged parents nor minor children to distract them from making a maximal economic contribution. Haruki Murakami's stories of the period, such as "Television People", paint a picture of people interacting mainly through their possessions, with life almost completely reduced to its economic aspect.

Now that same demographic bulge is Japan's greatest weakness, and the system which it supported is greatly weakened. While Japanese triumphalism (and American pessimism) were greatly overstated 15 or 20 years ago [see this excellent article for a review], it seems likely that the keiretsu is now being blamed for faults which are not its own.

Japan's accomplishments far exceed Italy's, for example, though both countries have similar gridlock-prone governments. We should be trying to understand what features of the Japanese system enabled these accomplishments, rather than crowing over the failure of semi-collectivist Japan Inc.

Of particular concern is the possibility that the fabled Japanese quality may be dependent on the cultural homogeneity of the workforce. To achieve truly high reliability, people must work together in the broadest sense; in particular, they must be willing to incur inconvenience and extra work by pointing out problems which are not quite in their field of responsibility (and for which they would not be blamed if someone else noticed them). This is dependent on a sense of team identity and mutual responsibility, which is much easier to foster in an already homogeneous group. In particular, a sense of special entitlement, or of resentment against a perceived entitlement, is certain to erode the necessary esprit de corps.

But American workforces cannot be homogenized in most cases, except by excluding everyone outside the dominant cultural group. If the inhomogeneity is relevant to the job (or to the qualifications or pay), then it will necessarily be a source of friction. In short, inequality is the enemy of quality.