The impression that Japan’s quality from borrowed ideas out of the practice of quality lesson of Dr. Deming and Lean Six Sigma appears to be misleading. The reality is far deeper than this. In absence of the understanding of the greater reality, often, we get misguided to understand what it takes for succeeding in a modern industrial economy. This write-up makes a point that Japan had demonstrated strong capacity in creativity, idea management, and R&D for creating innovation success stories out of ideas and management practices of Americans and Europeans.
Quality is about the fitness of products to serve the targeted purpose. We often think that Japan’s success in the modern industrial economy has been out of borrowing ideas from America and ensuring quality. Again, quality competence came from America’s management guru Dr. Deming and corporate icon Motorola. Does it mean that the statistical approach of measuring and analyzing defects and performing root cause analysis was good enough for Japan’s quality from borrowed ideas? If it is that simple, why cannot many other aspiring countries replicate it? Moreover, upon taking all of those inputs from America, how did Japanese companies succeed in making American icons like RCA, or Kodak bankrupt? Reality appears to be far more than that we are commonly aware of. There appears to be a far bigger truth beneath the surface.
Deming’s lessons for Japan’s quality from borrowed ideas
It’s widely believed that Dr. Deming’s lesson played a vital role in addressing the quality issues of Japanese products. Of course, it did. Does it mean that Japan was failing to produce an exact copy of American and European products? Hence, Deming’s lesson on “Statistical Product Quality Administration” kept reducing the deviation between American and Japanese companies. Well, “Shewhart Cycle”, which had evolved into Plan-Do-check-Act (PDCA), appears to be good enough for producing exact copy. However, Japan’s quality from borrowed ideas appears to be far more than this.
Let’s take an example, Sony borrowed the idea of the Transistor or electronic image sensor from America’s Bell laboratories. By the way, Sony took a license by making payment. So, it was fully legitimate. Upon getting the access, was the challenge for Sony to produce exact replica of the ideas they took license? Absolutely not. Both of these two ideas were exactly in primitive form. Any amount of statistical process control was not at all sufficient to produce anything meaningful out of those ideas at the initial stage. Sony had to take serious scientific R&D on both of these two remarkable ideas for creating economic value out of innovation success stories.
Demings’ statistical process control was not good enough!
Of course, Deming’s statistical process control or PDCA cycle was helpful in bringing discipline in managing production. But those practices do not appear to be sufficient for pursuing a scalable path of making those ideas increasingly better and less costly to produce. Moreover, Sony made success in making them far better than what its American counterpart did. So much so that American icons RCA and Kodak got bankrupt due to Sony’s uprising in Radio, TV, and camera innovations. Moreover, one of Sony’s R&D team members got Nobel Prize in 1974. Sony is no exception. There are many more such examples in Japan.
Is Lean Six Sigma good enough for Japan’s quality?
In the United States, in 1986, Motorola developed quality management practices to compete with the Kaizen (or lean manufacturing) business model in Japan. Subsequently, it has taken the shape of Lean Six Sigma. It focuses on eliminating the eight kinds of waste: Defects, Over-Production, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing. Basically, it focuses on reducing waste in the production of designed products. If it were the case that Japan’s challenge was to minimize the waste in producing replicas of American products, this quality management practice could have been good enough for Japan’s quality from ideas. However, Japanese companies had to overcome a far greater challenge. Lean Six Sigma was helpful but not sufficient.
Quality expectation keeps changing
Let’s look into Walkman. It was a very high-quality product. As a matter of fact, both Sony and Japan were hailed for the quality of the Walkman. Similarly, Sony’s Cybershot Camera or Camcorder also gained a huge reputation for quality. But, unfortunately, Sony can no longer generate any revenue from these products. Does it mean that Sony can no longer adhere to the lesson of Dr. Deming or Lean Six Sigma in producing those products Or, are some other companies adhering to those quality management practices better than Sony in producing them? Unfortunately, the answers to both of these questions are NO.
More or less for any product, human beings do not remain happy for long. Our expectations from any product to serve our purposes keep expanding. We want increasing quality at a reduced cost. Unfortunately, Deming’s statistical process control, or Lean Six Sigma, is not good enough to address this reality of quality. To begin with, we need to attain the capability for adding features and improving existing ones. Moreover, we need to keep finding ways of reducing costs in material, energy, and labor. To address these vital issues, those useful management practices faced limits. For sure, Japan had to look beyond them for having far greater legroom for offering increasing quality at decreasing cost. In certain cases, Japanese companies also failed to keep outperforming the competition. Thus, Sony lost its Walkman and Camera business to American Apple.
Design Thinking for quality from borrowed Ideas
For meeting the growing quality expectation, we need to focus on Design Thinking to figure out ideas. Those empathetic ideas are for adding new features and/or improving existing features to offer better means to customers to serve their purposes. Moreover, we need technologies to implement those ideas. Hence, there is also a need for technology acquisition, advancement, fine-tuning, and fusion to meet growing quality expectations. Technology invention and advancement also trigger idea generation for improving the quality of existing products better.
For example, Sony targeted to serve the purpose of music enjoying the jobs of American college students far better by improving the quality of Radio. However, Sony could not offer the desired quality by applying the lesson of Deming or Lean Six Sigma on copying RCA’s vacuum tube-based Radio. College students needed Radio to fit into their pocket to meet the quality of enjoying music with friends in a neighborhood hangout. To deliver this quality, Sony embarked on changing the technology core of Radio. Certainly, those quality management practices did not suggest such an approach. And for creating quality success by changing the technology core out of borrowing was not good enough. Sony had to go through a long way to advance and refine the idea of the Transistor.
Furthermore, for minimizing variation, reducing defects, and lowering material as well as labor needs, Japan focused on robotics and automation. In the absence of it, Japan could not have kept improving quality and reducing costs. Through the process, Japan has emerged extremely strong in Robotics. In fact, among the top 10 global Robotics companies, seven are from Japan. Hence, the perception that Japan’s quality is from borrowed ideas out of the practice of quality lessons of Dr. Deming and Lean Six Sigma is a highly oversimplification of the reality.
Technology and idea management capability underpins Japan’s quality from borrowed ideas
Of course, Deming’s lesson and lean six sigma matter. However, they mostly deal with the production process. They deal with variations and minimization of wastage in producing exact copy—as per design. But, Japan’s successes in the modern industrial economy are far more than this. Japanese companies had shown tremendous success to keep adding ideas and improving existing ones. For supporting it, Japan’s success in technology acquisition and advancement is equally impressive. Moreover, Japan is not an exception in taking ideas from others and improving them further. Among many examples, Apple’s success in iPod was updating Sony’s idea of Walkman. Similarly, Apple’s recent iPhone success is around Sony’s idea of the digital camera. In fact, the success in the modern industrial economy is mostly around adding complementary ideas to others’ great ideas for making great ideas to keep serving purposes increasingly better, preferably at decreasing cost.