Lessons from the Japanese Auto Industry

I spent seven years working at Saturn Corporation which was a truly innovative automotive company. Unfortunately, to the chagrin of Saturn-philes, the subsidiary suffered from a lack of sufficient investment from its parent entity, General Motors. Sadly, the defunct Oldsmobile brand was the recipient of funding that should have been allocated to Saturn but I digress. As an automotive industry veteran (albeit on the I.T. and data side of the house), I enjoyed discussions during my days in business school that focused upon the strategy of companies operating within the industry. In an MBA class titled Managing the Resources of Technological Firms (offered at Georgia Tech), our readings concentrated on the challenges associated with managing a firm’s resource capabilities for long-term competitive advantage.

On such article typifying the aforementioned concentration was written by business historian Michael A. Cusumano. In his article Manufacturing Innovation: Lessons from the Japanese Auto Industry which appeared in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Cusumano sets out to debunk the fact that higher productivity amongst Japanese auto firms is a result of the employment of Japanese workers. He aims to illustrate that the merits of innovative processes are the cause for higher productivity emanating from Japanese owned firms.

The article is in essence a summarization of major findings from a five year study of the Japanese auto industry focusing particularly on Toyota and Nissan. It states that some observers of Japan have assumed that Japanese firms copied US manufacturing techniques and then benefited from a better educated and more cooperative workforce. Cusumano attacks this perception by commenting that Japanese run factories located in the United States have demonstrated higher levels of productivity, quality and process flexibility than their domestic counterparts.

Japanese firms who shunned US or European production techniques were able to innovate and improve upon their native processes. Toyota in particular avoided conventional production techniques and decided to focus on developing a tailored system that met the needs of the Japanese market. Other Japanese firms such as Hino, Daihatsu, Mazda and Nissan started to leverage the techniques employed by Toyota and moved away from the US/European traditional process. Toyota and Nissan appeared to have matched or surpassed US productivity levels by the late 1960’s even though their production levels were far less than US automakers.

Cusumano does not share the Boston Consulting Group’s assessment that Japanese management’s emphasis on long term growth in market shares led to an accumulation of experience. He believes that that the emphasis on the accumulation of experience and innovation led to the rise in market share.

Toyota’s legendary Taiichi Ohno realized that firms needed to be flexible when producing small volumes. Three basic policies were introduced during post war Japan’s auto manufacturing era. Just in time manufacturing reduced buffer stocks of extra components and this small lot philosophy tended to improve quality since workers could not rely on extra parts or rework piles if they made mistakes. The second policy was to reduce unnecessary complexity in product designs and manufacturing processes. Nissan and Toyota standardized components across model lines. The third policy involved a Vertical “De-Integration”. In essence, automakers began to build up a network of suppliers for outsourced component production.

US companies stopped innovating by the early 1960’s as they perceived the domestic auto market as mature. The “American Paradigm” from an automotive production standpoint meant large production runs, worker specialization and statistical sampling. The unique market conditions of Japan after WW2 presented an opportunity for Toyota and other producers to challenge convention and become more efficient at much lower levels of production.

Image courtesy of winnond at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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