washington — "You cannot," says Joji Arai, "sell a defective product.That is the Japanese concept." This shrewd, stocky Japanese -- manager of the Japan Productivity Center in the United States -- does not mince words.
"Four out of 100 American-built TV sets," he says, "are defective. Four out of 1,000 Japanese sets have something wrong."
What about cars? "Four to six US cars out of 100 must be repainted. The figure for Japanese cars is one per thousand."
Is Mr. Arai biased? Listen to an American Datsun dealer, who -- to protect his business against possible import curbs on Japanese cars -- added a franchise for a US-built line:
"Air pollution alone makes us repaint some of the new American cars we get. Never with the Japanese. Their paint holds up."
"I've been a dealer [for an American maker] for 25 years," says another man, owner of a major delearship and a honda dealer for six and a Datsun dealer for three.
"Not only did the [American makers] fail to acknowledge the need for fuel- efficient front-wheel-drive cars, they let their US manufacturing plants deteriorate to a point where they were incapable of delivering a quality product.
"On similar volume, our Datsun warranty and policy expense is one-fifth of our [american car] expense."
Anotehr American put it this way:
"In Ford, in a similar plant, we have 11 layers of organization. Toyota has five. We've got six excessive layers of management.
"In engines per day, per employee, in similar plants, Ford produces two; Toyota produces nine."
Speaking was Donald E. Petersen, president of the Ford Motor Company, comparing some aspects of his firm's performance with that of Toyota.
Are there special features about Japan -- cultural, social, or otherwise -- that make it impossible for the US to emulate Japanese success?
"There is nothing uniquely Japanese," insists Arai, "that give Japan the advantage."
For years after World War II, he says, "the United States set the standard on quality control. Techniques developed by the Japanese came from American models."
Japan is a "driven society," he concedes, because the nation has 110 million people living on a small land mass with few natural resources, dependent on outside sources for much of its food and most of its raw materials.
The only way Japan can gain advantage over more abundantly blessed industrial powers, says Arai, "is to give an added value to our products through labor input."
The Japanese policy of virtually guaranteeing workers lifetime employment does give Japan's managers an advantage, says Arai. This allows them to spend more time on thorough training than often is the case in the US, where labor mobility is high.
But he then cites major American firms -- Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, and Procter & Gamble among them -- that, in effect, offer lifetime employment, without labeling it as such.
When Arai describes American business techniques, he knows whereof he speaks, based on his years of experience as Washington chief of the Japan Productivity Center.
To many Americans, Japan's dazzling productivity success may appear to have come full-blown from across the Pacific -- a threat or a promise, depending on the point of view.
In fact, it was the US State Department in 1955 that urged and funded creation of the Japan Productivity Center as Japanese "counterpart" to the Marshall Plan in Europe.
At first, the US aim was to funnel the ideas of American labor leaders, businessmen, and industrialists to Japan, still groping in the early 1950s for postwar directions.
Gradually the exchange became a two- way street, as the Japanese -- comparing US and West German methods -- "came up with a mixture suitable to Japanese culture," according to Arai.
So apt were the pupils, he says, that today some 200 American firms employ quality-control programs developed by the Japanese.
Sony and Honda, manufacturing TV sets and motorcycles in the US, boast excellent quality control, using American workers and Japanese management procedures.
If Japanese managers and American workers can turn out quality goods on US soil, why can't American managers do the same? They can, says C. Jackson Grayson Jr., chairman of the American Productivity Center in Houston -- but they have lessons to learn.