Lincoln, Neb. — On the plains of Nebraska stands living proof that American factory workers can build a product as high in quality as the same thing made in Japan. Possibly a little bit better, in the case of the Kawasaki motorcycle factory outside Lincoln.
Some time ago, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. --owner of the Lincoln plant -- borrowed 10 American welders to help out temporarily at the main Kawasaki plant at Akashi, Japan.
"The Japanese thought the Americans were so good," says Bob Summers, personnel manager at the Lincoln plant, "that they used them to pace their welding lines at Akashi."
Some 1,500 Kawasaki dealers throughout the United States get their motorcycles from both the Akashi and the Nebraska plants -- in other words, cycles made wholly by Japanese and others made by Americans.
Dennis W. Butt, plant manager at Lincoln, surveyed the dealers. Which machines were better?
* On overall quality, Mr. Butt says, 79 percent of dealers said the Lincoln product was "as good as or better" than the Japanese machine.
* On mechanical soundness, the comparable figure was over 80 percent.
* Only on the quality of the paint finish did the approval rating drop -- to 59 percent.
"You will note," Butt told his American workers, "that our paint quality is still perceived to be marginal by our dealers. Improved paint quality needs to be an objective for 1981."
In productivity, says Summers -- that is, the number of machines fabricated, painted, and assembled per hour of work -- "we match the Japanese."
The Nebraska facility, opened in 1975 to help supply the growing US market, is wholly owned by a Japanese firm demanding top quality. But in the Lincoln plant, all managers and workers are American.
The result of this mix is success, both for Japanese owners and American workers. Why?
"It hasn't anything to do with the US vs. Japan," says Butt, a cheerful giant of a man who grew up on an Iowa farm, served in the Marines, worked on an assembly line at Davenport, Iowa, and put himself through college nights and weekends.
"You have to define your factory's problem. Then you assess the strengths and weaknesses of your people." Clearly, to Butt, his 650 American workers -- average age 26, 95 percent from Nebraska -- are a major reason why Kawasaki at Lincoln succeeds. "Productivity and quality," he says, "were not problems with these Nebraskan workers."
But the plant did have a problem with inventory control at a time when soaring interest rates made it prohibitively expensive to build up excess stocks of materials and parts.
"Our problem at Lincoln," he said, "was putting the right part at the right place at the right time."
So, at the beginning of 1980, the Lincoln plant adapted an element from a complex production system developed in Japan by Toyota, called Kanban.
The whole system, according to Butt, has perhaps 15 objectives designed to make production totally efficient -- a system which catapulted Toyota, experts claim, into the most productive automaker in the world.
The element of Kanban adapted at the plant relates to inventory control and is called by Toyota "just-in-time." "It means," says the Lincoln plant chief, "that you make only those parts you need, when you need them."
Persuading American suppliers of basic parts and materials to go along with more frequent delivery of small lots took some doing, Butt and Summers concede.
But it was done and now, according to the plant manager, "the inventory problem is solved." Storage, interest, and handling charges have shrunk.
A key to making the system work is quality control all along the line, including parts and materials sold to Kawasaki by US suppliers. Defective materials or parts will shut down the Lincoln line, since inventories are not stockpiled against such contingencies.
This requires, among other things, mutual trust between management and workers on the line -- a principle of Kanban, according to the Toyota model.
"We call it vertical enhancing of the job," says personnel manager Summers, "or adding responsibility to the job. We also add quality responsibility -- correcting one's own errors."
In a typical American factory, inspection is done in steps along the assembly line. At Kawasaki in Lincoln, parts are inspected as they come in. No further inspection occurs, except by each worker in his own sphere, until the finished motorcycle or snowmobile rolls off the line.
If an error is found, it is traced back to the worker concerned, who corrects it.
The Kawasaki experience suggests that Americans, by combining their own strengths with applicable Japanese techniques, can compete head-to-head with any workers in the world.
But not all aspects of Kanban are easily applied in the U.S. Most Americans, Butt believes, would refuse to give up their individual freedoms in exchange for guaranteed lifetime employment with particular firms.
US labor laws discourage some practices common in Japan, such as workers' circles meeting in their homes to discuss production problems and solutions.
American workers could do this, too, but their employers would be obliged, under American law, to pay them for so doing.
"In Japan," Butt says, "there is homogeneity. In the US, there is not. The fact is, we can't do the same things in Lincoln, with Nebraskans, that are done in Chicago or New York.
"Sure, our culture is different from that of Japan. But it is different in New York from Lincoln, Neb. It is just as possible for us to adapt a Japanese system as one from Chicago or New York."
A similar point was made in Washington recently by Akio Morita, chairman of the famed Sony Corporation.
"We Japanese," he said, "are homogeneous. We can understand each other without talking to each other."
When he first visited Sony plants in the US, he said, he was astonished by the diversity of workers -- different colors of hair, eyes, and skin, as well as varying backgrounds. "We find," he said, "that we have to talk to [American] workers. That is, you need strong leadership to get a uniform response from a diverse work force."
"The bottom line," Butt said, "is that you weigh the strengths and weaknesses of what you have to work with, particularly your people. Then you try to make their strengths productive and their weaknesses irrelevant to the task at hand."