Chicago — American executives are flocking to Japan by the planeload to learn the secrets of Japanese productivity. But before you join the next flight to Tokyo, note that Japan is working hard to explain that there are no secrets about its productivity achievements. To make the point, Japanese executives tour the United States regularly to publicize the Japanese Labor Ministry's official conclusion that the keys to success are:
* Automation and technological development.
* Successful application of Japanese-type management techniques.
* A combination of stable labor-management relations, low absenteeism, and strong cooperation in the introduction of new technology.
Tozo Hikichi, responsible for systems development for Japan's giant Hitachi Ltd., takes particular pleasure in explaining his country's and his corporation's successes to Americans -- adding with a formal bow that the United States already possesses all the ingredients for success. His purpose in visiting the US, he explains, is simply to help American managers mix these ingredients together effectively.
At an Illinois seminar for US executives, sponsored by the Japanese Management Association and the US accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Co., Mr. Hikichi explained he came as a student, "speaking to Japan's teachers -- and our best customers."
Hikichi seems a prime example of the Japanese experience. He told Illinois businessmen here, "Twenty years ago, I visited your country for the first time and was taught the American way of management."
Over those 20 years, Hikichi and his Japanese colleagues explained, Japan faced many crises but overcame them and prospered through applying and adapting American management techniques.
Many of these techniques developed in Japan are being repatriated with stylish additions and exotic names: Ringi, Ukezara, Kanban,m and Jidoka.m
Today these Japanese terms pepper eager American executives' notebooks and may well become part of US business jargon in the 1980s. Translated, the terms stand for consensus management decisionmaking, careful preparation of the factory "dish" for the new management techniques, reducing inventories to cut costs (a system borrowed from US supermarkets), and quality control through giving workers the right to stop the production line.
As if to show their confidence in America's ability to apply such techniques, Japanese firms have set up US manufacturing operations using all of these techniques. The Sony Corporation plant in San Diego; the Lincoln, Neb., motorcycle plant of Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.; the Matsushita Industrial Company plant in Chicago, and the Sharp of America and Toshiba Corporation plants in Tennessee all are cited as proof that Americans can use such Japanese innovations as the "Quality Circle" and set productivity records.
Roy Harmon, an Arthur Andersen expert on manufacturing who recently spent three years in Japan, returned impressed.
"Japanese manufacturers lead the world in productivity in a majority of the major categories of manufactured products," he says, "in spite of the seemingly insurmountable hardships of distant markets and remote sources of raw materials and fuels."
He credits Japan's success to its "will to excel," inspired by the fact that "Japan must outperform the world in order to survive as a major industrial power."
American firms can catch up with their Japanese competitors, Mr. Harmon insists, but not by hoping to find "a few magic keys." What's needed, he warns, is "methodical pursuit of productivity improvement knowledge and even more methodical application of the acquired knowledge to manufacturing practices."
Purdue University industrial engineering Prof. James Solberg is one of many experts now offering new computer-analysis techniques designed to improve US productivity. Following a Japanese lead, one problem he concentrates on is idle time in America's antiquated manufacturing process. He estimates that currently some parts can spend 95 percent of their time in US factories simply waiting for something to be done to them.
Another Purdue University productivity expert, economist Dennis Weidenaar, is convinced that the United States can catch up. After a recent trip to Japan, Professor Weidenaar concluded that "the American firms we regard as well run, already resemble the Japanese firms in many respects." He also feels that the diminishing power of US trade unions is giving US firms greater flexibility in their operations.
"Remember, too," Weidenaar points out, "that 30 years ago labor relations in Japan were miserable and Japanese products were regarded as ticky-tacky, so we are starting off certainly in a much better position than Japan did 30 years ago."
America also can benefit from Japan's full support, says Japanese productivity expert Masakatsu Mori, "the same as we had from your country." Mori , Hikichi, and their Japanese colleagues stress that Japan has great interest in US prosperity because Americans not only are Japan's teachers but "our best customers." Japan, they know, will benefit when its best customers have more money to spend bo th at home and abroad.