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WHAT'S HOLDING BACK AMERICAN INDUSTRY?; :Burning toast and scraping it

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 1981


During his 19th trip to Japan, W. Edwards Deming -- the only American besides Douglas MacArthur to receive the Medal of the Sacred Treasure from the Japanese Emperor -- had to make a train connection in Hakata. The train he was riding on arrived at the station at 7:23; his connecting train left at 7:24. He wasn't worried about making the connection. "I knew it wouldn't take me a full minute to cross the platform," he explains.

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Comparing that train ride to delays he has experienced in the United States "shows how much we accept defects as a way of life," the statistician says.

His mission over the last 45 years has been to demolish the acceptance of mediocrity, mistakes, and delays -- a mission that has taken hold in Japan with religious fervor, and is starting to have "a leavening effect on American management," he says.

"No other statistician in history," he says warmly, "has seen his work bear such fruit."

A tall, crewcut-topped, crusty old gentleman, Dr. Deming planted his first seeds in Japan at the end of World War II when, as a statistician working briefly for the US War Department, he met with his Japanese peers and "told them they could lead their country toward quality. They didn't understand, of course , but it was a start."

Meanwhile, a group of engineers and statisticians there gathered under the title of the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers toward the end of the war help the war effort. They held themselves together after the war with the aim of helping the reconstruction of Japan.

One member of the union, Koji Kobayashi of the Nippon Electric Company, had read a paper on the statistical control of quality by Dr. Walter Shewhart, a friend of Dr. Deming's. "Mr. Kobayashi had tried to make it go -- learning by doing," Dr. Deming says, "but he did not meet with success."

The method described by Dr. Shewhart intrigued Mr. Kobayashi, though, and was spread byhim to other members of the union, who decided to invite Dr. Deming to return to Japan and instruct them.

"I told them that Japanese industry could develop in a short time. I told them that they could invade the markets of the world and have manufaturers screaming for protection in five years," he says with a twinkling grin. "I was, in 1950, the only man in Japan who believed that."

Statistical methods, filtered through the 500-plus managers who attended those first seminars, caught fire in Japan, and within two years started to show significant results. Now, the Japanese reputation for quality is worldwide.

Former Ambassador Walter Annenberg, in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial , spelled out the results: "Japan, a country that is 1/25th our size in land area and that must import 90 percent of its raw materials and energy, now produces more television sets, as much steel, and as many automobiles as we do," he says. What is more, "the little country has productivity growth rate of 11.4 percent compared with about zero growth in the US."

This difference has been attributed to everything from government regulations in America to the energy levels of the Japanese workers, but Dr. Deming sees quality behind it all. The Japanese do not waste time creating -- and then correcting -- defective products, he appoints out, and their reputation for quality guarantees productivity, competitive position, and sales.

Others are not so sure. "The statistical control of quality can't hurtm ," Gregory Gruska, engaged in quality control in the US automotive industry, says. "But just hiring a statistician is not going to turn your business around overnight."

Dr. Deming responds brusquely: "You must engage a statistician of competence and maturity, not just a statistician."

Quality control is a religion to Japanese industry. Through the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineersd, nearly 8 million workers have undergone quality training, and one longtime observer of Japanese industry believes that nearly every worker in Japan has had some company indoctrination in quality control.

The Japanese certainly see it as the source for their success. In fact, the most coveted industrial award in Japan is given to the company and individual who have done the most in quality control for the past year. Named after their prophet, it is called the "Deming Award."

In his modest basement office in Washington which is filled with stacks of paper, dusty books, and shelves strewn with awards and Japanese knickknacks, Dr. Deming seems less the successful leader and more the voice crying in the American wilderness.