How singing the company song reduces worker blues

What first strikes the visitor to a Matsushita plant is the earnestness of its employees . . . and the slogans that abound in the workshops.

''With enthusiasm and creativity let us strive to improve automation and efficiency,'' reads one flung across a TV work area.

Matsushita Electric Industries, the electrical and electronics giant, has gained notoriety through long-established practices such as singing the company song and reciting the company creed every morning before work.

But putting people before products, a company hallmark, is only one part of a three-pronged management philosophy, says chairman Masaharu Matsushita. The other elements: products that meet society's needs; profit as a reward for good products.

Fifty years ago company founder Konosuke Matsushita, still an active executive adviser at the age of 88, proclaimed his management philosophy thus:

''Through both dedicated and unselfish business activity, we must always strive to foster progress. Uplift the well-being of society. Devote both body and mind in furthering the peaceful development of world culture, friendship, and international understanding.''

Says Masaharu Matsushita, the founder's son-in-law, ''Ours is a successful management philosophy, because it puts people before products. This is human relations.''

Mr. Matsushita was president of the company for 16 years under the watchful eye of his father-in-law before stepping up as chairman of the board in 1977. He continues to be active in the international aspects of Matsushita's far-flung operations.

With worldwide sales of $15.7 billion and net income of $715 million last year, Matsushita stands 18th in the Fortune 500 list of non-US companies. The firm was launched out of the home of the elder Matsushita in 1918, when the only product was adaptor sockets. Today, Matsushita is in all fields of electrical appliances and electronics, from toasters to television sets to personal computers, as well as robots, learning laboratories, solar systems, and scanning devices.

On the assembly lines here, employees work with great intensity. They can stop the lines whenever they need to. Some are entirely automated, while at others employees work side by side with machines that peck assiduously at the chassis coming down the line. ''About seven machines do the work of two workers, '' the supervisor said.

In every workshop, the premises are spotless. There is an almost religious atmosphere about the place, as if work itself were considered something sacred. And this is not unique to Matsushita. The Japanese do not generally follow the practice of weekly religious worship. Some of the devotion that other people reserve for these occasions seems in Japan to be directed toward work. But this does not mean that workers are obedient automatons.

Matsushita's trade union, like trade unions generally in Japan, is companywide. There is but one organization, in this case, the electrical workers' union. ''The Japanese system of trade unions has its strengths and weaknesses, just as do all forms of organization, but I must say that our kind of trade union has made an immeasurable contribution to Japan's postwar economic growth,'' Mr. Matsushita said.

Company trade unions and lifetime employment are the two characteristics that have contributed most to Japan's phenomenal economic growth, in Matsushita's view. He does not think they would necessarily suit other countries. But lifetime employment gives managers and workers the sense of a real stake in their company.

Unions operating within this context have a less adversarial relationship with management than in other countries. And management in turn is more open with the unions. Unions are provided, for instance, with more detailed figures about corporate finances than most US companies. Thus, wage demands closely reflect company performance.

Japanese companies do not follow the West German practice of putting worker representatives on their boards. But management does informally provide the union with confidential information. Matsushita was one of the first companies in Japan to set up a labor-management committee. This included monthly meetings where corporate leaders explained policies. But in 1976, when Matsushita was still president, union representatives complained the meetings provided them only with information about plant closings and other matters after they occurred.

The president replied that he could not let the union take part formally in management decisionmaking. Instead, he proposed to meet once a month himself with top union officials. He would not talk about executive personnel changes or matters involving foreign partners. But on most other issues there would be complete frankness. This practice continues today, under President Toshihiko Yamashita.

Workers at Matsushita seem to participate enthusiastically in quality circles and suggesting ways to improve productivity. One small idea: attaching strings to pencils to keep them from rolling off tables. Last year, more than 4 million ideas came in from 70,000 workers inside and outside Japan. One worker made an astounding 17,600 suggestions alone (over 48 every day). ''Of course, we didn't act on all of them,'' Matsushita said dryly. ''But we did consider them all.''

Internationally, he said, his firm can no longer expect countries to buy products made in Japan just because they are well made and cheap. ''We can't expect exports to grow like they used to,'' Matsushita said. ''The same goes for the domestic market. That leaves production overseas as the one area where we can still look for considerable future growth.''

This means the increasing internationalization of Matsushita. The company has more than 70 foreign subsidiaries. Matsushita said the ideal is to have as few Japanese in these companies as possible, and to make sure that those who are assigned to them contribute, as good citizens, to the local community.

While some subsidiaries have local citizens as executives, Matsushita sees little likelihood of the parent company making its top management multinational. ''In the future, if this looks like a necessary step, we will consider it,'' he said. Nor does he foresee foreign scientists and technicians coming to Matsushita's Japanese research laboratories the way US laboratories employ non-American scientists. ''In joint ventures, yes. But not in Matsushita's own laboratories here.''

Internationalization, in short, is largely a matter of Japanese going abroad and learning to be good citizens (in the corporate and social sense). It is not thought of as letting outsiders join the Japanese corporate structure, although Matsushita does have foreign employees working or training in Japan.

In the long run countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are moving aggressively into areas where Japan once reigned. Six years ago, most radios sold in Japan were made locally. Today 35 percent are imported. In 1963 Japan controlled 86 percent of the US radio market. Today it has 8 percent. Thus, Matsushita said, Japan must concentrate more on developing sophisticated products with greater added value. Japan must also look more to its industrializing neighbors for parts and products. Ideally, he would like to see a division of labor between developed and developing countries on the basis of equality and mutual advantage.

Matsushita's future, he said, lies with the electrical appliances that have long been its mainstay. In the years ahead, Matsushita products for the kitchen and home, using computers linked to TV screens and other electronic wizardry, will enable the housewife to run the home as an integrated system.

Children growing up with these marvels will learn to accept them as naturally as their parents accepted Matsushita lamps. Progress is inevitable, and as long as his company continues to produce goods that are ''useful and needed by society,'' Mr. Matsushita thinks it will continue to deserve its fair reward.

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