Japanese management: doing it right

THE Japanese are not 10 feet tall. They are hardly supermen. The sky is not falling. This is simply one more story of how Japanese management does it right, this time in the public sector. In much current writing about how a culture or society manages its technology, the United States is virtually unanimously compared unfavorably with Japan. In the case of Japan, it is not merely a matter of superior organization. Cultural values do play an enormously important role. Yet, just two months ago I was exposed to a striking example of the most basic behavioral management difference between the US and Japan.

Takahiro Yokomichi, governor of the prefecture (state or province) of Hokkaido came 11,000 miles to the Materials Research Laboratory at The Pennsylvania State University. He brought his three ministers and was accompanied by reporters from four Japanese television stations and all the major newspapers.

Hokkaido is the largest state in Japan, with 22 percent of the land area, but it has only about 6 million people. Why would its governor seek out one particular university laboratory in the US?

He came because he had learned that Penn State's laboratory has conducted $1 million to $2 million worth of research in the field of radioactive waste management each year for more than a decade, published hundreds of scientific papers in the field, and has been featured in the media around the world. The governor had a matching need. His state is proposed as a site for the storage and possible disposal of nuclear waste.

Faculty members remarked that by contrast no US government group had ever bothered to come the 150 miles from Washington to see what we had to say. Neither had governors of states faced with the exact same issues.

But the simple act of visiting the laboratory, as it turned out, was not the key difference about Governor Yokomichi's visit.

We expected that we would have the formal lunch, adjourn to the lab for further ``photo opportunities'' in front of our fancy laboratory equipment, have a short press conference where the governor would ask us pithy questions about the dangers of radioactive waste with all the Japanese network cameras grinding away, and it would all close with an exchange of bowing and gift giving.

In other words, we had based our expectations on the normal behavior of American politicians.

But the governor, a lawyer, had come to learn firsthand from what he considered an unbiased source. The subject was technical, but he spent three hours learning precisely what the laboratory's research meant for his own decisions, asking detailed questions and quoting our own scientific papers back to us.

At the end of the day-long session, he did indeed stop, thank us, bow, and exchange gifts, but he also carried away 20 pages of his own notes.

Here is one reason why the Japanese system is beating ours.

The decisionmaker, be he in the private or public sector, is willing to become directly informed on the technological issues. On a major issue, it is no longer enough for the principal decisionmakers to make second- and third-hand decisions or to pretend that popping in and out of a congressional hearing is sufficient to get the big picture.

Perhaps we do not have to look outside our own nation for better models of public decisionmakers. Just as the Japanese used American mentors to improve their engineering, we have a few outstanding models.

I recall the intense attention that two former members of Congress, Rep. James Symington and Sen. Adlai Stevenson, paid to details in hearings concerned with science and technology before their respective committees. We await patiently for the registration of their successors and the governors of Washington, South Carolina, Nevada, etc., in our radioactive waste management school for CEOs.

Dr. Rustum Roy is Evan Pugh Professor of the Solid State, director of the Science, Technology, and Society Program and of the Materials Research Laboratory at The Pennsylvania State University.

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