Creating a setting for 'great leaps' of the imagination

''If there is a difference between the American and Japanese styles of management, it is in the way we treat people,'' said Kazuo Inamori.

''People, things, money - these are the three basics of a company. Management is the art of combining these three ingredients to produce a profit. I see no great contrasts between Japanese and American management insofar as use of things and money is concerned. It is the use of people that makes the difference.''

Mr. Inamori is president of Kyocera, the fast-growing Kyoto-based maker of fine ceramics for industrial use. Tall, poised, and, on first acquaintance, reserved, he is said by those who know him to exude charisma. He is the kind of person some cannot stand and others would walk with to the end of the world. He is totally in the Japanese context, and yet, within that context, a most unusual man.

Mr. Inamori founded Kyocera in April 1959, when he was only 26 years old. A budding young engineer, he had left his previous company with seven subordinates and one older person who felt Inamori was a high flyer. Friends put up the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to start the company.

Mr. Inamori and his companions' contribution was half the amount, but this contribution was in technology, not in money. While at his previous company, he had organized a group of mostly technical high school graduates to develop a ceramic insulator for television tubes being manufactured by a nearby Matsushita factory. From this modest beginning, Kyocera has developed into a high-technology company with net sales of $639 million and stockholders equity of $482 million in 1982.

One of the company's most publicized recent projects is a ceramic diesel engine for cars, which is still being developed, and a ceramic glow plug for diesel engines jointly developed with Isuzu Motors (in which General Motors has a 34.2 percent interest). The glow plug is already in use. Although Mr. Inamori did not formally become president of Kyocera until 1966, when he had reached the ripe age of 33, he has been from the start its heart and soul. On the eve of forming the company, he and his companions wrote out the following pledge:

''We are not signing this compact out of personal profit or personal greed, but are determined to achieve that which will benefit the world and benefit men, in token whereof we seal this pledge with our own blood.''

Mr. Inamori then cut his little finger and made his imprint in blood on the document, followed by the others. Because of his youth, because of his lack of funds, Mr. Inamori could not have started the company without the financial support of men much older than himself. One of them became managing director, then president, and eventually retired in Mr. Inamori's favor when the latter came to him and demanded the job.

All of which goes to show that, although Japan may be a consensus society which respects seniority and old age, it is still possible for a Wunderkindm to make his mark in this society, if the timing is right and he goes about it in the right way. ''Men have intelligence, and they have the ability to work,'' says Mr. Inamori. ''Most important, they have hearts. Management requires careful consideration of men's hearts and what makes them move. That is the wisdom we have learned from India and China. To create the kind of environment in which a man can work, in which he can be motivated to work - that is management.''

Mr. Inamori spends a great deal of time with his subordinates, talking to them about their families, about their hopes and dreams, about his own hopes and dreams for the company. When it comes to work, he demands total dedication. If long hours of overtime are required to complete a particular project, he will demand that. Not all people can stand the pace, not all people wish to center their entire lives, including their families, around the company.

But those who do say they find it an exhilarating experience, in which they are encouraged to push their abilities to the limit. Talented young people rise rapidly. Mr. Inamori speaks with admiration of famous feudal rulers in Japan's past who were able to inspire the loyalty of their subjects.

But of his own firm, he says, ''From the beginning, this company was a joint endeavor. I was not the owner and the others my subordinates. We were - and are - comrades. If I have an idea and want to carry it out, I never dump it on others suddenly. I talk it over with the others, I get all parties concerned together and win their acceptance. Sometimes there is disagreement. As president it is up to me to make the final decision, and I will make it even if I am in the minority, always taking care to explain why.''

Innovation, in Mr. Inamori's view, requires teamwork. If he finds a creative talent that somehow does not fit the mold, he will try to work with that person on a contract basis rather than bringing him into the company. If he does join the firm, ''then I try to change him. I think this can be done. I think there is a way to bring out his talent while adding to it the virtues of teamwork.''

''We are constantly innovating, constantly creating,'' he continued. ''If you just compromise with the status quo, you cannot expect creativity. But the status quo is a given, a reality. You don't deny it, you go beyond it. I am trying to create conditions in which there are no barriers to great leaps of the imagination. I admit there are more individually creative people in Europe or America than there are here in Japan, but that is at least partly because of our environment.

''The Europeans and the Americans were originally a hunting people, with wide open spaces in which to roam. We are an agricultural people, settled in villages and requiring the cooperation of the entire community to get things done.''

Asked to comment on the view, widely held in Europe and America, that Japanese workers are automatons or obedient slaves, because they work so hard, he replied, ''That viewpoint depends on what your goal in life is.''

''If your purpose in working is just to earn a living - if your real goals and your real joy in life are elsewhere - let us say in religion or in music or sports, that is one thing. Working for a company, in such cases, is merely a means to an end. You work during the week for your company, but you give your weekends to your religion. For the sake of your religion, you might even be willing to work without pay. I would respect that.

''But is it not also possible for you to find your joy in life working for that same company? And if so, what is wrong with giving all your energies to your work?

''Whatever your purpose, whether you are in Europe or America or Japan, there should be no difference in the quality of the work you do during the six or eight hours you are devoting to it every day. If you take a lackadaisical attitude to your work, a lackadaisical attitude to your family, a lackadaisical attitude to everything, then what is the point of being alive?''

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