The quality gap

The quality gap between American and Japanese cars is not the only place where Japanese workmanship is superior. A recent Harvard Business School study seems to show that a worse gap in quality exists between American and Japanese air-conditioning units.

The study says that on average 70 defects showed up on the American assembly lines for every one on a Japanese assembly line, and that during the first year of average use there were l7 service calls on American-made units for every one on a Japanese-made unit.

The saddest part about it all is that, according to the Harvard study, it costs the Japanese manufacturers only about half as much to produce higher quality goods as it costs the American manufacturers to make good their defective products.

Detroit has made efforts to overcome the quality gap in cars and has reportedly made progress, although testing by consumer organizations indicates that Detroit still has a way to go before it can claim equality in quality.

Why, why, why?

A lot has been written about this. There is certainly no one explanation. And obviously, there is no sudden, single cure. Management tends to blame it on careless and uncaring labor. Labor tends to blame it on incompetence in manage-ment.

There may be something in both contentions. Fortunately for the American economy both management and labor know that there is a problem which is damaging the market for American goods and both are trying to do something about it.

There is one feature of the problem which I have not seen mentioned elsewhere and which, if I am correct about its role in the matter, will be some time in curing.

There is often in American industry a culture gap between management and labor which does not have its equivalent in Japan.

Japan has probably the most homogeneous society of any large country in the world. All Japanese speak the same language. All go through the same basic educational system. All have shared the same historical and ethnic background. Any foreigner stands out as a foreigner in Japan. There are relatively few foreigners in Japan. Assimilation of foreigners into Japanese culture is so rare that books are written about it.

Japanese management recognizes and capitalizes on the fact that there is no culture gap between itself and its workers. The Japanese factory worker has no reason to think that he cannot move off the factory floor up into the offices of management. He can, and he often does. He is respected by his managers as a fellow citizen with equal opportunity. He is encouraged to try his hand at different types of work. He is encouraged to look upward.

I was traveling through some older New England mill towns on a recent weekend. I noticed again the two unfailing similarities about those towns. They are always in a valley by the mill stream. And the best houses are always on one side of the valley, and the workers' houses on the other side.

Add that up among the better houses with their fine columns and porticos and ornamentation there is always to be found a Congregational church, and usually an Episcopal church.

Over on the other side of the valley among the unorna-mented boarding houses of the factory workers is always the Roman Catholic church.

The pattern differs in other parts of the country and in other industries. The steel workers of Pittsburgh may be Greek Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic. The management class in the south is usually Presbyterian or Baptist rather than Congregational or Episcopal. But by and large American industry has grown up from earliest time with a culture gap between employer and employee.

They have not normally come from the same background. The owner or manager has usually come from one of the earliest of the many waves of migration of peoples to these shores. And often they came over with the means to buy land and build factories. They became an established upper social and economic class.

By and large, the workers in American factories have come from later waves of migration, out of different cultures, and with different religions. Right down to the Mexican ''wetback'' of today they were (and are still) brought in deliberately to provide a new supply of cheap labor.

In theory all Americans are equal and have an equal opportunity. In practice there is still, by and large, a culture gap between management and labor which explains some of the difference between American and Japanese experience in labor problems.

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