Japanese managers in Europe and the United States often hear Western colleagues observe that in the West the individual is important, while in Japan the team counts. Another comment, less frequently voiced but certainly very much on the minds of people who work for Japanese companies in the West: ``If I join your company, how far can I get - to the top?''
Both questions go to the heart of what internationalization means to Japanese enterprises. This is a period of the steeply rising yen and of growing tides of protectionism. More and more, companies that used to make products in Japan and sell them around the world are being forced to set up factories in Europe, the Americas, and Southeast Asia.
As they do (particularly in Western countries that constitute Japan's most important overseas markets), Japanese companies are having to reconcile the individual-vs.-team question - and then must grapple with how far multinationalization of personnel is to proceed.
The first point affects attitudes on the factory floor. The second is longer range but is bound to grow more insistent as companies hire more workers overseas - not just blue-collar employees but engineers and senior staff.
Tetsuo Tokita had to tackle both problems when, 15 years ago, Sony's headquarters plucked him from an engineering assignment in Japan to head its pioneering manufacturing project in Europe - a plant in Bridgend, Wales, that would make television sets both for the British market and for export.
His answers may be different from those given by others placed in similar situations, for companies are finding that their experiences vary greatly from country to country and from plant to plant. But having stayed with the project for 13 years, from the drawing board through the winning of the coveted Queen's Award for export achievement, his words carry weight.
At Sony's Bridgend plant, one hears Mr. Tokita called ``quietly inspirational, a father figure'' by one of the young British engineers he has hired. Somehow one expects a commanding figure who speaks in eloquent tones.
But in fact, Tokita - who was interviewed recently at Sony headquarters in Tokyo's Shinagawa district - is short, mild mannered, soft spoken. He tackles the individual-team question obliquely.
``People are the core of any manufacturing operation,'' he notes. ``How to collect good people, and then how to make sure that they grow - that's what running a factory is all about.''
Has he thought which comes first - the individual or the team? He pauses, then says, ``The way we operate, we have no bulky manuals specifying exactly what each worker is to do. It's really up to each individual to feel whether or not he or she is going to make the best color television in the world. That feeling can't be forced on the individual. It has got to come from within. Without that spark, you are not going to make superior products.''
The Japanese system of management, over which the British news media made a great to-do in the early days of Bridgend, is in Tokita's view simply a means to an end - to motivate the individual worker, to give him that inner compulsion to create an excellent product.
Thus, instead of flaunting management's privileges, Tokita insists that all workers be known as ``associates,'' that special dining rooms and reserved parking places be banned, that engineers and other supervisory personnel be constantly available on the shop floor instead of sitting importantly in their offices, and that these offices be visible from outside.
The American management system does use extremely detailed manuals, and in theory, if every worker followed his manual 100 percent, the result should be 100 percent perfection. But in a manual-free operation such as Tokita's, 100 percent perfection is not possible. He would be satisfied to start with 70 percent of what is theoretically achievable.
If this 70 percent is the result of energy and enthusiasm welling up from within the worker, Tokita says, he will have an inner incentive to improve his performance.
The American system recognizes the worker as an individual, then ties him to the assembly line, critics say. The Japanese system may emphasize the group, but it does provide for individual responsibility and individual pride within the group.
In fact, in Tokita's view, this is the main purpose of the quality circles that media have touted as another feature of the Japanese management system. These circles have caught on at Bridgend and spurred a keen sense of competition with the performance of Sony plants in Japan.
Listening to Tokita talk, one begins to feel that the distance between the individual and the team is not so great after all. It is the individual who has to be motivated; then he will work well within a group or a team because he knows what he is doing and why.
Working in groups is the Japanese way, but unless the individual feels he has a contribution to make, he will not be an enthusiastic participant.
``There are many individuals within the Japanese system who want to assert themselves, but who simply do not speak up for fear of the consequences,'' Tokita says.
Under whatever system the manager may be operating, if he fails to recognize signs of discontent among his subordinates, he is either incompetent or lazy.
What of the second question: multinationalizing an enterprise to the point where a non-Japanese feels that no career doors are closed to him? Several Japanese companies working abroad have already been the target of lawsuits charging discrimination against non-Japanese employees.
Tokita says he devoted a great deal of his energies while at Bridgend to ensure that promising British workers felt they had a good future with the company.
Sony does not guarantee its Bridgend employees lifetime employment, and Tokita's successors at the plant know they cannot take the loyalty of their British employees for granted. This helps to keep management on its toes.
``I will stay with this factory as long as I feel I am learning something from my experience,'' says John Clements, an engineer who came to Sony six years ago fresh from university. He adds that so far he is very satisfied with the responsibilities he has been given, as well as with his future career opportunities.
Tokita says he thinks that Clements's attitude is typical and quite healthy. It is probably a better relationship of employee to management, he thinks, than in Japan, where under the lifetime employment system a manager sometimes wastes the talents of his subordinates, knowing that they are tied to their jobs.
The brighter and more ambitious the staff hired by Japanese companies overseas, the more insistently this question will be asked. Someday it will have to be answered.