Japan and a Metaphysical Sense of Seismic Engineering

Hello from ashinkansenbullet train, tearing through the Japanese countryside at 300 kilometers per hour. The thorough network of public transportation in Japan continues to embody the aphorism that time waits for no one and that these rockets-on-land will not hesitate to leave you and your laptop bag quivering in the supersonic dust.

With regards to the global economy, Japan, like the rest of the world, is facing its share of large-scale changes. Unemployment, while still half of that in the U.S., has reached historical highs for the country; there has been a change of regime with the election of Kan Naoto as the new prime minister; and the country’s engineering and manufacturing base is still reeling from the recent international PR fallout with the quality issues at Toyota. But despite this adversity, the Japanese industry has still seemed to maintain its technological edge, keeping its infrastructure resilient while confronting even the worst of tectonic shifts. That and the Japanese national soccer team is defying all the contrarians by advancing toward the final stages of the World Cup.

Speaking of movers and shakers, the importance of building codes had particular resonance (literally) when just two weeks ago, I was at a café in the Tokyo Narita Airport when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck northeastern Japan. My coffee literally started pouring itself. Due to the thankless work of structural engineers, everyone just looked up as if in an afterthought, waited for the aftershock to pass, then went safely back about their business (or in my case, turning my attention to wiping the latte shrapnel off my shirt-sleeve). Particularly in severe cases like the Hanshin earthquake that decimated Japan in the 1990s, nature oftentimes overtakes engineering’s best attempts to deflect its disasters. But like the Japanese mindset of self-improvement and self-renewal, we learn anew and we seek out innovative ways to minimize risk; we roll up our sleeves and we try again.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) andkaizenare concepts that by now in the 21st century are well worn in many Western business environments and unfortunately, some to the point of banality. Just don’t let that TPS name be tainted by recent automotive press—this is just an example of where the idea has grown beyond the company that originated it. TPS is less about Toyota than it is about a system of comprehensive organizational discipline, the observations of which have been interwoven with my business travels here. Certainly, spending an occasional two-week stint a few times a year in Japan does not qualify me as an expert in Japanese culture, but as a third-party tourist of the industrial stage, I have been witness to practices that have made me exclaim, “Check that out!” (or…so desu!as the locals would say).

None of these concepts are foolproof (although the Japanese, of course, have a term for that, too:poka-yoke, in describing the inclusion of mistake-proofing directly into the design of a product or process). Ultimately, when compared to organizations outside of Japan, these practices are less about “being Japanese” than they are about how any company or individual in the modern era uses aspirations for efficiency as part of their striving towards competitive excellence.

Cleanliness is Next to Godliness (or at least Industry Dominance)
Those familiar lean production activities are quite familiar with the concept of clean and organized environments contributing to workplace efficiency. There are many Western companies that already do this very well. The culture of such practices, however, is still more consistently observable across Japan relative to what’s been observed elsewhere. These practices result in quick identification of problems and potential risks. Tools and process plans are “point of use” and within arm’s reach. These practices apply to office and design environments and are not isolated to manufacturing settings. Here, “clean” is not just “not messy” but also “precisely organized,” all characteristics that streamline the path to effectively meeting client needs.

Pride in Expertise
While many managers or shift leaders find the need to “explain” their employees’ capabilities to senior leaders and auditors, the majority of the Japanese engineers and technologists observed were self-validating masters of their craft. Taking true ownership in your subject matter area and being allowed to speak to it (and more importantly, having managerial leadership that supports such a mentality) extends beyond just being an academic veteran or licensed expert. True ownership is demonstrated when a firm’s individuals can readily demonstrate their knowledge both to clients and internal customers. This aspect separates those merely following printed job descriptions from those who possess a depth of passion and fluency in the responsibilities for which they are held accountable.

Everything with a Purpose
It is becoming more important than ever to be purpose driven in a time when resources are becoming more and more scarce. Engineers the world around are familiar with the difficult balancing of aesthetics with functional needs. But even then, anything that does not demonstrate a direct contribution toward attaining customer requirements is eliminated. Every design document, LED bulb, rack and pinion, binder full of documents, scrawls on a blueprint, rolling cart of tools, has a reason for existing. If a process is redesigned, the skeletons of the past are cast upon the pyre of progress. Superfluous nice-to-haves are tossed. John Paul Sartre would have had a successful career as a device engineer in Japan.

So in the context of these observations, it’s still perfectly okay to let out that overachieving perfectionist in you every now and then. Whether in an office environment or in the bowels of a factory, Japan reminds us to just keep shaking things up.

Published June 28, 2010 by Austin Lin

Filed under: Japan, industry excellence,

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