By Jon Miller | Post Date: May 11, 2006 5:34 AM | Comments: 9
Today we continue exploring the dark side of Lean as we interview Darius Mehri, author of Notes from Toyota-land. Darius is an American who spent three years working as an engineer in Japan at a Toyota group company. He changed the name of the company in his book to “Nizumi”. The book is a result of a journal he kept while in Japan and a revealing look at the dark side of Lean.
What is the main message that you wanted to get out to your readers by writing this book?
I wanted people in the Unites States and people outside of Japan to get a different perspective on what Lean work is about. Even though there are a lot of good books out there and some of them make really good points I think they don’t provide a comprehensive picture of what it’s like to work in a Japanese company.
What was your experience with traditional (non-Lean) manufacturing before going to Japan?
Basically none. I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and went to work as an engineer.
How much did you know about Lean manufacturing before going to Japan?
Basically nothing. I didn’t read anything on Lean. I read the popular books on Japan like “Japan is Number One” and other books mostly written in the 1980s, the bubble years. They didn’t talk much about manufacturing but mostly what it’s like in the office.
What was your direct experience with kaizen while in Japan?
One of the real strengths of the system is that as an engineer there was always a focus not only on designing really good products but on improving them. I was really impressed with the level of detail that my colleagues were involved in during the design process. For example there was a product that was produced with some design flaws which were occurring at a site in central Asia. They immediately send an engineer to that country to study what the problems were, they came back with solutions and within 2 or 3 months the problem was fixed. That was really impressive. I think that’s one of the strengths of Japan.
You’ve been back in the U.S. for six years. How did your experience in Japan change how you work today?
I had a much better understanding of products are never perfect but working to perfect those products is very important. I think my experience there made me a highly skilled engineer. One thing they were doing was integrating computer software tools in the design process. They were doing design in a very different way. What I observed was more of an inductive process. They analyze competitors’ products and come up with some of their own ideas to make a product. Also one of the things which I think is very characteristic of what’s going on in the factories is that the Japanese are very visual. You see pictures all over the place instructing the workers how to do things. How to hold a welding torch, etc. I think they do that well. It’s really a very quick way of learning.
Now that you’re back in the United States What has been your experience with Lean manufacturing now that you are back in the United States?
(Laughs) There hasn’t been any. I haven’t observed what’s going on here. I’ve worked in all small software companies here.
Lean hasn’t taken over software yet?
No. Not that I know of. One of the things I did bring back was an understanding of how the Japanese solve problems. A lot of Westerners design software products with a lot of English words on them. If they replaced those words with pictures it would be a lot more accessible.
Toyota today describes TPS as built on the two pillars of “kaizen” and “respect for people”. Based on what you documented in your book about Nizumi, a Toyota company do you think the two pillars there were a total lie or was it a failure of good intentions?
I think the first part, kaizen, is definitely there. I think the answer has as much to do with the structure of the organization and commitment of the managers to implement as with the political economy of the country. One of the things about managers in Japan is that they aren’t concerned about short term profits. They don’t have to worry about stock market values. They think long-term. Their whole focus is on designing good products. There are limitations on owning stock if you are a manager in your company. But as far as “respect for workers” goes I think it’s a myth. Working in Japan I experienced very long working hours. One of the things I observed was that Lean also means cutting back on personnel and overloading workers. So there’s another side to what Lean is about. I think a lot of people, particularly academics who write about Lean, are either unaware of the problems or are aware of this but don’t write about it.
Many people have criticized the current literature praising Lean manufacturing as a partial and flawed view. Do you think your perspective on Lean manufacturing as a dysfunctional and harmful system is a more complete view or just a different view?
I think it’s a more complete view. I was able to meet a lot of different people in a lot of different companies. I joined some foreign worker professional organizations with people working in various Japanese companies and they had all very similar stories. They had very long working hours. For example the academics don’t talk about “service overtime”. That is a rule in Japanese companies for workers to work overtime, such as staying in their office late and you do overtime for free. That’s something they don’t write about yet it’s part of the working culture at most if not all Japanese companies. In the factory they will pay workers for overtime but they have to come to work early to clean machines and they don’t pay you for that. There’s also compulsory overtime and you don’t know when you’ll do overtime. So these are the things that are not mentioned or glossed over about Japanese companies.
In the introduction to your book you set out to “demolish the myth of the generous, paternalistic Japanese company.” I think you did a good job of that. You also say “Above all, this book shows how the famous Toyota production system has been devastating to its employees.” Do you think you achieved the second goal in your book, and if not do you still support this position?
It’s a two-edged sword. Japanese companies do things very effectively. I don’t think most Americans could survive in something like that. We’re not used to working that amount of hours. I think the Japanese don’t have the choice. There’s very limited labor mobility for the Japanese worker. You can’t move to another large company so the management isn’t incentivized to try to keep you at the company by improving the work environment. On the other hand, seeing restructuring in the United States and the talk of closing many factories I have second thoughts. Japanese managers don’t close factories as readily as in the U.S. because I think it’s related to economic nationalism. They see their national security directly correlated to industrial strength where in this country we view our national security directly correlated to our military strength. I think there are all sorts of rules and laws that are in place in Japan to keep factories open. For example even though restructuring is very, very hard and people don’t have a say at all in industrial policies, in Japan they don’t close any of the factories if they can get by with cutbacks. Looking from an organizational level it’s very effective.
On your website you say that your book was reviewed by “world-renowned experts on lean work” including Paul Adler, Professor at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California and Steve Babson, labor scholar at Wayne State University. You also mention Ronald Dore, Professor at the London School of Economics, as well as Purdue University Professor Robert Perrucci who is a noted critic of corporate America and a strong union supporter. How do you think your conclusions about your experiences in Japan would have been different if your advisors had been Professors in Business, Operations Management or even Industrial Engineering?
It’s interesting that you ask that. When I went to Japan I had no intention of writing this book. I wrote a book because I wanted people to learn about the Toyota Production System. I had no angle or ideological focus, either pro-management or pro-union. I read a book by Robert Perrucci’s student Laurie Graham who had written a book on Japan that I thought was very accurate and that’s how I got hooked up with Robert Perrucci. If I had gone there with a different ideological perspective I may have seen things differently, but no.
You describe the factory work at Nizumi as dangerous, dirty and difficult. You write that Nizumi was number three from the bottom in the number of accidents per year in Japan, and that Nizumi talked about kaizen but didn’t do kaizen on the shop floor. This doesn’t sound very Lean to me. Is it possible that Nizumi is a not a good example of Lean production, and that truly Lean firms are much better places to work?
I don’t know. The whole issue about Lean work is basically a description of work at companies like the one I worked at, like working at Toyota. A graduate student at MIT went over there, studied it and coined the word Lean. From what I understand Nizumi used all of the same techniques on the factory such as kanban and the reduction of waste. Kaizen can be very useful and very productive. It’s the way it’s used, focusing on what the organization wants to do. You can use kaizen to get rid of waste, but Kaizen can negatively impact safety. My impression was that it was a Lean factory based on criteria defined by Western scholars.
Given the opportunity, would you work at a Toyota group company in Japan again?
(Laughs) Do you think they would hire me? I doubt that. No, I wouldn’t want to go back. At the time I was there it was a different time in my life where I could do something like that. I was single at the time. I was curious about what was going on in the world. I’m married now. Working those really long hours is not really appealing to me.
Even though the work life at a Toyota company in your experience is racist, sexist, bullying, causes death from overwork, death from being chewed up by machines running at dangerous speeds, and is highly dysfunctional, Toyota is building factories around the world while GM and Ford area shutting them down. Should we be concerned?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Even when the Japanese economy was tanking and they were going through very difficult times I always told people that there was no way that Japan was out of the picture. I saw for myself that they were committed to manufacturing and that they were improving their products, they were restructuring. But with that said if America did the right thing we could beat the pants off of Japan. One of the things we don’t have that Japanese don’t have is creativity. A lot of Japanese engineers told me that one of the problems they have is a lack of creativity. We have the innovation in America. I really strongly believe that American companies can take back lost market share if we reorganize and restructure.
With as popular as Lean manufacturing is today, are you concerned about the dark side of Lean taking over American work life?
Yes and no. I don’t think that would happen in the United States. There are a number of reasons why. First reason, there are very strong trade unions in the United States compared to Japan. There is the treat of organizing. The second reason is that there is also a very active, for lack of a better word, “legal culture” here. Japanese companies would be threatened by class action suits if they treated people here that way. Third, there’s a lot more labor mobility so that companies are incentivized to improve the work environment to keep the workers at the company. I just can’t see that a factory built by Toyota would be the same kind of oppressive workplace in America as it is in Japan.
You conclude you book by saying your journal testifies to “the bitter realities of the Toyota Production System”. What you’ve described in your book is the worst of the Japanese labor management system and perhaps the one practiced by Toyota but hardly a description the Toyota Production System as a whole. Do you disagree?
I think that Lean work and the Toyota Production System, if humanized, would be a really good thing. But they would have to do things like slowing down line speed, making sure that kaizen was implemented in a positive way, not just to improve production but to also improve the work environment. I think a lot of American companies are probably doing that, more so than in Japan. I attended a lecture at MIT with a professor who is working with Lean in of all places El Salvador. There’s tremendous competition with China. They’re in the garment industry. They used Lean to turn the company around and make it very profitable. But after implementing Lean work the turnover rate was 100%. So his job is now to humanize it. I think Lean work is here to stay. It would be good if people sat down to start thinking of ways to make it more humanistic.
You were at Nizumi during a bad time in Japan’s economy. In the last several years Japan’s economy has come roaring back largely due to government reforms and exports of equipment to China. How do you think this has changed manufacturing working life in Japan?
Only that people are getting more money now. Their bonuses are a lot higher. Other than that I don’t think it’s changed.
Have you shared your experiences with Japanese people since you’ve returned to the United States?
What was their reaction?
Very good. I made a lot of contacts in Japan. They like exchanging views. They liked hearing what I had to say.
Have you thought about translating your book into Japanese and publishing it there?
That’s up to the publisher.
Would you like to see your book published in Japanese?
Yes, if possible. Sure. I don’t know how it would be received. I think there would be a lot of people happy that it was published there, especially at my old company in Japan. A lot of people were very angry about how things were with the working life.
If you could ask the Lean implementers and Lean promoters reading right now to one thing differently in promoting Lean, what would it be?
Cut the workers more slack. Slow down line speed and improve working conditions. Make sure it’s not too hot in the factory, make the work environment healthier. Things like that. I think you need to put in a system where you get a lot of feedback from workers about the work environment. I may be naïve but I think that workers want to be more productive. I think Lean implementers would benefit a lot form reading my book and understanding the background of Lean and what’s going on in Japan. For example in the United States there’s a lot more labor mobility. Here they can get up and leave. If you miss that point Lean could be a disaster for your company. It’s a good idea to keep these things in mind if you’re consulting.
You have an article coming out this month from the Academy of Management Perspectives. Can you give our readers a brief summary of your new article?
It’s basically a synopsis of my book. I believe Jeffrey Liker has an article coming out in the same issue. So it’s exposing the other side of Lean work. Jeffrey Liker has some very good points but he’s exaggerating the benefits.
Do you plan to continue your work with exposing the dark side of Lean?
No, I’ve already done that. I plan to do some comparative work in the States if possible, compare what’s going on in the United States with what is going on in Japan. I’m going to be in a PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Darius, I want to thank you very much for your time today.
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