Small companies founded on engineering or technology can face problems when communicating their ideas and concepts to an international audience who may approach problem-solving from a different perspective.
The following is a condensed true story. Taking a cue from Hollywood, names have been omitted, details changed and disguised, and the actual conversations have been shortened and enhanced for “dramatic effect…”
Several years ago there was an American parts manufacturer who had a Japanese company as one of its most important customers. The American company worked in close cooperation with its Japanese customer. As is the case in many instances in specialized industries where the manufacturer sets its own standards and publishes its own QC specs, the manufacturer had issued its own standard variations for a certain kind of part that it had been supplying to its Japanese customer. In this case, the part was a kind of large flat structural brace for insulation, resembling a giant peg board, that fit between the outer skin and the inside wall of a fairly large final assembly piece. The insulation was riveted onto this brace. The process of riveting the insulation caused a number of holes to be closed, and thus a standard was set by the manufacturer that “no more than 14% of the holes would be closed when the final assembly is delivered…”
One day, a delegation of Japanese arrived at the manufacturing plant with a grave concern: The supplies being delivered were out of spec! Between 18-21% of the holes were covered!
In the meetings that followed, communication broke down. The American engineers couldn’t take their customers seriously. “These guys actually counted the holes! Don’t they have anything better to do?! So what’s the difference if it’s 14% or 18% or 21%?!!!”
Perhaps that represents a view that would be shared by many of us. You mean these guys actually counted the holes?!
Yes, some one did indeed count the holes! Somebody went home to his wife that night and answered that universal “How was your day, dear?” with, “Well, I counted some holes today and, amazingly enough, there weren’t enough of them! The boss is going to be pretty surprised when he reads my memo….” (You could even imagine the music in the background.*)
Yet the Japanese voiced a concern that is representative of Japanese industrial thinking. It could certainly be said to be one of the fundamental reasons for the well-deserved reputation for high quality enjoyed by Japanese products across industries around the world: attention to quality details.
To their credit, the manufacturer took up the challenge. After many months of internal investigation, much to their chagrin and just as their customer had claimed, they could not find one example of in-house assemblies that had no more than 14%.
Trying to recoup some face, they now replied what they had been thinking all along: “Well, what difference does it make, anyway?”
What difference does it make? “Who set the specifications in the first place? You did, not us, and your products are not meeting your own self-set specs. If the true specifications should be ‘between 18-21%’, then publish that as the standard. But don’t publish one thing and then manufacture them at some other, sub-standard specs. If you can’t even meet your own specs, how can we be confident you are meeting industry and government specs?!”
With that, the argument was won. The manufacturer embarked on extensive retesting and reanalyzing, and revised its specifications to meet realistic and mutually acceptable levels.
Next: Important Lessons
*Fixing A Hole, The Beatles, of course!