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Working For The Japanese

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Working for the Japanese

In 1985, the small suburb of Flat Rock, Michigan, located about 20 miles south of Detroit, became the site of an event rich in industrial symbolism. For the first time, a Japanese automobile company, Mazda Motor Corporation, would operate an automobile plant on the home turf of America's Big Three car makers. In addition, the assembly plant would be staffed by members of the United Auto Workers and operated by Japanese and Americans in what Mazda optimistically described as "a third-culture plant."

The story of the Mazda-Flat Rock plant is recounted by Joseph and Suzy Fucini, a husband-and-wife journalist team based in Michigan. They track the experiences of a group of American workers, many of whom were newcomers to the automobile industry.

To their credit, the Fucinis provide plenty of detail about daily life in a Japanese manufacturing plant. The system is based on a philosophy of continuous improvement, called Kaizen, which seeks to weed out inefficiencies and waste (muda) and achieve equal or greater output in less time with fewer workers. An improvement of as little as six-tenths of a second is considered significant. Another key concept, "just-in-time" (JIT), attempts to keep human and material resources at the barest possible minimum.

On the positive side, kaizen puts a premium on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the individual worker. "One of the first things that impressed Mazda's new American workers," the authors say, "was the willingness of the Japanese to let workers figure things out for themselves." Mazda training procedures emphasized teamwork and cooperation, instead of the traditional Detroit model of management-labor confrontation. Everyone, including line workers and management, wore the same uniforms. There were no reserved parking spots or executive dining rooms. The guidelines on cooperative work behavior were supposed to extend to the workers' personal lives. For example, instead of telling a teenage son, "Just look at this pig sty! How can you be such a slob!" an enlightened worker-parent would say, "Johnny, you're a wonderful son, but you must clean up your room so you'll be able to find things more easily when you need them."

On the negative



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