If Japan Can, Why Cant We? – 1980 NBC Special Report

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

It is very hard for us today to remember (or learn if we are too young) what the situation was like in 1980 (see the bottom of the post for some data on the economy at that time). Specifically two areas were very different back then: the USA economy and the media landscape.

On June 24th 1980, NBC broadcast a special program in prime time: “If Japan Can, Why Cant We?”. It is hard to image today that such a production could have even a ripple in the business community. But that was a very different time. And that program created much more than a ripple. Prime time TV was a much different place than it is today; back then such a broadcast had an amazingly large reach as network TV had little competition (even from cable TV, to say nothing of Netflix, the internet, computer gaming, etc.)

Today, NBC has allowed The W. Edwards Deming Institute to make this historic program available to stream over the internet. And this capability (to provide it on demand online) shows yet another way in which our current landscape is unimaginable different from 1980. Still the message in this broadcast on using management practices focused on delighting customers, respecting and involving employees while using data and statistical tools to continually improve is still very powerful today.

YouTube video

Insightful quote from “If Japan Can, Why Cant We?” by Herbert Striner, dean of the Kogod Business School at American University (7 minutes into the program).

When we’re discussing the new environmental control regulations concerning engines, the American manufacturers tend to be thinking immediately about how to put it off, how to stop it, which congressman to contact. While the people from Toyota, Honda, VW, are busy trying to figure out how soon to get back so they have their research people, their production people working on the problem of meeting these specifications.

I expressed similar thoughts in a post about American CEOs desire to lobby congress for relief instead of addressing how to improve performance to provide long term benefits; in that case in relation to the decades old and continuing health care crisis in the USA (one of Deming’s 7 deadly diseases of western management, again from the 1980s which is still doing us great harm today).

Jerry Jasinowski adds another insightful comment (9 minutes in):

We have to change the relationship between management and workers in many firms, to draw out the contributions that workers want to make to productivity problem.

As W. Edwards Deming said in Out of the Crisis

The greatest waste in America is failure to use the ability of people.

Throughout “If Japan Can, Why Cant We?” executives and front line workers talk about how important it is to involve workers in improvement efforts. And repeatedly Lloyd Dobbins (the presenter) mentions how the companies making this work in Japan, and the USA, don’t reduce the workforce based on improvements. So even as the companies make dramatic improvements in productivity workers’ jobs are safe (they are moved to other positions with the company or allow the company to grow output with the same labor force).

The importance of treating employees as people and deeply involving them in improvement efforts was stressed throughout. This is, of course, at the core of Deming’s management philosophy.

Dr. Deming makes a brief appearances at the beginning and at minute 31. I think the whole show is worth watching, but if you want to skip directly to where the program focuses most specifically on Deming’s contributions you can jump to minute 60. The program takes a detailed look at applying Deming’s ideas at Nashua corporation. And the program includes Deming speaking his thoughts, such as:

I think people here [USA] expect miracles. American management thinks that they can just copy from Japan — but they don’t know what to copy.

A Nashua manager (I think) says:

Dr. Deming was right, 85% of the problems were really management problems, it was part of the system.

A few quick data points on the economy in 1980 illustrate how different times were when “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We” was broadcast. The Federal Reserve’s Federal Funds rate reached a peak of 17.6% in April 1980. It has now been close to 0% for 10 years. Unemployment among auto workers rose from a low of 4.8% in 1979 to a record high of 24.7% during 1980 and then fell to 17.4% by the end of the year. Overall unemployment rose to a recession peak of 7.8% in 1980. Manufacturing lost 1.1 million jobs during the recession, the rest of the economy lost a total of 200,000 jobs.

There was a sense of pessimism about the economy. And over the next two years that sense proved justified as the unemployment rose to double digits for the first time since 1941. At the end of 1982 the unemployment rate stood at a postwar high of 10.8%.

When this was broadcast 35 years ago there was an immediate demand by business to learn and apply Deming’s ideas. It is hard to understand how great an impact it had, from our current position. I will explore more about this broadcast and its impact in future posts. It would be great to hear from those of you who remember how it impacted your career in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “If Japan Can, Why Cant We? – 1980 NBC Special Report”

  1. Cuando yo miré esta película por primera vez en 1991 me impresionó muchísimo. Yo cambié mi forma de pensar y de vivir.
    Hasta hoy yo sigo enseñando los temas de este vídeo en los cursos que les doy a los empleados de la empresa en qué yo trabajo.

  2. Cuando yo miré esta película por primera vez en 1991 me impresionó muchísimo. Yo cambié mi forma de pensar y de vivir.
    Hasta hoy yo sigo enseñando los temas de este vídeo en los cursos que les doy a los empleados de la empresa en qué yo trabajo.

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