Success, Japanese style

Could British accounting habits be fuelling business failure? Roger Trapp reports

Western businesses have looked to Japan for help with many things in recent years - quality, innovation and general management wisdom, to name a few - but not, generally, accounting. Gerry Gannon, an academic at Cranfield School of Management, thinks this should change.

Tomorrow he hosts the second of two conferences designed to compare and contrast the radically different approaches to management accounting systems in the West and Japan. While the first - held last month - concentrated on the discipline's contribution to Japanese companies' abilities to gain competitive advantage, this event ponders accounting's relationship with such activities as human resource management and development, total quality management and business process re-engineering - in short, learning.

According to Mr Gannon, who spent 13 years in industry before becoming an academic, the day will begin with an examination of "the continued fixation of Western accounting with profit and portfolio management" and will ask whether this approach could be contributing to poor management decisions in the West.

The theme will be continued through the discussion of a case study of a Japanese business that, viewed from a western financial perspective, would have been closed down long ago. However, by adding a human resource perspective, several reasons for sticking with the business could be seen - in particular, fierce competition in the market concerned led to an important innovation being introduced in the industry.

The subject will also be addressed in a presentation by Eva Johanna Brauner, marketing director of Predict, a pan-European training and education organisation involved in training engineers in innovative technologies. She believes that important human resource issues are often ignored when introducing such initiatives.

Putting this together with the earlier conference, it can be seen that accounting is used in very different ways in Japan and the West. Not only do the Japanese tend to use accounting to influence rather than control, they have also come up with a significant number of techniques and practices that can be effective when combined with the country's business culture and philosophy. In the West, it is argued, the only true innovation of recent years has been activity-based costing, which allows managers to know which activities are profitable and which are not.

The earlier conference included the presentation of research indicating that in the West managers were far from happy with the performance of their management information and accounting systems, while those in Japan felt that such systems made a positive contribution to the achievement of corporate goals.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in training. While Western accountants and finance-based managers have not been known for their fondness for expenditure in this area, the Japanese think in terms of meeting the plan by continually developing the technology and the people. This might account for the fact that Nissan's Sunderland plant reputedly spends 14 per cent of payroll costs on training and development, while the UK average is 3 to 4 per cent, says Mr Gannon.

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