Management: Vain quest for secret of success: New research shows there is no simple formula to explain how Japan does it better

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The Independent Online
WHY DO the Japanese do it so much better? This question, which has occupied so many management minds for so long in Britain, has been somewhat demythologised by research, but it hasn't gone away.

The latest expedition into the perceived gap is by a team based at Sussex University's Centre for Research into Organisation and Management and at the nearby Roffey Park Management College. The research has included input from far-flung academics, such as Mark Peterson of Texas Tech University, Jyuji Misumi of Nara University and Michael Bond of Hong Kong's Chinese University, but it has all reached a familiar conclusion: the Japanese are not that different from us, they just do a couple of things a bit better.

Ian Cunningham, chief executive of Roffey Park, says the research underlines 'the need to be careful in making comparisons between Japanese and Western management techniques: the differences are very important but should not be exaggerated'.

He goes on to say: 'The message is positive: UK managers who use effective planning, and who work to win support of their staff, can match the achievements of the best Japanese industrial supervisors.'

This is familiar territory: a research team identifies the key factor in Japanese superiority and says that if companies would just send their people off to somewhere like Roffey Park for a little tuition in effective planning, everything will be all right. Others have come to similar conclusions, or other ways of expressing them, but despite a plethora of related courses, not a lot has changed. The introduction to the report - entitled 'A Cross-Cultural Test of the Japanese PM Leadership Theory' - states: 'It is clear that much further work will be required to distinguish myth from reality in characterising the management of Japanese organisations.' In particular, the often-debated issue of whether aspects of Japanese management practice can be shown to be as effective in Western-based subsidiaries of Japanese companies needs further scrutiny.

But since the concern of the study is the attributes of first-line supervision in Japan and elsewhere, it set itself the task of discovering whether differing findings can be attributed to research methods or to significant differences in management relations within Western and Japanese organisations.

While giving qualified support to Misumi's PM theory - optimal leadership effectiveness results from the leader simultaneously emphasising subordinate performance (P) and maintenance (M) of good relations - the study concludes that different countries have differing ideas of the behaviour that fulfils the two factors. For instance, it has been shown that a British supervisor is much more likely to be regarded as friendly for discussing a task with a subordinate than is a counterpart in the US.

More than a thousand assembly-line workers in five electronics plants in the UK, the US, Japan and Hong Kong completed questionnaires evaluating their supervisors' leadership style, while the supervisors assessed team performance on productiveness, work quality and group co-operation.

There was support for the PM theory on work quality, but not productiveness or group co-operation. Also, significant differences were found between Japanese workers and others in relation to high-level planning and pressure by supervisors.

Whether this is because of differences in approach remains to be seen, but it seems too simplistic to draw a conclusion from the findings that the only real difference between supervisors around the world lies in their ability to plan and encourage staff to meet deadlines.

(Photograph omitted)