We've been touting the Japanese "consensus model of management" for over a decade; many have tried to transplant it root and stock into North America, with spotty results.
A reviewer in the New York Times (assessing a book on Mazda's U.S. operation) explains part of the problem: Consensus in Japan is "almost opposite" to consensus in America. For us, achieving agreement typically means workers and the boss shouting, scrapping and finally coming together; the boss, though having the final up or down vote, is treated like a peer in the process.
In Japan, such egalitarianism is by and large unthinkable; every person knows his place in an intricate pecking order. To be sure, a course of action emerges without the Japanese boss having to issue an explicit order (there's no "That's it, we go with option A"); but hierarchy is far more pronounced than even in the Western military model.
Consider research done by Andre Laurent at INSEAD, Europe's leading business school. Managers from a dozen nations were asked to assess the following statement: "It is important for a manager to have at hand precise answers to most of the questions that his subordinates may raise about their work."
The participative Japanese would dismiss any pretense of management omniscience, right? Guess again. Seventy-seven percent of the Japanese polled said "yes," the boss must know all -- most by far among all nations' respondents. Just 13 percent of Americans agreed. In short, national character varies widely and often not according to stereotype.
Let's look again to Europe. The bumper sticker on my Nissan Pathfinder is a blue oval surrounded by 12 gold stars. It reads "Europe Unie." The Single Market in Europe that it portends for 1992 is an exhilarating prospect. Talk abounds of newly homogeneous continental tastes, and sizable firms are merging and forming "strategic alliances" at a breathtaking pace.
But some observers are leery.
"Removing avoidable barriers to trade between isolated national markets is unquestionably a good idea," writes London Business School Professor Paul Geroski in the Sloan Management Review. "But what gives one cause for concern is the further, often implicit proposal to populate this market with a small number of giant Eurofirms, each producing a small range of Europroducts. . . .
"It is hard to believe that it is in anyone's interest to have a few large, arthritic dinosaurs thrashing about on the European industrial landscape. . . . What will result from 1992 . . . is not a large mass market, but a large market composed of very heterogeneous consumers."
Harvard's Michael Porter, writing in The Economist, likewise fears excessive industry consolidation: "The most competitive industries in all the European nations were those where capable national rivals were pressuring each other to advance: German cars and chemicals; Swiss pharmaceuticals, thermostats and flavorings.
The benefits of giantism have always been overrated. And fragmentation of markets is the clear message for the '90s in autos, sneakers and engineering materials alike -- from Osaka to Miami to Zurich. Most important, on Jan. 1, 1992, the French will not stop being French. The Italians will surely still be Italian.
That was obvious during a family vacation to the French Alps, about 15 kilometers from Italy. At the border crossing, the French national police were typically formal, perfunctory, close of gesture. But the Italians! Their border guards were effusive, not the least because of our accompanying 21-year-old daughter. My wife and I were "Momma" and "Poppa." Sarah was celebrated. Exaggerated hand gestures cut the air. It was Italian. It was not French.
Other differences were apparent, too. At 6 o'clock one crisp morning, I watched two French farm workers haying a field -- with a sickle. A few hours later, I frittered away an unconscionable 30 minutes trying to change dollars into francs at the local branch of France's biggest bank. The number of clerks milling about, chatting, was staggering.
The point: The United States has a yawning lead in overall productivity, relative to Western Europe (even Germany) and Japan. Europe and Japan surely have industries in which they hammer us. But an economy is a whole. Overall U.S. economic leadership is due largely to a remarkably consistent level of productivity across all business sectors.