Those rumbles aren't just summer thunderstorms

ON EXCELLENCE

July 19, 1993|By TOM PETERS

Summer is upon us, but not the summer doldrums. Consider these rumblings:

* Shape of the future: The mad scramble to invent the multimedia age is on. MCI and British Telecom make a deal. Time Warner and US West get engaged. What's happened so far in the computer-software- cable-telecommunications- publishing-entertainment "industry" is small change compared to what's coming. Winners? Losers? Who'd dare guess? As Microsoft's Bill Gates told Fortune recently, "If your business has anything to do with information, you're in deep trouble." Gates included.

* The devil is in the details: When a European head of state gets the sniffles, the New York Times blankets the story for days. Yet coverage of the most dramatic change in Japanese politics in 40 years gets scant attention. The "International" Herald Tribune offers daily weather reports from 40 European cities, 10 Asian cities. One more time: It's Asia, stupid!

* Oh, come on: W. Edwards Deming didn't sire Japan's quality consciousness. Tidiness, quality and presentation are the flavor of the millennium, not the month, in Japan. In fact, Shinto, the Japanese state religion, deifies order, simplicity and beauty.

Take the practice of flower arranging, or ikebana: Reverence for stark beauty is obvious. Moreover, the packaging of everything is a fetish in Japan. Cans of Campbell's soup and individual melons are presented as works of art. The bagging of a single postcard is a production.

You'd also think jaywalking was a capital offense in Japan, even in the boondocks. And the families of people who jump in front of a Tokyo subway train are fined for disrupting service -- the penalty varies according to the number of passengers delayed by the suicide!

The Japanese have long been order freaks. No wonder emulating such obsessions is so difficult for Westerners.

* Presentation counts (continued): Hats off to Business Week for its annual cover story on product design. In an ever more crowded marketplace, design is one of the best -- and least traveled -- avenues to product differentiation. But like quality efforts, good design must be a way of life, not a "program."

* Engines of progress: I'm struck that at first glance most economies look alike. Average American and Japanese and Indian workers do about the same things: drive cabs, write memos, fix stuff. Except the ingenious Indian mechanic works on the street patching 15-year-old bicycles, while his Japanese and American counterparts doctor Infinitis or Lincolns in air-conditioned service bays, using computerized diagnostic tools.

The difference, mostly, lies at the edge -- sophisticated products and services on which the rest of us piggy-back our way to relative success. Breakthrough products depend, in turn, on an astonishingly small number of people. "An ordinary man cannot develop good games no matter how hard he tries," says Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi. "A handful of people in the world can develop games that everybody wants." Last year, Nintendo's 892 employees generated more than $5 billion in revenue (about $6 million a person); the firm also ranked No. 3 in Japan in total profits.

Providing a climate that produces great game designers, microbiologists, aerospace engineers

and architects -- and then offers an entrepreneurial infrastructure that turns their work into gold -- is essential.

* The great divide: From 1968 to 1977, according to consultants McKinsey & Co., real (inflation-adjusted) income in the United States grew 20 percent; most of us participated equally, with high-school dropouts gaining 20 percent, while college grads picked up 21 percent. The next decade, with the information age flowering, changed all that. Between 1978 and 1987, income overall increased 17 percent: High-school dropouts experienced a 4 percent decline, while college grads added 48 percent. Education, anyone?

* Forget miracles: Want to win in Japan? Russell Hanlin, president of Sunkist Growers, explained to the Asahi Evening News why exports to Japan amount to 25 percent of the firm's total revenue and 75 percent of its exports. "Our success has not been achieved in one day or one year," he said. "It took 30 years of work. I've been personally coming to Japan for 30 years."

* Listen up, guys: "We always discuss things, then I'll make up our minds." That's the word from one female respondent in an Australian survey of women's role in purchasing decisions. Women's input tipped the scales in 71 percent

of decisions involving a home computer purchase, 88 percent for health insurance, 91 percent for purchase of a house and 94 percent for furnishings. Do your product development and marketing departments reflect such stats?

Happy summer!

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-8200.)

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