Can you imagine what would happen if a company director called a staff meeting and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have decided that we are going to produce only poor-quality goods and deliver a carefree, slapdash level of customer service…”
Admittedly, the great Gerald Ratner achieved fame – and ruin – by declaring that his firm’s merchandise were ‘total ***p’ at a major business conference in the UK about twenty years ago.
But it is fairly common for managers to tell their workers (and customers) that ‘we are committed to quality and excellence’, as though this is a daring and orignal idea. It reminds me of those Indian Gurus whose devotees strip off and jump up and down, yelling the name of their chosen deity. I fear that one day I will arrive at work to find my colleagues standing on their chairs and chanting ‘Quality! Quality! Excellence! Excellence!’. It is for our customers – not ourselves – to declare that we have achieved quality and excellence, and this kind of reputation takes years of hard work and dedication.
Some managers have a weakness for business ideas from abroad, particularly Japan. The most popular flavour-of-the-month concepts appear to be ‘5S’ and ‘Kaizen’. Each of these has numerous cultural nuances which are usually lost in translation, which means that after a few weeks of application, the foreign business strategy has failed to deliver miraculous results and is quietly discarded.
The problems with applying these ideas may be due to the differences between British and Japanese society. In the East, great importance is attached to Loyalty and Harmony; loyalty to the Emperor, to one’s employer, to one’s family and finally to your own interests. By contrast (based on my limited experience of British industry), workers in the UK tend to view their employers with resentment and suspicion. ‘Why should I bother keeping a tidy workplace, when it will make life easier for other people? Why should I keep detailed records of the work process, when that will enable the boss to replace me if the fancy takes him?’ The prevalence of these attitudes makes it difficult for UK workers to fully embrace the ideas of 5S and Kaizen.
Another problem is the UK devotion to profit; the steady, continuous improvement advocated by Kaizen is eagerly supported by managers who imagine that it will lead to increased production and reduced overheads. Part of the benefit of Kaizen is that it changes the relationship between workers and their jobs; the process is improved, but so is the employee – a concept which fills most managers with alarm.