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Creating Quality Cultures in the East and West

By Michael Maccoby

Published in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 37 No. 1 January-February, 1994. pp. 57-59.

East and West differ significantly in terms of how people view leadership and ideal organization, and because of this, they face different issues in creating the trust essential for a total quality (TQM) culture. Westerners must confront deep rooted values of individualism, which influence not only employee attitudes to TQM, but also how managers interpret their leadership roles. Asians have somewhat different problems, especially expanding and exporting their more communal corporate culture. The better they understand the differences in their values, the more successfully will managers from East and West communicate with and learn from each other.

The ideal of Europeans, and even more so North Americans, is to minimize authoritarian control while maximizing individual autonomy and initiative. For the Westerner, the best leader is the "one minute manager" who communicates clear goals and delegates decisions about how to implement them. The best organization is a fraternity of equals.

This value system even influences technology design, and I suspect it is one reason why, in the early 80s, GM wasted hundreds of millions of dollars trying to automate final assembly at the Hamtramack, Michigan plant. At the time, GM managers indicated to me that they could not only save labor costs, but also rid themselves of a conflictful, unpleasant relationship with the assembly workers and their union. When this vision failed, idealists at GM put their hopes in the Saturn project in which union leaders co-manage the plant at Spring Hill, Tennessee. At Saturn, the issue of hierarchy is, to some degree, fudged by representative democracy. In contrast, Toyota has been slower to automate final assembly and has emphasized training for teams of workers led by managers in the role of teachers and team leaders.

As a consultant to Volvo in the 70s and 80s, I found the same Western yearning to do away with hierarchy and class differences. The Swedish ideal was the self-managed team of craftsmen and women, working without need for a boss. The assembly plant at Uddevalla was designed by a team of management and union leaders to realize this ideal, but Volvo decided that it did not achieve sufficient levels of productivity (an issue still being debated in Sweden.) In fact, the Volvo assembly plant with the best productivity was in Ghent, Belgium. There, the plant manager studied the Toyota approach and reorganized the plant according to this model. Swedish union leaders rejected the Toyota approach as oppressive.

The high value Westerners place on individual autonomy typically leads to bureaucratic gridlock. Each individual tries to increase autonomy, and managers struggle for control over employees. In many companies, spontaneous teamwork resists the dictates of management, rather than focussing on satisfying customers, improving processes and cutting costs by driving out waste (i.e. anything that does not add value for customers). In the West, creating a TQM culture requires channeling individual self interest toward quality goals and developing trust that by working cooperatively, individuals will not be exploited.

The Western Ideal

The Western vision of ideal organization and leadership stems from the historical struggle for individual rights and freedom from authoritarian domination. In most Western companies, the majority of employees - especially middle managers - are not compliant organization men. They attempt to maximize their autonomy and control of turf. The positive side of this is entrepreneurial initiative. The negative is political positioning and playing it safe. Asked by the CEO to cooperate across turf lines, Western employees, especially managers, calculate whether they will gain or lose by ceding control. While respect for Western leaders ebbs and flows according to their achievements, their followers expect these leaders to do what is necessary to maintain their own autonomy, and success. Few employees have illusions about the benevolence of Western leadership.

The Asian Ideal

The ideal Asian organization is based on good interpersonal relationships rather than individual rights. It should be like a caring family. In this organization, leadership is part of a natural hierarchy. The good leader is like a good father who accepts responsibility for the development and well-being of employees. In return, these leaders expect obedience and personal loyalty.

Unlike Westerners who rebel against domination, Asians accept benevolent despots who appear to lead the people toward a positive goal. Asian managers tell me that without such leaders, there would be no cooperation, because people would be out for themselves and their families. They admire Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, strong leaders who have produced dramatic material progress at the expense of rights for individual expression. It is interesting to note that Lee Kuan Yew now believes that Singaporeans need to become more self affirmative and has directed the schools to institute more project rather than rote learning.

Psychological Differences

Psychologically, these cultural differences are profoundly significant. The defining myth of the West is Oedipus, the king who killed his father and married his mother. According to Freud, this myth expressed a universal tendency, but it has little significance in the East. In the West, Oedipus signifies the competition between father and son, the conflict of generations. Psychoanalytically, the self managed team becomes the band of brothers who have killed the father. Alternatively, in the hierarchical Western organization, the son, fearful of castration identifies with the father and competes with brother managers as rivals for approval. The father-boss remains wary of these sons who must be kept under control.

In the East, the psychodynamics are different. The eldest son has an honored role in the family and is educated by the father, who in turn, expects to be cared for by the son in old age. Family and society have a stake in maintaining harmony between the generations. Rebels risk ostracism or worse.

Asian companies try to develop benevolent leaders. Corporate education emphasizes values. Thus, Toyota rewards workers who teach others and create group harmony with bonuses and promotion to management. Toyota leaders are expected to use the tools of TQM not only to improve products and processes, but also to continually educate workers.

TQM has de-emphasized status distinctions in Asia. Empowerment has meant that everyone's ideas are heard. Employees become less fearful and compliant, more responsible and innovative within a system with clearly defined and understood roles and goals. They are rewarded for translating their criticisms into ideas for improvement without appearing to insult their superiors. Conflict is transformed into testable hypotheses. In a sense, TQM is liberating for Asian employees, a step toward individuation.

For Westerners, TQM provokes ambivalence, particularly among middle managers. Before TQM, managers were told to delegate, meaning as long as your subordinates got the results demanded, they should be free to do things their own way. With TQM, best practices become standard practice, and process measurements force managers to support the system. No longer are middle managers licensed to guard their turf. They are expected to cooperate to solve problems and build cross functional teams. This can be uncomfortable.

Western Strengths

Let us not ignore the strengths of Western individualism. The U.S.economy has achieved high levels of productivity in large part because people take initiative. But TQM without sufficient understanding of Western individualism can dampen this initiative. Consider of Florida Power and Light which in the late 80s was publicized as a model of TQM. A FP & L subsidiary was formed to teach the methods to other companies. However, in 1990, a new CEO curtailed these activities. Observers reported that the heavy emphasis on processes was sucking resources away from customer service. One of the FP&L union leaders told me another part of the story. Service technicians traditionally kept their own notebooks on methods of solving problems without having to use lengthy procedures. They were improving both productivity and the quality of their working lives. When the FP&L process engineers demanded that everyone accept best practice, these service techs followed the new rules at the expense of taking their customized short cuts.

Why didn't FP&L process engineers make use of these labor saving approaches? In many Western companies, workers will not tell management about their ideas for cutting costs, because these will result in lay-offs. If they offer ideas, they may innovate themselves out of a job. Even so, I am frequently amazed at how willing American workers are to share ideas, when these are listened to, even though they put themselves at risk. The need to influence and make work meaningful is sometimes stronger than self interest. What turns off ideas even more than insecurity of employment is when workers feel they are ignored or put down by process engineers.

It is noteworthy that Motorola and Milliken, two U.S. companies which seem to have been most successful in transforming their corporate cultures to support TQM, have been led by members of the founding families and have been able to maintain employment security. In a sense, they have blended positive Western and Asian values. While creating a spirit of a caring community, they have encouraged individual initiative and open debate. They have not fudged the issue of hierarchy, but combined leadership with heterarchical teamwork. (see "Move from Hierarchy to Heterarchy", RTM Sept-Oct 1991). However, both companies have also been successful at increasing market share. It remains to be seen whether or not they would maintain employment during a downturn in business. Companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Kodak and IBM maintained employment security until the market and their owners compelled them to fire employees.

To achieve a TQM culture, Westerners must be prepared to transform the corporate social system, taking account of the values and aspirations of the participants (see "To Create Quality, First Create the Culture", RTM, Sept-Oct 1993) and the context of Western society. This requires more from top leadership than is taught in Western business schools. Managers must lead the transformation of the corporate culture. The top management team must describe an ideal future in systemic terms and lead an interactive implementation process. Interaction is neither delegation nor dictating, and it requires on-going dialogue that can be initiated from the bottom-up as well as top-down.

In the Western context, middle managers will support this process and accept leadership roles only if their knowledge and insights are respected and they are rewarded for implementing the vision. Observers have told me that many of the highly touted GE "work-out" sessions, where everyone is supposed to suggest changes, have been failures, because top management brought in outside consultants to encourage workers to beat up middle management. This is a losing strategy that increases conflict, fear, and resistance to change. The top will enroll the middle not by attacking them, but by engaging them interactively.

According to a recent survey, American workers express little loyalty to employers, but place high value on open communication and management responsiveness to their needs, not only at work, but also as family members. (The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 1993) The Western employee can be at least as cooperative and innovative as Asians, but this requires that everyone's interests are understood and at least minimally protected. A compelling business logic must be communicated by top management. Roles must be clear. Measurements must be considered fair. As in Japan, there needs to be systematic ways of developing teamwork and encouraging innovation that do not increase conflict. Leaders and followers must not compete against each other.

The new generation of employees I have described in Why Work (Simon & Schuster 1988) are especially willing to cooperate within such a framework. These offspring of dual career families have learned at an early age to participate in teams. When it makes sense, they will share leadership in a heterarchy. They are emotionally less involved in the Oedipal drama of the 19th and early 20th century middle class nuclear family in which the father is sole wage earner. Rather than compete or identify with father figures at work, they want good coaches who are more detached.

They are also quicker to understand that interactive teams can facilitate success and also be emotionally satisfying, especially if work allows some playfulness. They tie their career aspirations more to developing their competence than to advancing in a particular company. In a sense, they are in business for themselves, and with good leadership will become good partners. (Incidentally, some of the young Chinese engineers I met recently in Beijing fit this social character).

Building Trust

In the West as in the East, productive organizations require trust that cooperation will be rewarded. In the East, this trust has been created by strong protective father figures and clan-like organization. It has been supported by shared ownership of networks of companies (the Japanese keiretsu) which place the highest values on both product quality and employment security. In the West, trust results from a combination of implicit or, preferably, enforceable contract and mutual understanding. It is maintained by open dialogue about expectations in an ever changing environment. (Notably, senior managers hired into companies today demand contracts).

In an economy of continual innovation and reengineering of work, it is unrealistic to promise employment security. Factory jobs in the West will continue to be automated or move to lower wage labor markets. Whenever possible, simple service jobs will be automated, and the ones that remain will require advanced skills. Increasingly, employment security depends on mobile and marketable technical and social skills including entrepreneurial initiative. Companies can increase a sense of security by cooperating with employees in developing these skills.

Trust can also be increased by involving employees and their representatives in the strategic planning process, so that they can influence change to take account of their interests. This is the aim of the Workplace of the Future which was negotiated by AT&T, Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in 1992 bargaining. In return for this influence, the unions agreed to cooperate with management in supporting transformation to a TQM workplace. Agreements such as this may prove valuable in the Western economic system, given that the dominant values of management are not to create a caring family but rather to lead a winning team which is scored quarterly by financial analysts and investors. Although such agreements may appear to constrain managerial freedom, there is much to be gained from mutual commitment. It is in the interest of managers, employees, and owners to increase the trust essential for TQM. In the Western context, this will require a framework that demystifies hierarchy by re-defining the ideal organization and the roles of both leadership and followership.
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