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Chinese Study Japanese Way of Manufacturing

Chinese manufacturers face many of the same obstacles—increased costs, quality breakdowns—that bedevil their American counterparts when they must quickly begin high-volume production of new products to meet fickle market demand.

May 16, 2006
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Chinese manufacturers face many of the same obstacles—increased costs, quality breakdowns—that bedevil their American counterparts when they must quickly begin high-volume production of new products to meet fickle market demand.

Applying Japanese production efficiency techniques could help them cope. A group of Chinese plant managers recently turned to an American who used to work for Honda to teach them.

"The development of manufacturing is happening here faster than anywhere it has happened on planet Earth in history," says Kevin Hop, a member of the Manufacturing Management and Technology Institute who traveled to Shanghai in March to conduct a seminar sponsored by consultancy JF Pearson.

As an engineer at U.S. Honda plants, Hop oversaw seven major model changes and became an expert in Japanese lean manufacturing methods. In Shanghai, he introduced his 34 Chinese students to the Japanese way of eliminating waste, analyzing and solving problems, sharing information, communicating succinctly and developing a learning culture.

Chinese manufacturing operations have to improve in an area in which the United States and Japan excel—mass manufacturing of new products. The skill is particularly important for the China operations of the companies represented at the Shanghai seminar—Logitech, Ericsson, Emerson, General Motors, Honda and the soon–to-be-merged Lucent and Alcatel, among others.

If Motorola promises a new cell phone to the global market, it can’t be held up by production problems in China. "We’ve all become addicted to new products," Hop says. "It’s pushing everyone in the world to become quicker."

That atmosphere is creating workforce pressure for Chinese manufacturers. "Our research team in Suzhou is pretty young. We are just accumulating the experience," says Jonas Chen, large-program manager at Emerson Climate Technologies in Suzhou. The city is located 50 miles southwest of Shanghai.

The area between Shanghai and Suzhou is a seamless strip of industrialization. Only cities and slivers of farmland break the string of factories.

Finding the talent to staff those plants can be difficult. Chen faulted the Chinese education system for focusing too much on rote learning and too little on innovative thinking. His company looks for candidates who may not have scored high on tests but are creative.

"We don’t want the library," he says. "We try to find high-potential people and we teach them how to be good engineers."

Those new hires can help companies with challenges like maintaining high quality while dealing with myriad suppliers and rapidly changing production processes.

"We need talented, experienced people in this area," says Wu Hy, new program engineering director at Astec Electronics Co. "In order to be competitive, we have to introduce (new products) quicker and quicker."

The talent shortage is compounded by societal factors. For instance, workers from rural areas may toil in a factory for a while and then return to the farm. Women may go back to their families after a few years.

The fast pace of growth in China also creates opportunities, such as the chance for people to manage a plant while still in their twenties.

"It’s almost like the Wild West in the gold rush," Hop says of the chance to stake a business claim. "Everyone has a shot at it."

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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