Saturday, January 20th, 2007

The Japanese Condition

What is quality? A classical question with many answers. As I’m just back home from Japan I find myself getting absent-minded, thinking about quality. I murmur about quality when there is no one around. These are characteristic symptoms of the Japanese condition. It hits the unsuspecting Westerner when they are confronted by Japanese quality. In my case it happened when I travelled by the famous Shinkansen high-speed trains and found out that speed is not the main point.

Ticket in hand I arrive at the platform. There are signs showing car numbers. Door marks are clearly painted on the concrete platform. Just line up where your door will be. This is needed, because the trains may have up to 16 cars, which translates into 400 meters, and around 1000 travellers. By the way, seats are always facing forward. I will have to wait for 20 minutes. During this time three other trains stop and leave. That is, on my side of the platform. On the other side another three trains stop and leave in the same direction. There are more trains per hour than in the Stockholm subway.

When a train arrives, passengers have lined up where their door is going to be. People get off, people get in. Then away at full speed, 300 km/h. In Stockholm we check our watches to see if the train is on time, but not here. You can literally set your watch after the train. Deviations are measured in seconds. The driver has to file a report if the train is more than a minute late. So it goes on, hour after hour, day after day.

Slightly dumbfounded I wonder if we could do this in Sweden. Ok, we can buy the technology, but this is much more than technology. This is a service provider who goes nuts about caring for their customers. In Sweden it’s just not very trendy or politically correct to care a lot. We prefer being professional, delivering what we call “the right quality”. In practice this may mean we do just enough to keep us from being sued or getting bad publicity. The Japanese have convinced me that quality is about caring.

There seems to be another side of the picture. The Japanese may be famous for their quality, but you don’t hear a lot about disruptive innovations. That’s something that really happens in Sweden. The troubling question arises: is it impossible to have quality and innovation? Does quality rival innovation?

Such questions are enough to turn anybody into a philosopher. Please excuse me if you find me absent-minded, murmuring incoherently to myself…

If you get serious about this, read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. A classic from 1974.

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