Matsuura Machinery Corp. sends about 10 of its 130 employees abroad each year. Several ordinary production workers are usually among the travelers.
Masanori Matsuura, executive vice-president of the family-owned maker of numerically controlled machine tools, notes that many Japanese companies send such a large fraction of their employees abroad and that all the globe-trotting easily pays for itself with the ideas the employees bring back.
Matsuura readily acknowledges that one of the key strengths of Japan is the ability of its business households to absorb the innovations of others. Among the greatest weaknesses of the U.S. companies he has dealt with, he says, are their lack of interest in learning from foreign companies and their inability, as organizations composed of individualists, to digest ideas from outside. Matsuura urges that Americans send more of their own employees abroad. He says it is time U.S. businesspeople learned from the Japanese how to absorb the ideas of others.
Since late in the 1800s, when Japan began its struggle to catch up to the West, Japanese have been taught to "listen to the foreigner and learn, and mix his techniques with our own way of doing things," Matsuura says. Nowadays many Japanese agencies offer package tours that mix factory visits with sightseeing in the United States and Europe.
Matsuura adds that he himself has several times discovered processes done in foreign factories in one high-speed step that required several grinding steps in Japan. And he once noticed a manufacturer using a pointed tool to cut a groove in a piece of metal when Japanese would have used a spinning cutting wheel. With a few questions, Matsuura learned how to compensate for the heat produced by the pointed tool.
It is rarely difficult to find foreign factories willing to allow Japanese to visit. Competitors are often so proud that they believe Japanese will be unable to copy their processes. And when competitors won't let Japanese tour their facilities, a tour of other factories doing similar but not directly competitive work may be equally useful. Although the Japanese themselves have become world leaders in the machinetool industry, they still find it worthwhile to study foreign techniques.
Matsuura Machinery exports 70% of its output, and Matsuura says that although he would send fewer employees abroad if his company weren't an exporter, he would still send two or three people every year to study foreign techniques.
Ordinary employees as well as top managers and designers should be sent abroad, Matsuura argues. These employees can better recognize good ideas for some parts of the shop, and a foreign tour enables them to understand why products must be made differently for different markets. For instance, notes Yoshi Kiriyama, whose Pioneer Trading Co. arranges sales of Matsuura's machines in the West, when slightly built Japanese workers see burly, 250-pound Americans working in factories, they understand the need to build machines stronger for export.
Matsuura isn't eager to criticize Westerners. Before commenting on American failures, he points out that an increasing number of U.S. businesspeople have been traveling to Japan to study Japanese practices in the last four years. But he says he knows of no American companies as attentive as many Japanese companies are to foreign ideas. He claims to be appalled that when he offers a new idea to an American, the American "doesn't share it in his company, and he may even try to sell it by changing jobs."
Kiriyama suggests that Americans are too eager to show their individual genius. "Americans are sometimes obsessed with originality," he says. "It's their pride. But sometimes it stands in the way of improving their product."