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An interview with Yoshio Kondo

Interview by: Sarah Powell

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Yoshio KondoYoshio Kondo is Professor Emeritus, Kyoto University. His academic career has spanned over half a century during which he has served as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto, President of the Society of Calorimetry and Thermal Analysis of Japan, Vice-President of the Mining and Metallurgical Institute, President of the Japanese Society for Quality Control and President of the International Academy for Quality.

He is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Academy for Quality and a Member of the Board of Directors of the Engineering Academy of Japan. Professor Kondo has received many honours including the Nikkei Quality Control Literature Prize (1967 and 1993), the Extractive Metallurgy Division Science Award from AIME, 1971, the Deming Prize, 1971, the E.L. Grant Award from ASQC for 1976 and 1977, the Tanigawa-Harris Award from the Japan Institute of Metals, 1981, the E. Jack Lancaster Award from ASQ, 1998 and the Harrington-Ishikawa Medal from APQO, 1998.


To what degree do you think Japan's success in quality initiatives is rooted in its culture, values and social structures?

Yoshio Kondo:

After the end of World War II, the former Japanese military and political leaders were replaced by relatively young industrialists who wanted Japan to advance as an industrialized country and not to fall back into the old agricultural economy. After this decision was made, however, they faced a difficult road. Poor product quality was a principal obstacle; no one wanted to repeatedly buy such low-quality goods. For a country like Japan, so lacking in raw materials, the inability to sell finished goods for export also meant an inability to earn foreign currency and hence an inability to buy the materials needed to create an upward spiral of industrial development. Thus a revolution in product quality became essential. In addition, as the result of the quality revolution, companies often found that costs were reduced and productivity was increased.

Japanese culture, values and social structure might affect to some extent the success of its quality revolution. However, we should not allow differences in culture to be utilized as excuses for failures in introducing and promoting foreign ways, saying that "Our culture is different". Japan is a successful example of the value of introducing foreign cultures. Maybe it could be said that a "quality culture" is not a local culture but a global culture.

Do you consider that a relatively short-term outlook in many Western cultures is an impediment to success in quality initiatives?

Yoshio Kondo:

I tend to agree with Misaaki Imai, author of "Kaizen" and "Gemba Kaizen". In a recent interview he was asked why companies should consider his endorsement of incremental improvement rather than a more radical approach. Imai replied that it is premature to declare companies that are prospering today as the long-term winners. American companies have cut costs and restructured, fired people, downsized, and closed down less profitable plants. As a result they have become lean, mean and more profitable, but this hasn't changed the way business is conducted within these companies. Imai says that in manufacturing gemba, nothing much has changed, except that there are fewer plants and people. With no change to the corporate culture that governs how people do their jobs, improve quality, reduce costs, and meet customer requirements, such companies will not do as well in the long term. Ultimately the differences between companies that took drastic measures without really changing the way they do business and the companies that have kept on doing kaizen will become evident.

It has been suggested that a focus on the detail of the various quality awards can act to the detriment of innovation, i.e. that such discipline stifles creativity. However, in a recent article in The TQM Magazine you contend that, while quality standards may appear to reduce the scope for innovation, in fact they are complementary. Mohamed Zairi for his part has stated that "Innovation is the child of quality". Could you comment further?

Yoshio Kondo:

As regards the question of creativity and quality standards, I take the example of work standards in manufacturing. These usually include: the aim of the work and, in manufacturing, corresponding quality standards; constraints on carrying out the work, e.g. restrictions designed to ensure employee safety and preserve the quality created in upstream processes; and the means and methods to be employed in carrying out the work.

Of these three items, the first must always be achieved and the second must be scrupulously obeyed by whomever is responsible for doing the work. Compared with these, must the third item be obeyed in the same way as the second, regardless of who is responsible for the work?

Establishing and enforcing prescribed means and methods encourages people to avoid responsibility for failure and to claim that the failure was not their fault because they followed the stipulated methods. This must be strenuously guarded against.

The third item should be divided into two types, one consisting of a basic training manual for beginners, to make the process of learning more efficient, while the other would consist of work standards describing special tips, tricks or know-how for experienced workers.

In using the training manuals, it is also important to make it clear to employees at the end of their basic training that the working methods they have learned so far are no more than standard actions that are useful hints for improvement, and that, having mastered them, they should actively try to develop methods of working that really suit them as individuals. They should be told that this will help them to improve their skills. Managers should actively support and encourage them to do so. If workers are encouraged to improve their skills, they are being invited to use their own initiative to develop the standard actions into practical working methods, and thus discover the secrets of performing the work efficiently.

"We should not forget that quality is the key to competitiveness in an increasingly open and globally competitive marketplace, and that quality has become a fundamental way of managing any business anywhere for market growth and profitability."

Creativity and standardization are thus not mutually exclusive but mutually complementary. By encouraging and promoting the kind of standardization described here, managers will help the people engaged in the work to make full use of their creativity, and to discover even better methods of doing the work.

A number of other concerns have been voiced in relation to quality awards. It has been suggested, for example, that self-assessment can deflect attention away from improvement opportunities, and that there is a failure to monitor improvements where these occur. Would you agree?

Yoshio Kondo:

Of the two kinds of assessment, external and internal, internal assessments have the greatest educational impact. This is because the major concern when undergoing an external assessment is to achieve a pass, since doing so usually confers some kind of advantage on the company. Also, external assessments are usually conducted according to fixed procedures and set criteria, and the party being assessed has little say in how they are performed. In contrast, the purpose of an internal assessment is not so much to pass or fail but to find and solve problems, discover and build on strengths, and standardize and institutionalize improvements.

In this sense, internal assessments are highly instructive for the assessors as well as those being assessed. Because of this, many companies in Japan avoid using the rather stiff and formal-sounding terms "assessment" and "audit", referring to them instead as "QC diagnoses", "QC reviews", "president's reporting meetings" and so on.

The essential purpose of an internal assessment in Japanese companies is to perform a review based on pre-set control items as the "check" and "act" phases of the policy management ("hoshin kanri") PDCA cycle followed by top management, and to survey the situation more actively and systematically in order to detect abnormalities and take appropriate corrective actions. Education and training are highly significant secondary aims.

You have written that quality possesses a far more human aspect than either costs or productivity and have stated that quality is a powerful source of employee empowerment . Why then do so many quality initiatives fail? And how do you motivate employees to embrace quality initiatives?

Yoshio Kondo:

Among three representative management indicators ­ quality, costs and productivity - we talk of "quality culture" but not "costs culture" or "productivity culture". Why? We say "total quality management" but we don't say "total costs management" or "total productivity management". Why? The human history of quality (which dates back approximately 1,000,000 years) is far longer than that of costs (some 10,000 years) or productivity (approximately 200 years), and only quality is a common concern for manufacturer and customer. For these reasons, an appeal by senior managers to improve quality is more easily understood and accepted by the workforce than calls to cut costs or improve productivity. Furthermore, it is known from our own experiences that when we improve quality by creative methods, costs can be reduced and productivity increased. We should note that the reverse does not necessarily apply.

We know that many quality initiatives fail, but if we start from costs or productivity initiatives, we might possibly see more companies fail. We should recognize that the most important and indispensable prerequisite for success is top management leadership.

The status of people within an organization has, theoretically at least, grown with the recognition of their importance as assets to the organization rather than mere resources. Is this also the case in practice and, if so, is it promoting successful initiatives?

Yoshio Kondo:

In answer I would cite the story about the three masons which is famous in European countries. On being asked what they are doing the first mason answers: "I am placing pieces of stone on top of one another", while the second mason says: "I am building a wall". The third mason gives the following answer: "I am building a cathedral which is to stand here for many years to serve as a spiritual place of rest".

To the third mason, the purpose of what he is doing will serve as the decisive guiding principle of every detail of the work that the building of the cathedral requires, i.e. the quality. Each piece of his work will be a manifestation of his personal vision. This serves as an intrinsic source of motivation which ensures constant attention to detail.

The first and the second masons, on the other hand, do not have this vision and, as a result, do not have an intrinsic source of motivation. They have removed the ultimate purpose from their work and, in so doing, have degraded its value and sense. They themselves have contributed to making their role merely one of execution and, as such, one which a machine could assume. As a result, these workers will consider their work a necessary evil or a necessary instrument for meeting basic physical and biological needs.

One of your current research interests is quality management in developing countries. Could you elaborate on the direction of your research and findings?

Yoshio Kondo:

As the programme coordinator and principal lecturer for the Quality Control Training Course of the Association for Overseas Technical Scholarship, Japan for the past 22 years, I have accumulated abundant experience in implementing and promoting quality management activities in various developing countries. Not only has the participants' level of knowledge been elevated, but also the major field of their interest has shifted from final inspection to problem-solving in the manufacturing process in their companies. The focus of quality assurance in these developing countries will in future move progressively upstream of design, research and development, market research and so on, as these countries' economic development proceeds. I believe that these kinds of change can take place surprisingly fast.

In order to respond to such change, in the ASEAN-Japanese TQM Project administered by the Japan Standards Association, a few companies were selected from each country as models. On-site consulting and problem-solving practice were conducted and demonstrated by a Japanese instructor. In addition to company employees, a few trainers from each country also participated in this on-site training. The successful results of TQM implementation and promotion in the model companies will be used as teaching materials in classroom training.

What are the major developments in quality and quality philosophy, indeed in business culture, that you have discerned over your long career, and what do you see as priorities today in the area of quality.

Yoshio Kondo:

I have already emphasized that quality is a more "human" concept than either costs or productivity. My own research and teaching activities have continued for more than half a century. Sometimes the thought has crossed my mind that, had I studied costs or productivity, my research might not have continued for such a long period.

Particularly in the present and in future decades of social affluence, the value of money as motivator will decrease and self-fulfilment or intrinsic needs will become more important. Quality is an important factor for motivation. In particular, the "attractive" quality proposed by Noriaki Kano will be indispensable to allow companies to attain "customer satisfaction", which is different from "no customer dissatisfaction".

Finally, what do you consider to be the major challenges in the field of quality now and in the future?

Yoshio Kondo:

As Dr. Armand Feigenbaum says, the momentum towards an increasingly open, globally competitive marketplace now has an unstoppable force that no government or regional business consortium can delay indefinitely - even if they were inclined to do so. We should not forget that quality is the key to competitiveness in these opening markets, and that quality has become a fundamental way of managing any business anywhere for market growth and profitability.

Naturally, in this rapidly changing world, we must make accurate judgements and take prompt actions. For this purpose, it is a fundamental requirement for us not merely to observe the changes taking place but also to recognize that there are certain important underlying constants that remain essentially the same. It is imperative for us to elucidate these, comprehend them accurately, and base our actions upon them.

Moreover, if we can replace the time axis of these rapid changes with a distance axis of the surface of the globe, the search for and elucidation of the common fundamentals understood and regarded as reasonable not only by the Japanese but by anyone anywhere in the world are of similar significance to the above considerations. Quality can be said to be one of these fundamentals at present and in the future.

Interview republished from Emerald Now, October 2000.